By September 11, 2005

SomaFM review

Way back before Netscape knew their 4.x browser line sucked and before they bought up Winamp and before they co-branded with AOL Instant Messenger, there was a great little streaming internet radio site called spinner.com. Spinner had dozens of streaming radio stations to listen to, most importantly to me, separate techno, ambient, electronica, and trance channels. Thanks to Spinner, I became aware of such groups as Morcheeba, Cirrus, Supreme Beings of Leisure, DJ Keoki, and many many more.

So anyway, Netscape discovers that their browser sucks and that their only salvation is to build a portal and grab up free internet services and applications that tons of people used. First Nullsoft and Winamp, then America Online and Instant Messenger, and then my beloved Spinner. Spinner was rebranded as Radio@Netscape.

The user interface changed, but that wasn’t such a big deal. At first, I was happy — there were more stations!! But it became obvious that Netscape wasn’t sure how to turn a profit on their investment. They soon added a banner advertisement, and then a direct link from whatever was being played to Amazon.com. I clicked on a few banners, but never bought anything. I did, however, buy two albums thanks to Radio@Netscape: Re:Lax, You’re the Only One Here, a sampler of a Lax Recording’s downtempo artists, and Pursuit of Happiness, and absolutely lovely (and only) album from a group named Weekend Players. Great vocals over downtempo tracks, it’s a wonderful album. I still listen to both albums regularly.

But then all turned gnarly in Radio@Netscape land. They began disconnecting users after 40 consecutive tracks. Not a big deal, you could just reconnect — but when I was working 10+ hours a day at my desk, I would get discod a few times a day.

Then something worse happened — you could only listen to about twenty songs per day unless you were an AOL Broadband customer. I loved Radio@Netscape, but I wasn’t about to sign up for a broadband account just to listen to streaming audio.

I know that’s a long intro to SomaFM, but you have to understand that I spend tons of time in front of the computer, and music has always been a big deal to me. So to lose RAN was a big issue, and it was also the only source I had of finding new music. Hardly anything I listen to is available on terrestial radio.

The search was on for an alternative to RAN. I had heard of SomaFM thanks to the Ars Technica forum, but hadn’t really tried it since I had RAN. Soma doesn’t have the diversity of genres like RAN did, but Soma is run independently by a bunch of folks in the San Francisco area. They play trance, electronica, and downtempo type music, which is right up my alley. SomaFM has seven stations, and typically stream to about 6000 people during the day. I mostly listen to Beat Blender or Groove Salad, although their Secret Agent channel is a hoot sometimes.

SomaFM offers streaming music in a variety of bitrates so that you can listen to their music even on dialup. It runs from radio quality (24k) to CD quality (128k). Since SomaFM is run by a bunch of private folks, I try to listen to the lowest bitrate I can tolerate.

The problems that Spinner/RAN encountered were not unique. SomaFM has a breakdown of their costs on their Web site. It’s not super expensive to run the station, but it’s not cheap, considering that the DJs and music directors aren’t paid anything and often have to put in cash out of their own pockets to keep the service running. I sent them $50 — it seemed like a small price to pay for the enjoyment I get out of it, and I plan on sending them another $50 after my one-year listener anniversary is up.

Good points:

  • Good diversity of music if you like the techno-ish genre.
  • Free to listen.
  • As far as I can tell, you can listen as long as you want.
  • Run by the “little guys.”

Skipping records:

  • Free, until your conscience gets the better of you.
  • Not as many channels as Radio@Netscape, and certainly not as many genres.
  • Sometimes the server gets full and you have to select a different bitrate or go to a different channel.
  • There is a higher song repeat rate on the Secret Agent channel, but it’s still good for a listen.
  • Only one real way to donate — money. I would like to see a better store, the tote bag and coffee mugs offered on their cafepress Web store leaves a lot to be desired.

SomaFM, I stream to thee:

Four out of five STFU mugs!

an addendum:

I have been listening to the ArsCrew radio station a lot. They aren’t affiliated with Soma. It’s run by a few fellows at Ars Technica, particulary by a gent named Dominick. The ArsCrew station offers a lot of variety, from the type of music you can hear on Soma to 80s hair metal to folk music. Check it out, but since it’s completely low budget and volunteer the station isn’t on at all times during the day and some of the djs forget to start their shows, etc.

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