25 Years of Internet Radio

On 7th November 1994, WXYC became the first radio station to simultaneously broadcast over the Internet. Let’s look back at this historic milestone, and celebrate a quarter of a century of online streaming broadcasts.

By the mid-Nineties, WXYC was a well established radio station. Broadcasting on 89.3 FM 24 hours a day, seven days a week from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this student-run station had been on the air since the 1970s. But on 7th November 1994, it was to change the world.

On that day, disc jockey Michael Shoffner set up the first simulcast (a term that wasn’t coined until later), that is, as well as a regular radio broadcast on the FM band, he also live streamed WXYC shows over the Internet. There had been online talk shows before, but this was the first radio station that streamed online as well as broadcasting over the airwaves.

It was an innovative move, but not without its problems. Due to limitations of the Internet and the phone lines used to carry it at the time, the broadcasts had a hollow sound. According to grad student David McConville, who worked on the technical challenges in getting the station online, “The stage we’re at [in 1994] is, wow, this is kind of cool, but the sound quality is not so great. As time goes by, the audio will improve and potential production will expand. Right now, it’s in the developmental stages.”

Even so, the online broadcast quickly caught on. Soon listeners were tuning in from Poland and Mexico, closely followed by Scotland, Germany and Japan, sending requests and comments to the DJs using email. The following spring, it proved popular with students who left the campus to study abroad. They could tune into the station on their computers and listen to match commentary of their University’s basketball team.

The first ever Internet streaming radio broadcast was made from Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina.

And the rest of the world soon caught on too. Today’s broadband Internet is more than capable of handling high-quality sound. These days, stations broadcast at between 64 kbit/s and 128 kbit/s, giving close to CD-quality audio. In 2009, 16.9 million adults in the UK alone say they’ve listened to radio on the Internet. There are now tens of thousands of stations to choose from, including traditional radio stations that also broadcast online and Internet-only stations. You can even buy radios that can tune in to Internet shows.

And WXYC is still broadcasting. You can find its live stream at http://www.wxyc.org.

Ian Osborne

Ian has worked on computer and video games magazines since the legendary Crash and Zzap! 64 in the early Nineties, so he’s seen many changes over the years (including an expanding waistline and receding hairline). A lifelong Mac user, he bought his first Mac in the year 2000. It’s a testament to the resilience of the Mac that his mother is still using that computer to this very day.

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