(click thumbnail)Online content is quickly becoming more and more important to the radio world. Your listeners are looking for online content to supplement or replace what they hear over the air. There are many software and hardware products available to help get audio online, and it can be confusing keeping track of them.
Nullsoft’s Shoutcast program (www.shoutcast.com) may be the answer to your station’s streaming media needs. It is a powerful and dependable application with a wide assortment of streaming uses. Setting up your station’s streaming audio is not too hard or time-consuming once you figure out how to adjust Shoutcast and decide what you want to do.
Nullsoft’s Web site claims all you need to get started is a mostly unused computer system, bandwidth and some knowledge of computers.
Shoutcast is based on a program most people are familiar with called Winamp. The good news is, just like Winamp, Shoutcast is free. There is no need to pay for anything. Many other streaming audio systems can be costly, and may possibly not have the flexibility you get from Shoutcast.
The other factor to consider in free software is support. Because you don’t pay for anything, you are not provided with any guarantee on help. Shoutcast has a thorough forum for assistance with getting everything set up and configured to do what is best for your needs. The forums are located at http://forums.winamp.com/forumdisplay.php?forumid=140. While they host a wealth of answers, searching through them for specific information can be tough.
It may not cost anything to get the software, but you may have to spend more of your time getting it just right then you would with a program you purchased.
The first thing to consider when preparing to set up a Shoutcast server is your content. Most of us are in the radio business and want to put up a live stream that re-broadcasts what is playing on the air. This way our listeners who are out of range are still able to listen to the station while at a computer.
Another common stream setup is providing on-demand audio files. You may want to make pre-recorded content available on the site for your listeners to access at times they want; possibly archives of previous programs or specials that are not available over the air. Shoutcast allows you to set up both at the same time on the same system. The live stream can come in any way you want, from a cheap on-board audio card to a specialized high-end digital card. You just tell Shoutcast what your input is and it will send it out.
Prerecorded programs are even easier to set up. In the configuration, you turn on the “ContentDir” option and then point it to where the files are stored. Files that are in that folder are now available to your listeners. By default you will get a live PLS stream and an on-demand M3U stream.
The file type you are providing is an important factor to consider because of copyright restrictions and ease of use for your audience. With Shoutcast you have the option of making your on-demand files available as MP3 or M3U. As a general rule, when your material is not copyrighted you should use an MP3 and when it is copyrighted use an M3U.
MP3 gives the listener a real copy of the program they can save to their computer, burn to a CD or put on their iPod. The M3U option only downloads a pointer to your station’s computer where the files are stored. The listener does not have a copy of the program so they are limited in their abilities and prevented from making copies.
This only applies to your on-demand content; live broadcasts work differently. When providing a live broadcast, you don’t need to worry about copyright restrictions as much and can concentrate on your listeners and their preferences.
There are many media players out there, and each one has a group of users that want to utilize it. If you look at other radio stations and what they are providing for live streams, you will notice many similarities. The most common seems to be three live stream types: Windows Media Player, Real Player and MP3. Some stations have only one or two of these options; others also may provide QuickTime, XMMS or others.
When using a live stream, Shoutcast only puts out an MP3 stream called a PLS. This will work great for listeners that want to use Winamp, iTunes or any other media player that is set up to use MP3s.
But what about people that only have Windows Media Player on their computer, or feel most comfortable with Real Player’s interface? Luckily for us, people ran into this problem before and came up with several solutions that are available on the forums.
My favorite fix is done through your station’s Web site, which provides the links to the streams. It makes sense that if someone wants to listen to your stream, they are going to find your Web site and look for it. Shoutcast on its own makes you type in an address involving the IP and port numbers, which you could never expect your users to remember. You will want to make a link to your stream from your Web site. While making an MP3 link you can alter the code a little and set up Real, Windows or other players’ links too. Shoutcast is only putting out the MP3 stream and normally it will show up on the site as a PLS. With some specific code on the site you can change the PLS to an ASX for Windows Media Player, RAM for Real Media or others depending on what you want to do.
When you begin to set up Shoutcast you may notice you can control the bit rate at which your stream is provided. This also is an important factor to consider. A low bit rate will allow listeners with slower network connections to use your stream. A high bit rate will give you the quality some listeners expect. It is hard to find a point where everyone is happy but you can do pretty well using one stream in the middle of the spectrum.
Another option is to provide multiple bitrates of your stream. Shoutcast is set up with four encoders that can provide your stream at four different bitrates. It only takes a bit more configuring to add these additional streams and please more listeners.
As mentioned Shoutcast is adaptable to many situations and is customizable in many ways. For example, you can add an intro file that plays before the stream that advertises your station, or a file that plays if your stream is unavailable. You also can kick listeners off after a certain time is reached, or ban certain listeners. I recommend setting it up in a test environment and tweaking it to work the way you want before providing the stream to your listeners.
It also is important to understand the final environment in which you will use the Shoutcast server. One thing to consider is that in order to reach a lot of listeners you will need a lot of bandwidth. Also be mindful of firewalls or restrictions your stream may encounter between your server and the listener. When selecting the system from which you will stream, look for one with the most available RAM.
I urge you to look at your station and how streaming audio can be added or improved. Then, when checking out the available companies and their solutions, look into Shoutcast and the other free guys out there.