Traditional over-the-air radio has had a tough time of it during the last decade, with the internet providing most of the music listened to by tech-savvy listeners. Even traditional recording medium such as CDs has been adversely affected by the rise of Apple iTunes and many other music stores that have attempted to copy its success.
However, for over-the-air radio the internet has also been a kind of salvation for them as well, as most radio stations also “broadcast” over the internet. I put broadcast in quotes because while it still fits the definition of the word, making an audio stream available to any and all listeners throughout the world on the internet isn’t really the same as the traditional process of transmitting a signal from a broadcast tower. Still, for those listening to the stream, it hardly matters how it gets to them.
Originally the idea of providing an internet stream was targeted at people sitting at home and listening on their desktop or laptop computers. Streams were usually sent at a very low bitrate using standard MP3 file compression. As such they were useful to listen to occasionally, but for music consumption they left a lot to be desired. Occasionally big-name stations would broadcast at 128 kilobits per second, which sounded fairly good even in MP3 format.
With the rise of smartphones however, there was a desire to take internet radio on the road, and so a few apps began to appear that provided access to radio station streams on the internet. In the present day there are quite a few to choose from, but perhaps the most polished of the lot is TuneIn Radio. Versions of this app are available on Android, iOS, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry, making it cross-platform and accessible to pretty much anyone with a modern smartphone.
The main concept behind TuneIn Radio was to combine many of the world’s online radio stations (including those that broadcast ONLY on the internet, as well as podcasts) and put them in one place. Stations are categorized by the type of material they play, as well as their location. You can search out radio stations based on their content, their location, whether they are local to you, and those that are “trending”. You can also create a favorites list for quick access.
Another interesting feature (added just over a year ago) is their LIVE pane. Here you select genres that interest you and...
as songs begin to play on stations around the world they are displayed on the screen. If something catches your eye you can click on it and go immediately to that radio station. You then have the choice of staying with the station indefinitely, or returning to the LIVE pane to look for other things to listen to.
The app works like a DVR, in that it allows you to REWIND LIVE RADIO. The last 30 minutes of any station you listen to are recorded and at any time you can move the slider back to rehear something you missed, or a song you really liked. The paid version of the app also allows you to permanently record what you listen to and play it back at another time. However, the app does not record into a single file using a common format, so you can’t easily take these recordings away with you. They must be played using the app, but this isn’t a huge hardship under most conditions.
Radio stations themselves seem to be improving their internet broadcast quality of late. Many have switched to the AAC format (which is vastly superior to MP3 for a given bitrate) and many offer a choice of bitrates to suit your need for quality vs data consumption.
If you have a fairly large data bucket on your account, you can listen to stations to your heart’s content while on the road. It’s even worthwhile to listen to local stations using the app INSTEAD of your radio to pick up the actual broadcast signal. This is because the audio doesn’t suffer from any multipath interference or fading and in many instances the sound quality of the streamed station is actually better than the over-the-air quality (not to mention the aforementioned ability to rewind). This is especially true of AM radio stations that play music, as the sound quality of a typical AM receiver (due to bandwidth limitations) is quite poor. You can also drive for hundreds of miles and continue to listen to the same station (so long as you continue to get cellular service throughout that drive).
I personally like to pick radio stations from different cities just to hear the local commercials. I’ve also found that if I can find just the right station on my preferred genre it’s well worth the effort. Radio station apps truly make listening to old-fashioned radio interesting once again.