RADIO FREE CYBERSPACE

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JOE NICKELL AND BART EVERSON, A couple of goofy, twentysomething guys from Bloomington, Indiana, are sick of small fame. For three years their satirical public-access TV show has played to critical acclaim in the greater Bloomington area, but it has never attracted the kind of national attention that would capture a slot on network TV. Though local sponsors chip in enough to keep Everson clothed, housed and fed, Nickell still has to support himself as a waiter. So the pair set their sights beyond broadcast TV, beyond cable TV, to the computer networks. Last week, as their 85th episode, Global Village Idiots, was flickering across Bloomington televisions, it was simultaneously stored on the Internet, where millions of people worldwide could retrieve it--the first television show broadcast in cyberspace.

But certainly not the last. Tired of waiting for cable and telephone companies to build their fiber-optic interactive-TV networks--a multibillion-dollar effort that could take a decade or more to complete--computer enthusiasts are making do with what they have today: a computer network that runs largely over telephone lines. Using jerry-built software tools and whatever shows they have at hand, they are busily reinventing the old media on the new medium, offering up music, pictures, video clips and now a comedy series. Much of the new material is drawn from the golden days of radio and TV--quiz shows, talk shows, soap operas and cartoons--but with a difference: since the programs are stored on computers linked to the global Internet, viewers can retrieve them when they want them from virtually anywhere.

Perhaps the most immediately useful application of this way-new medium was the one announced two weeks ago by Progressive Networks, a company based in Seattle and founded by Rob Glaser, former vice president for multimedia at Microsoft. Until Glaser came along, using the Internet to carry audio programming was painful for home-computer users. For instance, Internet Talk Radio, based in Washington, has broadcast an interview show called Geek of the Week for two years, but home listeners have had to be patient: even using a high-speed, 14,400-bit-per-second modem, it took an average of two hours to download a 15-minute show.

Glaser's new system, called RealAudio, solves that problem. Taking advantage of the latest advances in digital compression, it delivers AM radio-quality sound in so-called real time. Click on an icon representing the show you want to hear, and you will hear it immediately, broadcast through your computer's speaker system. Or you can select a sound segment or a series of segments and listen to them in the order you choose. Onscreen buttons let you pause, rewind and fast-forward through a program.

Glaser's system is not just for geeks; some big-name radio broadcasters have licensed RealAudio technology. National Public Radio, for instance, is using RealAudio to distribute the newsmagazines All Things Considered and Morning Edition on the Internet. Similarly, abc Radio has put its hourly news broadcasts online so a listener can hear, say, the 11 a.m. daily broadcast at any time. HotWired, the online edition of Wired magazine, plans to use the technology to broadcast a quiz show and is also developing an online talk show with comedian-magician-computerphile Penn Jillette.

Like most of the wonders of cyberspace, access to the new programming is limited to those computer users who have a direct connection to the Internet and have the software necessary to reach the multimedia offerings on the World Wide Web. (For now, subscribers to Prodigy, CompuServe and America Online need not bother to tune in.) But RealAudio's software can be downloaded for free from Progressive Networks' computer. And although it runs only on Windows-based machines, a Macintosh version is expected next month.

Still, demand for the player has been brisk. On the first day it was available, more than 100,000 people logged onto Progressive Networks' computer. To capitalize on the interest, and to help generate Internet radio shows, the company announced last week that it would also give away the "encoder." This is the software that enables programmers to create computer-readable audio files. Making the encoder widely available will allow anyone with an Internet connection to begin broadcasting to an international audience. Says Glaser: "We want to jump start a self-publishing movement."

Perhaps Nickell and Everson should publish an audio-only version of their TV show; downloading the entire half-hour video, even with a high-speed modem, takes nearly 24 hours. That's why they break their program into smaller segments that can be retrieved one at a time. For instance, Let's Go Giggin, a five-minute comedy bit broadcast last week that features a nose-ringed clown hunting frogs with a stick, takes half an hour to come to life on a computer screen. Still a long wait, but where else can you find entertainment like that?