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Go hard or go home: An interview with HardRadio

July 13, 2001

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HardRadio.com has been a pioneer in Internet radio streaming since the inception of the field. MacEdition recently had the opportunity to interview Tracy Barnes, the President of Asgaard Interactive Multimedia LLC, the parent company of HardRadio.com.

MacEdition: Tracy, give us the pitch sentence for HardRadio – you know, the one you start with when people ask you what you are doing on the Web.

Tracy: I’m fortunate to factually state that we run one of the most successful music sites on the Internet. A site focused on gold and platinum guitar-driven rock that was the music industry’s number one sales genre for over a decade.

What’s the history of HardRadio?

We signed “online” on December 31, 1995 with a mono 16-Kbit stream using Xing Streamworks [Ed. - Xing Streamworks merged with Real in 1999]. Since that time, we’ve either deployed or tested every streaming product that was made available, from beta testing for Real, Microsoft, and Apple to the lesser-known Java-based streaming formats. Before our sign-on, we were playing with CUseeMe.

I see you stream three audio formats – QuickTime, Windows Media Player and Real. Can you give me a brief description of each of their core weaknesses and strengths as would be seen by the end user?

QuickTime has the best server but the worst audio codecs. I’ve been begging for something cutting-edge like AAC or even a lower-bitrate version of Ogg Vorbis. We currently stream the MP3 format using QuickTime’s RTSP server, which may be a first as all the other MP3 solutions like Shoutcast use HTTP, which is better used for serving Web pages.

Real has a good server with excessive memory requirements, and as long as you ignore the SureStream “feature” it works pretty well. The latest Real audio codecs are very good. We continue to use the older Real v5 server as it is intended more for WebTV and most of the Unix users we have. The more Real evolves, the more the player looks like a browser and their business, a content company.

Microsoft is getting better with each version. The Mac player works now, and the server on top of Windows 2000 is stable, even though we had our old Windows NT 4 server up for a 320-day continuous run. The MS Audio codecs are OK, but we actually prefer the older Voxware codecs that they offered with the previous toolset. At higher bitrates, around 64-Kbit or so, the Windows Media codecs work very well.

Has Apple been supportive of your endeavors, or has HardRadio had to fend for itself in terms of support and technology information?

Apple has been nothing but supportive. We’re proud to have been Apple’s first Streaming QuickTime client, and they have been great to work and even party with. The QuickTime crew has a lot of musicians on the team, and believe it or not, Ted Nugent’s niece Aimee is on the team, so our hard rock format has been pretty much a natural fit with the gurus at Apple.

How do Real and Microsoft’s support compare?

Real has changed around quite a bit since we were in direct communication with them, and sometimes we’re not sure of Microsoft’s focus and logic.

Can you give us some usage info between the three different streaming formats?

Windows Media is around 40% of our user base, with Real and Apple evenly split on the remainder.

What can you say about the various copyright and content battles going on right now – Napster, the RIAA and DMCA? How have they affected what HardRadio is about? What kind of hoops have you had to jump through in order to do what you do?

Napster is pretty much over now, and we never agreed with the concept, as we know that our artists need to sell records to stay in business. But, we go way back on dealing with the RIAA ... to 1986. Michael Robertson at MP3.com had interviewed me about the hassles we had run into from the tunnel vision they suffer. I believe that interview from ’97 or so is still over on the MP3.com site. None have really affected us except for RIAA misinformation, as we’re in continual contact with the promotion departments of the major labels who can’t believe that the RIAA may eventually be cutting off a huge promotional avenue so the labels’ legal departments can raise a few pennies on their “streaming tax.”

It says on the site that you are the first cyberstation licensed by ASCAP and BMI. Were you instrumental in helping them change their policies and work up pricing for the Web, a medium they had not licensed for in the past?

My contact with them dates back to late July of 1995. They had no concept of an Internet radio station, but having an in-depth over-the-air management background I knew what their rate schedules were for terrestrial broadcasters. We wound up with a comparable arrangement so we were pleased. A couple of Internet radio outlets had tried to go online without songwriter licensing and were quickly brought up to speed by the two companies. But we had already known what was required from all those years in broadcast radio.

About your staff: how many are they, what do they use for production and what do they favor?

There are ten of us spread all across North America, so we are indeed a “cybercompany.” For example, we were sending audio production files across the ’Net back in 1996, which has just recently become a standard operating procedure for broadcasters. We’re all pretty much Mac-based for generating and maintaining the Web site, as well as audio and video production, and do have a couple of PCs around for compatibility checking. We still use SoundEdit 16 for simple editing as well as Peak, and we rely heavily on Media Cleaner for encoding in different formats. One of my favorite MP3 encoders is an old shareware drag-and-drop app called mp3 encoder 0.12.

What hardware do you stream from? We know that Windows Media must be streamed from (Microsoft’s) IIS and Real must be streamed from a non-Mac [Ed.- Unless you are lucky enough to have this SDK lying around, and a bunch of free time], but QuickTime can be streamed from just about anything. What are you using there?

For Windows Media we of course use Windows 2000 Server; for Real we’ve been using Linux (we were a Linux and Solaris shop going back to 1996). For QuickTime we started with Mac OS X Server in 1999, and recently consolidated our QT streaming onto Linux using the Darwin server, which is doing very well. Before I shut down our OS X Server machine a few weeks weeks ago, it had been up since 1999.

From the server-side perspective, what are the ups and downs? Who has the easiest server to admin? The most stable? The most flexible?

Both OS X and Linux are stable and flexible. As we’re pretty much fluent in Unix command lines, OS X was a piece of cake out of the box. Our sysadmin Doug Lindstrom had been in on the startup of a couple of ISPs, and as you know, many use BSD Unix, which OS X is based on. Linux is pretty much “Unix for Windows users” which is fairly easy to admin once you get going. Windows is simple to set up and administer on-site, but remotely it was a different story until we started using RemotelyAnywhere. These days VNC is pretty interesting for remote control but also has a couple of quirks.

How much bandwidth do you eat through each day?

Far too much. We’ve been wondering when IP Multicast might actually happen so we can cut the unicast requirement down to just streaming to ISPs instead of individual users. We currently stream slightly less than 300,000 hours each month, and peak at around 22MB or so in the daytime. Half of a DS3. [Ed. - A DS3 is 45Mbit/second, or 4.5 times the speed of regular 10BASE-T Ethernet.]

QuickTime is the only video streaming solution you currently utilize. Are there plans to expand this to Real and Microsoft offerings as well?

We’re pretty much exclusive with QuickTime on video right now, as the Apple crew has been so supportive and gracious towards us. As I mentioned, we had numerous issues with the QT audio codecs, especially with midrange heavy guitar and vocal energy in our hard-rock format. But, the latest Cleaner and QT players let us encode in and play back MP3 audio, so that’s what we’ve been testing lately, along with the new Sorenson and On2 video codecs.

Why don’t the knobs on the site go to 11?

They do – we just don’t tell anybody!

We’ll be re-visiting HardRadio.com in an upcoming article about how they became a successful Internet radio property.

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