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No need for a clear signal with new generation radio

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Charlie Bowen Charlie Bowen
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Charlie Bowen is a writer, teacher and web designer. He lives in Huntington.

We love to identify people with their toys. We speak of The Television Generation, The Computer Generation; in an earlier era, The Automobile Generation.

It’s funny, though — I don’t remember anyone ever referring to “The Radio Generation.” Maybe that is because for almost 100 years now, radio has seemed to belong uniquely to each generation.

No medium has regularly reinvented itself more often than radio, from the crystal sets that my dad played with in the late 1920s to the Internet radio I love today. And yet, through all its new incarnations, radio remains a kind of communal campfire around which like-minded people draw together.

Audio has been an integral part of the computing experience almost from the beginning. Beeps, boops, crashes and clashes came to early computer games even while the graphics were still little more than wiggling stick figures on flickering green screens. Decades later, it seems like only minutes after the World Wide Web arose, computing pioneers were figuring out ways to use to it to get sounds, from downloadable tunes to live broadcasts of baseball games.

The web really came into its own with the advent of streaming audio. Today whether “live” radio from anywhere on the planet or original content that exists only on the net, streaming audio is a perfect companion to other online activities.

Many a computerist starts the day by linking and listening to a favorite radio station or to a Pandora or Spotify audio stream while checking email, reading Facebook posts, viewing the latest Instagram installments or playing Words with Friends. Unlike online video, which demands more or less full attention, audio happily plays in background as a soundtrack to our keystrokes.

And it can be even more than that. I use streaming radio as a kind of entertainment transporter.

For instance, I love New Orleans. When I’m there, I don’t listen to radio; I’m busy enjoying the place itself. But back here in West Virginia I get my Crescent City fix several times a week by just dropping by WWOZ (wwoz.org) and clicking the “Listen Now” button for a rich gumbo of jazz, blues, Cajun and Congo, not to mention conversation that always makes me smile.

I also use the stream to share experiences with friends and family far away. This spring, my wife and her good friend Rose Riter took a to-die-for, three-week driving tour of the Western U.S. for sightseeing and seminars on various subjects. While they were on the road, I was back home using National Public Radio’s website to listen to stations in the states they were visiting. This allowed me to sample the local news and weather as a kind of backdrop to the emailed dispatches I was receiving from the hardy travelers.

And you can even use Internet radio as a research tool. This winter, my wife and I are planing a big driving trip to visit friends in Austin. In the weeks before we leave, I’ll be tuning my background audio to stations in the Southwest to get a feel for what people in that part of Texas are talking about.

Moreover, we’ll be taking streaming radio with us on the road, because the latest audio innovation is the proliferation of radio apps for our smartphones.

Here are some of my favorites, all free. Check these out in the app store for your phone:

  • iHeartRadio — Owned by Clear Channel Communications, this app features more than 800 live broadcasts and digital-only radio stations, including some of the country’s best and most popular.
  • NPR News — This is ideal if you need the latest news, or to catch up on any number of NPR’s popular shows.
  • Pandora — With this app, you start with an artist you like and branch out into similar music from there, based on your feedback and Pandora’s huge database of likes and dislikes from users.
  • AOL Radio — America Online may be a mere shadow of its 1990s self, but its free AOL Radio app is a winner, combining features from traditional radio apps and program-your-own-station apps like Pandora.
  • Slacker Radio — Also similar to Pandora, Slacker enables you to generate personal playlists, based on an artist, song or album. It also offers genre-based stations.
  • Stitcher Radio — More into news and talk than music? Stitcher is for you. It also links to your favorite podcasts and lets you “stitch” together your programs into personal customized stations.
  • SHOUTcast Radio — Formerly AOL Radio, SHOUTcast offers over 32,000 radio streams from broadcast stations in many genres and languages.
So, where does radio head next? Everywhere, I think. Radio was tailor-made for social media. I thought about that just this morning as I was finishing this column. The computer was streaming New Orleans and the DJ down there played a track by a band called Hurray for the Riff Raff, a wonderful mix of folk and funk that tickled me. In minutes, I had “liked” the group’s Facebook page which linked me to a clever YouTube video. I then hooked up to more tracks by the band on Spotify and ended up buying the album through iTunes.

Experiences like this convince me radio has a great future, that communal campfire blazing ever brighter. After all, long before personal computers, wasn’t radio already the most social of our media?