This document is a supplement to
Editing for Clear Communication
No portion may be reused without the author's permission.
Further Reading: J.D. Lasica, "Online, Papers Can Speak Volumes," American Journalism Review, March 1999
Frank Ahrens, "The Radio Waves of the Future," The Washington Post, 21 January 1999 ($)
Ray La Fontaine, "Web Radio: Loud and Clear," The Washington Post, 10 May 1998 ($)
Julia Gilden, "Make Some Noise," Builder.com, 16 November 1996
"Heard Any Good Internet Lately?"
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Sound on the WebListen something big is happening on the Web.
In the early days of the Web, sound was a rarity. Not only were sound files big, bulky things that took forever to download, but they also seemed completely alien to early Web publishers, many of whom came from traditional print media.
But now sound is beginning to show up on more and more sites. As Dominique Paul Noth wrote in his online article "Heard Any Good Internet Lately":
... it's essential to listen as well as look when online. You're missing a lot if you don't. The human voice is still a key element of personalization and sense of contact. Sound is a potent weapon in telling stories, real and fictional. Not only are there a heck of a lot more sound cards installed in computers than modems but there is a cultural expectation of audio among computer users of CD-ROMs, video games and other software, and they bring that habit to the Internet.
Today, savvy Web publishers look for opportunities to offer audio. No matter whether their roots are in newspapers, radio or television, Web producers realize how much sound clips can add to their sites. For example, CJ Online (the Web division of the Topeka, Kan., Capital-Journal) uses sound clips to enhance all types of coverage on the site. As New Media Manager Steve Sheldon told the American Journalism Review, "Audio gives us another dimension that you can't get in print."
Going even further is Clarin, a tabloid newspaper in Buenos Aires. The site hosts major Argentine soccer matches, live, and offers highlight clips posted post-game. In addition, music clips and interviews are posted for every major pop and pop-rock group that visits Buenos Aires.
Even Web publishers who are firmly grounded in sound also find the Web fertile terrain. As of mid-1998, more than 650 radio stations in the United States were broadcasting online, as were many times that number of other stations around the globe. You can hear live broadcasts of everything from interviews, talk and sports on BBC Radio 5 in Great Britain to youth-oriented music on TNL in Sri Lanka. One of my favorites for workday listening is right here in the States: Gogaga.com. As a Washington, D.C.-area radio executive told The Washington Post, radio stations need to "Get online, or get out."
What's behind all the noise is a technology known as streaming audio. Popularized by the RealAudio format from RealNetworks, streaming audio requires only a brief wait before playing. Once a tiny bit of information is transmitted to the visitor, the content continues to stream in as long as he or she is connected to the site. Support is built into the latest versions of Netscape's browsers, but Web surfers using other browsers need to download a free player. (Well, you can't get everything for free: for the best sound quality and most features, you'll have to pay for an advanced Real Player Plus.)
Streaming audio can be used both for live and archived sound. So news sites use it to offer news broadcasts and sound clips; corporations and institutions use it to present live conferences and events (and then store the files for later access).
One of the best showcases of streaming audio is AudioNet, which offers Internet broadcasts, AudioBooks, live sports broadcasts, and links to live and archival materials on hundreds of radio programs.
Creating streaming audio (and video) is so easy that in early 1999, Real Networks signed an agreement with GeoCities to provide its 3 million members with the software needed to stream files from their sites. "We identified RealSystem G2 as the solution that would make adding audio and video integration easy for our members," Thomas R. Evans, president and CEO of GeoCities, was quoted as saying in a news release.
Adding a twist to the streaming audio mix is Audible.com. Working with Real Networks, the company permits downloads of audio programs to a tiny portable player that stores up to two hours of audio for playback on the go. In addition to the expected offerings such as AudioBooks, Audible.com also features offerings from CBS SportsLine, NPR and even The New York Times.
The Web wasn't always so hospitable to sound. During the early days of the Web, sound files came in a multitude of formats WAV for Windows, AIFF for McIntosh, AU for UNIX machines and had to be downloaded before playing. Downloading a high-quality sound file could take forever: A single song recorded in high-quality stereo could fill a hard drive that came standard with a computer purchased just a few years ago. If you hadn't died of boredom while waiting for the download, you then had to make sure you had the correct "helper app" to play back the file. And all of that presumed, of course, that your computer was capable of handling sounds at all.
Today's computers are all ready to play back audio (and video), and the latest browsers support all three formats listed above, as well as MIDI, the standard for professional electronic instruments. And recent browsers allow embedded sound files to play without the reader asking to hear them (not always a good thing, especially if the reader has to wait for the page to finish downloading, without having any idea why it's taking so long).
Yet it's another format that's raised the most eyebrows recently: MPEG-2 Layer 3 (MP3). This compression format allows CD-quality audio to be delivered fairly rapidly over the Web prompting many music fans to digitize their favorite CDs and post the files to their Web sites. Music can be played back on PCs or on portable Walkman-like devices. Not surprisingly, music companies are not thrilled with the prospects of having their products given away, and as of this writing in mid-1999, several strategies are being investigated to keep that from happening.
In the meantime, some music companies and individual artists are embracing MPEG-3 and Internet sound in general. About the biggest fan is David Bowie. Bowie is so excited about the Web that he has released songs on the Web that were not available on radio or in record stores. The mixes of "Telling Lies" are available for delivery by either Real Audio or ShockWave; serious Bowie-philes can download MPEG versions of the mixes or a huge uncompressed stereo files.
Back to Dominique Paul Noth for the last word (sorry, no sound file was available): "... if you care about the visitor and care about good service, it's really worth the trouble to think audio."