World Wide Radio

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They play elevator music on the radio in South Africa. Lionel Richie is still big in Poland. And the Backstreet Boys have hit the airwaves in Bulgaria. The reason I know all this, even though it's been years since I've been overseas, is that I've spent the past week tuning in to radio stations around the world on my home PC. I've tapped my toes to Celtic rhythms on LiveIreland.com, caught the latest Euro-pop from Eldoradio in Luxembourg, and discovered my new favorite station: Radio Slovenia. I wasn't even sure where Slovenia is, but its Internet radio station plays some of loveliest classical recordings I've heard in a long time.

I've known about Net radio for years, but except for a few forays on the National Public Radio site (at npr.org), I had never bothered sifting through the thousands of stations that broadcast online. Now a start-up called Sonicbox is making it easy for lazybones like me to tune in to the rest of the world from the comfort of home. Its new iM Remote Tuner is a handheld remote control for Internet radio that not only lets you switch stations from up to 100 ft. away from your PC--even if you're in another room--but also lets you play the music through your home stereo speakers. You can get it online at sonicbox.com for $99, and it went on sale last week at Fry's Electronics stores, under the name Acer NeWeb iRhythm.

It took me about 15 minutes to set up Sonicbox, and the software came with hundreds of preset stations--everything from talk radio in San Francisco to police scanners in Amsterdam--so I didn't have to spend hours online looking for sites. I loved being able to lie on my bed and flip from a ska music station in New Jersey to pop music from Greece in less than a second. Unfortunately, I can't turn my PC and Net connection off with the remote. So, just when I'm about to drift off listening to Beethoven.com, I have to sleepwalk to my PC, log off and power down.

Another company, Kerbango, is planning to sell a stand-alone Net radio later this year that plugs directly into a phone line and requires no computer hookup, but it will cost three times as much, and you will have to have a broadband connection. (The Sonicbox system, by contrast, sounds great with a standard 56K modem.)

Even if you decide against the Sonicbox remote, there are plenty of otherInternet radio supersites you can explore. realguide.real.com/tuner and radio.yack.com both have extensive Net guides with thousands of stations grouped by genre. Live365.com boasts more than 18,000 stations--although most of them are Net-only sites created by Live365 members.

Most Internet stations run on RealPlayer or Windows Media Player; a few, such as spinner.com, require you to download a player that works only with music channels on that site.

As for me, the Sonicbox unit was just the gadget to rekindle my interest in Net radio. But since a software-only version is free on the Sonicbox site, and because my computer's speakers are quite good and my apartment is small enough that walking to my PC to switch channels is not a big deal, I think I'll send the hardware back and save my $100. I'm spending my money on an airline ticket so I can find out firsthand what people are listening to in Paris and Prague.

You can send e-mail for Anita to hamilton@time.com, but be patient--she's on vacation until Oct. 16.