Miles Matulionis, 39, a free-agent financial auditor, listens to Australian alternative-rock radio from his office in Calgary, Canada. Bruce Brothers, 40, a senior technical manager at Lotus Development Corp., catches up on episodes of Car Talk, on National Public Radio (NPR), while he's flying between Denver and Boston.
Forget "surfing" the Web. These days, the online world is bursting with great content for your ears as well as your eyes: tons of music, to be sure, but also newscasts, live feeds from company meetings and industry conferences, talk shows, sporting events, and more. So why just look at the Web, when you can listen too?
This edition of @Work is designed to help you find all the news — and entertainment — that's fit to hear. It also offers tips on finding the right hardware to make the Web a great listening experience, an in-depth comparison of the five best places to buy music online — and even advice on how to direct your own Web broadcasts. So don't touch that dial. Here's Fast Company's playlist for the best of Web audio.
All the News That's Fit to Hear
Most of the noise about Web audio involves music — from MP3 to CDNow. (More on that later.) Serious businesspeople like a catchy tune as much as anyone, but their first order of business is information: What's up on Wall Street? what's new with the competition? what breaking news will people be chatting about at their next meeting?
Web audio is a great source of up-to-date information. To get tuned in, visit RealGuide (www.realguide.real.com) from RealNetworks, home base for streaming media, the leading Web technology. RealNetworks claims more than 38 million registered users of its Real-Player, with more than a million additional RealPlayers being downloaded each week.
The RealGuide site functions like a portal for streaming media. Its extensive directory offers links to literally thousands of sites, with brief descriptions of their varied content. Interested in the stock market? You'll find Bloomberg News Radio, Standard & Poor's Seminars, The Laughing Stock Broker, and much more. Want to track companies? You'll find the Intel Channel, with product announcements and earnings releases, and the Boeing Company in Motion, with news and information about the world's largest aircraft producer. Worried about your sex life? Check out Dr. Ruth Audio clips. (We certainly did!)
If you're a news junkie, and you can't go for more than an hour or two without a hit of headlines, then log on to Listen To The News (www.listentothenews.com). This elegant site is a directory of news broadcasts from around the world. In one place, you'll hear breaking stories from the Associated Press, the BBC, NPR, and CNN's Headline News, along with less widely available international broadcasts, such as Radio New Zealand, Good Morning Africa, and Radio Estonia. There's also a selection of more targeted news reports from the United States, like Latino USA and PlanetOut Radio, which provides daily coverage of gay and lesbian topics. The site is music to the ears of anyone interested in current events.
Listen To The News is a great source for business headlines as well, including market updates and company news from Business Week Daily, C-Span Radio, and the BBC's Business Review. But this site isn't just a list of streaming links. It also performs a useful editorial function: The front page lists top news stories of the day, with links to different radio reports on each story from around the world. It's like having someone scan various radio stations for you and serve up the best coverage, story by story. It's truly an only-on-the-Web service.
You Can Take It with You
Of course, there's a big problem with listening to news or business seminars online: Being on the Web means being at your computer. And in this on-the-go business world, where we're seldom at our desks even when we're in the office, having to stick close to your PC can be a sticky problem indeed.
If you want to listen to Web-based news, but can't be stuck in front of your computer, consider subscribing to audio digests of the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times from Audible Inc. (www.audible.com). The service costs $6.95 a month or $49.95 a year, and it gives you some of the best information on the Web — to go. While you sleep, your computer can load an average of 45 minutes of reading onto a palm-size PC like the Philips Nino 500, or onto a portable music player like the Diamond Multimedia Rio. Then, you can listen while you're stuck in traffic or pounding the StairMaster at the gym. The Wall Street Journal version also comes with a 10-minute afternoon market wrap.
Audible offers ideas as well as news. Every other week, you can download abridged audio versions of the Economist and the Harvard Management Update in addition to more than 3,100 audio-book titles from such top publishers as Simon & Schuster and Random House. Since you're not paying for the cassettes and distribution, the prices for these digital downloads are typically half of what you'd pay for a traditional tape or audio book.
Bruce Brothers, a senior technical manager at Lotus, uses Audible "primarily to get me from Boston to Denver and back again." He flies that route so frequently that he gets tired of listening to the airline's 12 in-flight channels. So, for $1.95 a pop, he buys downloaded episodes of the NPR shows Car Talk and Fresh Air with Terry Gross, which he listens to, while he's in-flight, on headphones that are connected to his laptop. The hidden bonus for not listening to these shows live? Selectivity. Brothers can look at the shows' topics and choose the broadcasts of Fresh Air that he wants to hear. "It's wonderful to be able to pick the ones I want to hear, when and where I want to hear them," Brothers explains.
A Web of Web Information
There's something undeniably self-referential about the Internet. Many people who listen to news on the Web are also interested in hearing news about the Web. For those of us whose interests range beyond the latest discussions on Internet privacy or domain names, such debates can get a bit tiresome. But if you do need to get up to speed on all things digital, the Web is the place to start.
Brian Cooley, the host of CNET Radio (www.radio.com), offers a healthy dose of Net-related headlines, including the latest on site launches, e-commerce taxation, and Internet IPOs. The morning show (8 AM Pacific time) is a 5-minute hit, while the afternoon show (2 PM Pacific time) lasts between 8 and 15 minutes and is a wrap-up of breaking stories. For more of a rush, TTalk Broadcasting (www.ttalk.com) provides you with 30 minutes of all things geeky on World Technology Roundup. Open-source software fans won't want to miss the Linux Show!!, featuring interviews with top Linux gurus.
Meanwhile, on InternetNews Radio (http://stream.internet.com), you'll find views on the Net from the investor's perspective. The shows, which are updated every business day at noon, are hosted by Brian McWilliams, who interprets the major headlines affecting the dot-coms.
If you would rather draw your own conclusions about a company and its stock price, the Investor Broadcast Network (www.vcall.com) takes you straight to the source — company executives themselves. This unique site allows ordinary investors to listen in on conference calls with stock analysts and journalists who discuss the quarterly earnings of major companies such as Microsoft, 3Com, Onsale, Motorola, and DoubleClick. The site will even send you an email reminder when a company you're following has an upcoming call. You can also catch the weekly Informed Investors Forum Radio show, an hour-long stock-talk show with analysts from investment houses like Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette and BancBoston Robertson Stephens. You can even email in your questions or comments while the show's being broadcast (2 PM eastern time), and they will be addressed on the air.
Web Got Game!
Even the most die-hard Web enthusiast needs to take a break from the Internet world. And there's no better distraction than the wide world of sports. One of the best places to start is broadcast.com (www.broadcast.com), which offers a staggering 70,000 hours of Web programming, including play-by-play coverage of more than 450 college and professional sports teams. If you're ready to see a different game, the site also hosts an array of non-sports-related audio content — from the Motley Fool Radio Show to oral histories of the JFK assassination. But broadcast.com is a favorite for putting displaced sports fans in the thick of their home team's games.
Bill Wright, 33, a self-described "displaced midwesterner," is vice president and associate creative director at Crispin Porter & Bogusky Advertising in Miami. He uses broadcast.com to listen to football and basketball games at the University of Missouri, his alma mater. "It's like having a radio with an illegally tall antenna," he says. The irony, he adds, is that he ends up getting more done because of his interest in sports. If he spends a Saturday at his computer catching a game, he often finds himself working while he listens.
A special pitch for baseball fans: If you want to take yourself out to the ballpark without leaving your desk, visit www.majorleaguebaseball.com, the official site of Major League Baseball. The "baseball live" section offers pitch-by-pitch action for every game. It's an incredibly convenient service. NBA? NFL? Are you listening?
Do You Like Good Music?
Music has charms to soothe a savage breast — and a grumpy code warrior. A great way to beat the blues during a late night at the office is to find some great blues on the Web. The MIT List of Radio Stations on the Internet (http://wmbr.mit.edu/stations/locate.html), has links to more than 8,000 U.S. stations that broadcast online, as well as on the regular radio waves. You can search by city and state, on both AM and FM. In a quirky, university-student touch, you can even search by longitude and latitude. Although he lives in Canada, Miles Matulionis was able to use the site to find www.i-94.net, a pop station in Hawaii that he'd tuned into when he'd visited the islands. Now, he tunes in from his desktop in Alberta while scrutinizing joint ventures for the oil industry.
If you want to find out what's hot in Buenos Aires or Bangkok, rather than in Boston or Brooklyn, visit Mike's Radio World (http://dialspace.dial.pipex.com/town/place/abn39/index.html), from which you can plug in to any of hundreds of stations around the world. Matulionis used it to find his favorite Australian alternative-rock station, Triple J (http://abc.net.au/triplej/listen.htm).
The Web is great for accessing over-the-air radio on your PC. But the Internet has spawned an entirely new medium as well. Think of it as Web-only radio, or radio-free radio. From surf to awesome '80s to Latin pop, AOL's Spinner.com (www.spinner.com) serves up 120 channels programmed by genre. It's not commercial-free (there are about 90 seconds of ads per hour), but there's more signal and less noise on these stations than on typical commercial radio. Plus, in a click, you can rate what you're listening to, essentially voting on whether it should be in high rotation or pulled from the playlist.
Eric Elam, 41, director of marketing for Sullivan Advertising in Cincinnati, has been listening to channels like Chicago Blues, All Blues, and Acid Jazz on Spinner.com for about 18 months. He uses it as background music when he's at work. He favors Web radio over the traditional kind because of the variety of songs you can hear and the convenience: "It's a pain in the neck to have to get up and turn the radio off every time the phone rings." But the volume control on his computer makes it easy for him to turn down the sound.
There are still more Web-based radio innovations. Over on Rolling Stone Radio (www.rollingstoneradio.com), David Bowie plays DJ for one of the site's 13 channels, spinning and commenting on his 50 favorite songs from the last five decades. His picks include "Do You Really Want to Hurt Me?" by Culture Club and "Heartbreak Hotel" by Elvis Presley, as well as more obscure tracks. He introduces each song, describes why he chose it, and how it influenced his own work.
At MTV Networks's Imagine Radio (www.imagineradio.com), you can be the DJ. You build your own radio station by choosing the genres of music you like and then rating popular artists in those genres on a scale of zero to five. Give a band a zero, and you'll never have to hear it again. You can also listen to tens of thousands of stations created by other listeners. These stations are conveniently organized into "scenes" — like Silicon Café where you can "reload after a day of grinding ones and zeros. The best cup of java on the web," according to the Web site.
Finally, what's radio without requests? DiscJockey.com (www.discjockey.com) updates a classic feature of radio — the dedication — for the Web age. On its music channels, which are organized by decade, from the '40s to the '90s, you can dedicate a song to your sweetheart just by filling out a Web-based form that transmits your request and then notifies your honey by email of the upcoming dedication. Within the hour, your pick will play in that channel's mix. In this fast-paced era of two-career, two-computer couples, it's the perfect way to be romantic. ("This one virtually goes out to the one I love.")
Download This Backbeat
Based on media hype, you'd think that the biggest musical phenomenon on the Web today is the digital-download revolution. But there's more to it than hype. According to searchterms.com, the most frequently searched term online is MP3, the digital format that allows you to upload and transfer music files easily. Think of a popular song. Chances are, if you surf long enough with MP3 search engines on sites such as Lycos (http://mp3.lycos.com), or Scour.net (www.scour.net), you'll find that the song has been put online for your use — uh, how shall we say this — without regard for copyright.
Fortunately, you don't have to break the law to experience the joys of downloading. You can lend an ear to listen.com (www.listen.com), a directory of downloadable music files on the Net that links you to thousands of different songs (from about 10,000 different bands), all of which are quite legally available from sites like emusic.com (www.emusic.com), songs.com (www.songs.com), and MP3.com (www.mpc.com).
To be sure, most of these songs are from relatively unknown or unsigned bands. But the virtue of listen.com is that it makes it easy to discover new artists in some 600 genres. Enter the name of a band or singer, and the site will send you to whatever tracks (if any) that the musician has given away online. The site will also take you to songs that its editors have determined sound like that artist or band. The "Big Shots" section links you to tracks that are already free, performed by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Cheap Trick, and Public Enemy.
The site helps you figure out which songs you might want to download. You can rate any track you hear. Listen.com even tabulates an artist's average rating from all visitors.
If you're not interested in sampling music from unsigned bands, you can still go CD-free. There's nothing illegal about taking the CDs that you have and converting them to MP3 format for your own use, either in a digital jukebox on your desktop computer or on the go, using an MP3 player, such as the Creative Nomad or Diamond Rio.
Felix Baumgardner, 31, a consultant at Acropolis Systems Inc., in San Francisco, has converted his entire collection — more than 300 CDs — to MP3 audiofiles. "Whenever I have a dinner party, I can drag and drop a set of files into a player and have a playlist for the evening," he says. Having the music in digital format makes it easy for him to categorize and play music by genre — world music, ambient, techno — and, more important, to delete songs that he doesn't like. Meanwhile, when he's at work, he can listen (over a network) to songs that are actually sitting on a drive back in his home PC.
To "rip" your CDs into MP3, Windows users should download the MusicMatch Jukebox (www.musicmatch.com/jukebox). The free version will produce near-CD sound quality, while the $29.95 version produces CD sound quality. Macintosh users should spend $29.95 for Xing's AudioCatalyst (www.xingtech.com).
Katharine Mieszkowski (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Fast Company senior writer based in San Francisco. You can listen to her commentaries about the Web on National Public Radio's "All Things Considered" (www.npr.org).
Action Item: Tune In, Plug In
If you want to start listening to the Web, you've got to get real — the RealPlayer Plus G2, that is. This plug-in, from Seattle-based RealNetworks, lets you tune in to more than 85% of the audio and video files that "stream" on the Web. You can also customize your listening by choosing from 50 content channels.
Coordinates: $29.99. RealNetworks, www.real.com
Sidebar: Speakers that Speak Up
Before you tune in to the Web to listen to your competitors discuss their quarterly earnings or to tap your feet to a hot Memphis radio station, you've got to tune up the sound quality of your PC. The S2/MidiLand 4030 four-piece speaker system brings a whole new level of sound quality to your desktop computer.
These sleek 7.5-watt speakers come with a control module that lets you adjust the volume as well as the treble and the bass. The15-watt subwoofer brings out a really booming bass. There's also a handy mute function that can be helpful when your phone rings (or your boss walks in unexpectedly). In all, it's a PC speaker system worth staying late at the office to enjoy.
On the other hand, loudness isn't for everyone. (Maybe that uptight finance guy in the next office doesn't want to hear you blasting the Beastie Boys at 10 in the morning.) So try a pair of Koss A/250 Stereophone headphones. These top-of-the-line headphones are made for music-studio equipment, but they're easily adaptable to PCs. They let you listen in style, while projecting the sounds of silence to everyone else.
Coordinates: $139.95 (price on the street), $189.95 (MSRP). S2/MidiLand 4030, MidiLand, www.midiland.com; $149. Koss A/250 Stereophones, Koss, www.koss.com
Sidebar: Sound All Around
What's the point of downloading digital audio files if they're marooned on your desktop PC? How often are you at your desk? And when you are, how much time do you have to listen to business briefings or music? The new generation of portable digital audio players makes your audio files nomadic. These products offer sound all around.
The 64-MB Creative Nomad Digital Audio Player lets you travel with up to two hours of music in MP3 format, or four hours of spoken words, such as audio books or voice recordings. The sleek player weighs in at less than 2.5 ounces and makes a standard Walkman feel bulky by comparison.
With a built-in FM tuner that gets up to 10 stations, it could replace your Walkman as a source of tunes. The Nomad also comes with software tools that let you "rip" your CDs into MP3 format, as well as more than 100 songs from hip-hop to jazz, and numerous audio books such as Kurt Vonnegut Jr.'s novel Welcome to the Monkey House.
The device has rechargeable batteries that automatically juice up when you put the player into its docking station, which also allows for easy downloading of new tunes. Sounds like a great deal!
Coordinates: $249.99. The 64-MB Creative Nomad Digital Audio Player, Creative Technologies Ltd., www. nomadworld.com
Sidebar: Be Your Own Broadcaster
Why just listen to the Web when you can sound off too? As a national accounts manager for broadcast.com, Tim Sanders, 37, has masterminded live broadcasts for Harvard's Kennedy School, Dell Computer, Jobs.com, PBS, the Business Channel, Ford, and Victoria's Secret. (The lingerie company's 1999 Webcast fashion show attracted 1.5 million visitors, more than any single online event ever.)
In an interview with Fast Company, Sanders offers his insights about what it takes to deliver a great Webcast — the do's and don'ts of live audio and video. Ladies and gentlemen, roll your tapes!
What makes a good online event?
Information-rich content for a very specific crowd is essential. If you think you've got something that appeals to everybody, then you should be on TV or radio instead. An audience of about 3,000 is good for a Webcast. A great online broadcast exchanges information. It's the opposite of the fluff that you find on the nightly news. On the Web, people are information-driven, even about entertainment and sports. The Web is not a pastime.
What's a common mistake for first-time Web broadcasters?
Not really knowing what you want to do — or why. This is not a medium for pr stunts, it's a distribution medium for content. What did Victoria's Secret get out of its Webcast? Hundreds of thousands of profiles and email addresses captured from the people who attended, to whom the company can now market — for free and forever. Don't just do an event just because you think it would be "cool." That's so 1994.
What should companies be Webcasting now?
It's not about mass acceptance. It's a question of what's worked for you in a smaller setting that could use more distribution online. Every company that's publicly traded should be broadcasting its quarterly earnings calls and annual meetings. That's a no-brainer. Trade-show presentations, product releases — particularly for products that appeal to an Internet demographic — are other big opportunities. Nobody is going to stick around and read about a product release, but like infomercials, more people will watch a show about it.
Finally, the Web lets you communicate in real time — both inside and outside the company. When Intel makes a big decision, Andy Grove uses Webcasting so that everyone in the company, and everyone that Intel does business with, gets to hear the news at the same time. When you compare it to the memo culture that we've built up over the last 20 years, it's like the difference between talkies and silent movies.
A version of this article appeared in the September 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.