Use this audio-streaming technology to become an Internet DJ

The current Web radio boom isn't limited to established radio stations or big companies with huge budgets. By using the Live365 service, hobbyists who want to broadcast their personal MP3 files from a virtual radio station can create a custom entertainment stream 24 × 7-for just $4.95 a month plus a one-time $14.95 setup fee. Unlike other Internet station builders-such as Launch and Echo, which restrict you to assembling songs from a company playlist-Live365 lets you assemble your own content. If you've ever dreamed of becoming a DJ but never liked the idea of constructing an antenna tower in your backyard, here's the chance to make your dreams a reality.

Live365 lets you choose from three broadcast modes: Basic, which plays your songs in an endless loop; Live, which lets you use your PC's sound card to conduct a live broadcast of your music ($4.95 per month extra); and Relay (included with Live $4.95-per-month option), which rebroadcasts an existing audio stream. I decided to test the Basic option, but I also attempted a Live broadcast. Live365 lets you switch between the three modes as often as you want.

I wanted to create a station that played a compilation of my favorite smooth jazz songs. However, I soon discovered that I couldn't simply jump in and set up a station. I needed to spend time planning my station, assembling my songs, and uploading tunes to the Live365 server. I also discovered that although a broadband connection isn't required to listen to my station, it's recommended for uploading songs-unless I was prepared to devote many hours to broadcasting chores. Here's how to navigate the Live365 waves.

The Importance of Bitrates


According to Live365, you should register at the Web site first, then begin building your broadcast. Before you register, however, you have some planning to do. The most important decision you need to make involves the bitrate of the MP3s your station will play. For tips about determining appropriate bitrates based on connection speed, see Table 1.

Unfortunately, Live365's instructions underplay the importance of bitrate choice and fail to mention that you must make your decision early to avoid later headaches. To avoid playback problems, you must configure bitrates consistently. Your playlist can't contain files that have differing bitrates. To simplify your life, follow these instructions:

  1. Determine a bitrate for your station.
  2. Use the same bitrate to convert your songs from CDs to MP3s.
  3. Select the same bitrate when you upload songs to Live365's server.
  4. During station setup, choose the connection speed that corresponds to the same bitrate.

If you inadvertently stray from this bitrate advice, Live365 provides a safety-net feature called the Playlist Analyzer, which spots bitrate errors.

Because only 6 percent of users have broadband connectivity, Live365's highest allowable bitrate excludes 94 percent of your potential audience. Therefore, to reach a large audience with an audio stream that avoids hiccups, you might want to settle on the 32kbit/sec bitrate. The lower the bitrate, the muddier the sound quality, but 32kbit/sec provides a fair compromise-it's not first-rate, but it's not AM radio, either.

One advantage of a low bitrate is file size. Live365 gives you a generous 100MB of storage space. Additional increments of 100MB cost $4.95 per month. At 56kbit/sec, my songs averaged 2MB each, giving me a maximum playlist of 50 selections. At 32kbit/sec, my songs averaged 1MB each, doubling my playlist possibilities.

Choose Your Music


Like DJs and music programmers, you need to plan your playlist carefully. Most Live365 audio streams (i.e., stations) I sampled were devoted to music, but you can also broadcast spoken-word recordings (e.g., dramatic readings, conference speeches). Be sure to select enough material to meet Live365's 3-hour program minimum. Also, select a variety of music. Live365's Terms of Use ask that you observe specific Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) restrictions. During any 3-hour period, you must not program more than three songs from the same recording (i.e., album), play more than two songs consecutively from the same recording, or broadcast more than four songs from the same artist or anthology (e.g., greatest-hits box set).

Prepare Your Music


After you select a bitrate, you need to convert-or rip-tracks from your CDs to MP3 format at your chosen bitrate. (To save time while uploading your files to Live365, place all your MP3s in one folder.) As a seasoned audiophile, you probably have a favorite audio application that you use to rip audio CDs. The Live365 site provides instructions for MUSICMATCH Jukebox, an application that lets you listen to CDs and MP3s, create MP3s, and listen to radio stations. (Unfortunately, Live365's ripping directions don't address the updated MUSICMATCH 7.0, and minor version differences can be somewhat confusing.)

I built my station's music from scratch. Ripping 5-minute songs takes less than 1 minute, and MUSICMATCH accesses Gracenote's CD DataBase (CDDB), so the software automatically affixes the title, artist, and album name to each of your MP3 files.

Create Your Station


You can now register at Live365 and begin the station-building process. The best place to start is the company's home page. At the top of the screen, click BROADCAST. On the resulting screen, choose Personal Services for Individuals Only. Next, select the broadcast features (e.g., Basic, Live, Relay) and storage space (if you need more than 100MB). Accept the billing agreement, then click Next: Billing Info in the Log In section. If you're a new Live365 user, click sign up now and enter your email address, username and password, ZIP code, and country of residence. You can choose to subscribe to weekly newsletters (e.g., a program guide, a guide to technical tips). Finally, click I Accept.

To verify your email address, Live365 will send you an email message to which you'll need to reply. The link inside Live365's message opens Live365's New Member Log In screen. Enter your password and click Log In. As a new user, you'll find yourself back at the Broadcast Services screen where you started, so choose your broadcast options again, accept the agreement, and click Next:Billing Info. After you enter your credit card information, click Submit Order.

On the Welcome screen, click Create your own station!. Choose the Personal Broadcasting link and click the Start Here - Choose a Broadcast Mode link. Select Basic Broadcast and click Next. Live365 displays the Upload Your Files screen, then-believe it or not-you're ready to upload your content.

Upload Your Songs


To create a Basic Broadcast, you must upload your MP3 files from your hard disk to Live365's server. You can upload files individually, but unless you're updating your file list with one or two new songs, individual uploads are tedious-regardless of your connection speed. Instead, use the separate Studio365-Loader application, which is available for free download. Studio365-Loader acts as an FTP program and is preloaded with your destination.

From the Upload Your Files screen, click Download Studio365-Loader. Download, install, and launch Studio365-Loader. Enter your username and password, then specify the location of your MP3 files-here's where a separate folder comes in handy-and your station's bitrate (which should be consistent with the bitrate you selected when you defined your station). Studio365-Loader displays the number of files that reside on Live365's server, as well as those files' total time, as Figure 1 shows. Select the files you want to upload, then click Upload to start the file transfers. (A disadvantage of Studio365-Loader is that it's available only to PC users-the company offers no Macintosh or Linux version.)

Accomplishing your own ripping ensures that your files' bitrate matches your station's bitrate, but what if you already have an MP3 collection recorded at a higher bitrate? One benefit of Studio365-Loader is that it automatically converts files to the lower bitrate.

Define Your Station


Now the fun begins. At the bottom of the Upload Your Files screen, click Studio365. (If you've closed your browser, go to http://www.live365.com/broadcast/broadcast.live.) On the resulting screen, click Start Here - Studio365 to access the main Studio365 screen, on which you'll enter your station details and manipulate your playlist.

In the Station section at the top of the screen, enter the name of your station. Choose this important parameter carefully because that name will be your listing in the Live365 directory. If you want to promote your station on a separate Web site, enter the URL in the Broadcaster Web Site box.

To help listeners find your station in Live365's station directory, you can choose appropriate genres (as many as three) for your music. If you choose only one genre, Live365 will select a second one for you. For example, when I chose Jazz for Genre1 and skipped Genre2, Live365 automatically chose Blues as Genre2. Live365's list of genres includes a wide variety of music types (e.g., Country, Pop, Metal, R&B, Classic Rock).

Next, choose a minimum connection speed. (Your connection speed is related to your bitrate, as Table 1 shows.) Note Live365's warning: To ensure a quality station, make sure your MP3s are configured at or below the corresponding maximum MP3 bitrate. Non-conforming MP3s will be skipped. This message isn't lying.

If you'd like to play a short MP3 file (i.e., less than 20 seconds long) as a station greeting, enter the filename in the Pre-Roll Station ID box. You can also use the In-Stream Station ID box to play a different MP3 between groups of songs. (Live365 occasionally inserts its own short station identification, too.)

After you click Save, Live365 takes a few moments to record your selections, then redisplays the screen. You've now created your station. Your songs are on the Live365 server, and you're ready to determine which ones you want to play, and in what order. In other words, you need to build your playlist.

Build Your Playlist


At the bottom of the Studio365 screen, you'll find the Playlist section. From that section's Step 1, called Create or Edit a Playlist, choose Create new playlist from the drop-down list. (You can create several playlists and switch between them.)

Under Step 2, Which Songs? you use the screen's user-friendly two-column layout, which Figure 2 shows, to build your playlist. Your uploaded files appear in the Your MP3 Library list. Simply select the file you want from the list, then click ADD to move the file to the Current Playlist box, which you see under Step 3, What Order? To add more than one file at a time, you can use standard Windows conventions: Press the Ctrl key to select multiple individual files, and press the Shift key to select blocks of files.

To change a file's priority in your playlist, use the UP and DOWN buttons at the top of the list. You can use the A TO Z button to sort songs alphabetically, and you can use the RANDOM button to scramble the playlist. If you'd like Live365 to continually scramble the playlist, select the Shuffle play check box.

After you click SAVE (under Step 4) to save your playlist, you can access the Controls section, which lets you review your playlist for inconsistencies in bitrates. If you find a song that doesn't conform to your selected bitrate, select the check box adjacent to the highlighted song. Live365 will remove that song from your playlist (but not from the Live365 server).

Ready to begin broadcasting? Access the Studio365 screen, go to the Controls section, and click Start Broadcast. A Live365 screen informs you that your station will start shortly. Click Broadcast Controls to view your Broadcast Control Panel, which Figure 3 shows. On the Status line, you should see the words On The Air. Playback might not occur immediately: Live365 takes a few moments to process your playlist. In my testing, Live365 never took more than 2 minutes to begin broadcasting my station. Click LISTEN at the top of the screen to open the Live365 player and enjoy the results of your hard work.

Take It Live


The Studio365-Live 2.1 software gives you total control of your broadcast. You stream files in realtime from your hard disk-not from Live365's server-so that you have constant control of your playlist.

Live365 offers extensive input choices. Under the External Source/CD setting, you can use your favorite CD-player software (e.g., MUSICMATCH, NullSoft Winamp, RealNetworks' RealJukebox) to broadcast a song from a CD. If your sound card has Line In capability, you can feed an external audio source (e.g., a CD player or cassette deck) directly to your station. You can use your sound card and a microphone to insert voiceovers or announcements between songs. You can also use a telephone headset to set up a talk-radio station.

Restrictions


Although Live365's legal statements appear lengthy, the terms aren't terribly restrictive. Live365 keeps the revenue it generates from advertisements that it displays on the player while listeners tune to your station. You agree not to post, upload, or transmit any sound recordings that are obscene, indecent, racially offensive, abusive, or defamatory. To comply with DMCA regulations, you can't broadcast recordings within an hour of a listener request, and you can't arrange to play a song at a listener-requested time. Also, you can't publish an advance program guide or use any other preannouncement method to advertise the order in which you'll play particular recordings.

Maintain Your Station, Grow Your Audience


To find your station, potential listeners can use the Browse function, which they can find at the top of most Live365 screens. Listeners can sort the station list by broadcaster, speed, number of listeners, listener rating, or station description. After a listener finds your station, he or she can click a green plus-sign (+) icon to add your station to a custom Favorites list.

However, Live365 has become fairly popular, so you might want to take a more active role in the fate of your station. For example, my station was one of 1288 stations in the Jazz section. I named my station Smooth Jazz Favorites, but searching the Jazz genre uncovered 70 other stations containing the word "Smooth" in the description.

How can you get the word out? Here are some ideas:

  • Check out the Studio365 screen's Controls section. To send your friends a message that contains a link to your station, you can click the envelope icon.
  • On your Broadcast Control Panel, you can click Promote it to learn techniques for promoting your station.
  • To let people know more about you and your station, you can access the Profile link at the top of the Broadcast Control Panel screen.
  • Discuss broadcasting topics (e.g., how to create a successful station, how to attract listeners and keep them) on one of Live365's message boards.

To entice your listeners to come back for more, you need to continually modify your playlist and add new material. Thankfully, modifying a playlist takes hardly any time at all. After I familiarized myself with Live365, I could simultaneously use MUSICMATCH to rip songs from CDs and use Studio365-Loader to upload others. If you want more interesting content, consider using a product such as MixMeister Technology's MixMeister to create longer tracks and to provide cross-fades between songs. To monitor your station's popularity, you can check the listener statistics in your Broadcast Control Panel.

You're an E-DJ


Becoming an Internet DJ has never been so easy or so affordable. No matter what your choice-an endless music loop or a live transmission-you're now broadcasting your favorite music while avoiding the hassle of obtaining an FCC license.