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Lost in Cyberspace

Are you ready for desktop broadcasting?

This column was originally published on March 24, 1998 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

It's a nice daydream, but nothing more for most of us: Owning your own TV or radio station. Programming the music you like, even if it's not Top 40. Presenting the news without the corporate/liberal bias (depending on your perspective) of the establishment media. Carrying the sports and teams dear to your heart.

But as modem speeds and compression techniques improve, and personal computers grow ever more powerful, that fantasy is starting to become affordable reality.

In fact, for under $5,000, you can now own a TV or radio station.

All you need to get started is a fairly powerful computer (200 Mhz Power Mac or Pentium with 64 megs RAM should get you by), a decent quality video camera or audio mixing board (for your microphone and stereo equipment), specialized software and/or plug-in card (more on that later) and a high-speed Internet account (ISDN or better is preferred, but you can probably get by with a 28.8 kbps connection).

All of which can be somewhat intimidating to a novice. But when you compare the above investment to what it takes to own a broadcast station, the difference is astounding. For a video or audio webcast, you need no FCC license, no broadcast tower, no huge monthly electrical bill.

Current technology makes possible a difference between the half-million-dollar startup cost for a broadcast station to less than 1 percent of that for a webcast setup.

Sound too good to be true? Think back 10 years to when the Macintosh and laser printers made desktop publishing a reality. All of a sudden, the cost to start up a new printing firm plummeted from tens of thousands of dollars just for typesetting equipment into the realm of a home business.

The personal computer has spawned a whole new publishing industry – desktop publishing – and now is ready to do the same for broadcast technology.

The latest generation of audio and video software now allows real-time "streaming" – where a live signal is converted to digital and sent out over the Web, rather than recording specific files ahead of time. No longer are you limited to downloading pre-recorded audio or video clips – there are already radio stations using the new technology to send their broadcast programming out over the Web in a live, continuous-feed signal.

While there are numerous companies selling audio and video streaming packages, there are two that are accepted as standards and supported by nearly all Web browsers: Apple's QuickTime (the new version of which will support streaming) and RealNetworks' RealPlayer (formerly two separate products, RealAudio and RealVideo).

At both companies' Web sites, you can download Netscape and Microsoft Internet Explorer plugins for QuickTime and RealNetworks, as well as view samples, link to companies using their audio and video servers, and get more info on the software itself. Check out RealNetworks and Apple's QuickTime site.

You will need some other specialized equipment in addition to the computer setup and Internet hookup.

For a radio webcast, you'll want a decent microphone (try Radio Shack) for speaking. If you want music as well, you'll need a way to play it – CD drive, tape deck or LP player. A small, four-channel mixing board can be had for less than $500 – you then can hook that mixing board with a jack adapter (again, Radio Shack) to your PC's or Mac's sound card.

To do video takes a little more money and know-how. You'll need a video camera – a home camcorder will work, as long as it has an output jack. On the computer, you'll need a video capture card to convert the analog output to digital.

You'll also need sound or video editing software – most audio and video capture cards will come with a basic editing package to get you started, and many will be enough to meet your needs – as well as a server application to send your signal. RealNetworks offers several servers, and an Apple representative said they should have a QuickTime streaming server available soon.

And, of course, you'll need a Web site on a host that can handle audio or video streaming – if you'll not be using your own computer as Web server, ask your Internet service provider if you can rent a Web site with sound and video capabilities (which you'll still need to feed with your programming – thus the need for a high-speed connection). That can be pricey, though.

A less expensive alternative for those who only want a part-time radio or TV station (say a few hours each weekend or one evening a week) is to use your own home computer as your video or audio server (and, so folks can find you, hot link to your broadcast from an existing, full-time Web site – which should cost less than a site with commercial audio or video capabilities). With such a setup, you might even get by with a 28.8kbps dial-up account. Note: For this to work your Internet account must come with what's known as a "static IP address" so you can set up the hotlink from your Web site. If you don't know what that is, ask your Internet service provider.

Curious to learn more? Try the newsgroup; there are also other, more technically oriented newsgroups in the domain.