Micz Flor is a multi-talented cultural worker. As a programmer, artist, teacher, writer and project manager Micz has been organizing a variety of events, net projects, magazines and temporary media labs (see:http://mi.cz/cv.htm). I got to know Micz in 1997 while working with him in the team of the Hybrid Workspace project (Documenta X/Kassel:http://www.medialounge.net/lounge/workspace/). One year later he organized his own temp media lab in Manchester. Micz is a cool, busy and ambitious person that loves to tinker and play around with media and code. He operates in a laid back, Berlin minimal techno style. Very post-German.
Micz Flor lived and worked in London, Liverpool, Vienna and Prague and is now back in his base, Berlin. In 1999 he got very involved in supporting independent media in Former Yugoslavia. Lately he has been working for the Camp lab in Prague, which trains journalists all over the world how best to integrate new media in their work. In this capacity Micz traveled to Indonesia and other Asian countries. On his Crash site (http://crash.mi.cz) you can see his streaming video about Radio 68H Indonesia, Reaching Everyone. Radio 68H is an independent radio network for hourly news programs and magazine formats. The local hub in Jakarta maintains the network and redistributes local news via satellite. Radio 68H consists of over 250 radio stations. As a ‘tactical’ medium it uses email to collect and distribute MP3 reports from the entire archipelago. There will be a longer documentary version on Indonesia’s Radio68h available soon, as part of the ‘Scattered Frequencies’ mini-series on radio networking he produces together with Philip Scheffner. The first part on an independent radio network in Nepal is already available. Another of his web films, EUrope on your Doorstep looks the impact of European funding the economically underdeveloped region of Liverpool (UK).
In Berlin Micz has lately been working on www.fluter.de, an online youth magazine, developed for German Ministry for Political Education (www.bpb.de). This project has been initiated by the company of Micz Flor and Tanja Lay, named Redaktion und Alltag (http://www.redaktionundalltag.de/), one of many small web design and content offices working out of Berlin. Last but not least, his hobby label SueMi http://sue.mi.cz has been releasing a number of 7-inch vinyl records.
Micz’s specialty is connecting hi and low tech taking all local circumstances into account. However, his passion lies in streaming media and radio in particular, which started in Berlin with his involvement in the net.radio group called convex tv. Micz won several awards for his net.art works but is hesitant to label himself an artist, feeling increasingly uncomfortable with the way in which the art world deals–or rather does not deal–with new media and its social and political aspects. The following interview focuses on the current situation of streaming media networks and standards.
GL: What makes net.radio in your experience so different from normal radio? It is important to further explore these differences? Or is it just a matter of adding another distribution channels to the growing list of (new) media outlets?
MF: Net.radio is very different from normal radio. In fact, net.radio – and the hype surrounding it – made ‘normal’ radio reconsider itself. In the early days of audio streaming over the Internet, many ‘normal’ radio stations were trying to jump the bandwagon and went ‘online’. In those days, you would find websites of radio stations to provide nothing more but the station logo and a button saying ‘live’ – launching an external player. This clumsy attempt of translating an established medium into a network environment really put a finger on the strength and weaknesses of radio as we knew it; the linear, one-way, no-frills-no-thrills transmission it is.
Only recently, ‘ordinary’ radios put more effort into living up to the world wide web, providing an adequate environment to which listeners can come, dwell, contribute, search, discuss and get on-demand material. But in return, this process of redefining ‘ordinary’ radio when it goes online has also put a finger on the strength and weakness of net.radio; the lack of definition and tangibility. In fact, net.radio seems to be everything normal radio is not … and it is on the Internet.
This is a very powerful starting point for experimental net.radio projects. It is not so much the question if it is important to explore the differences between the two. First and foremost it is not ‘ordinary’ radio – and then it’s just anything else as long as it is online.
Of course, audio streaming is more and more becoming a central part of the growing list of new media channels. But at the same time, we are all still waiting for the new front end, the browser of the next generation, where all these media outlets are coming together at the screen and speakers and what else of the user, listener, or whatever you would want to call the next generation receiver.
This client ‘solution’ is not there yet. And that’s a good thing. So far, not even multi-national lobbies such as Microsoft or AOL managed to prune the Internet into the shape they would dream of. In fact, every attempt to shape the multitude of formats, players and codecs has only put strength to alternative solutions. A peer-to-peer distribution channel, such as Gnutella is one example; alternative audio video formats such as Ogg or DivX are another.
GL: The Xchange network, which established itself in 1998, has been relatively stable in size since its first year. Whereas the overall Internet has grown exponentially, going through the dotcom period of intense financial speculation, many non-profit streaming initiatives have remained low key. How would you explain this? Would this be related to the relatively growing (self) isolation of the new media arts? Or rather with the problems of the streaming media sector at large?
MF: I would assume that many of the more experimental initiatives in the net.radio field have reached a certain level of saturation already early on. And now they stay that way, keeping the financial turmoil at an arms length distance. I doubt that this has to do with a tendency for self-isolation. The experimental net.radio scene is based on an intriguing mixture of challenging sonic liking, obscure technical interests and a radiant interest in new distribution channels. No surprise that many of these people were online early on, playing with Internet broadcasting formats and finding a like-minded audience years before the big hype.
So the motivation of such closely-knit communities never really went towards establishing business solutions and supplying sustainable business plans. If anything, throughout the hype period I sensed some level of frustration and suspicion towards all these start-ups who would take half-baked ideas and rake in venture capital. It restricted many communities in terms of their free flow of ideas, as one would never know if someone else would listen in, pick it up and get some money from this idea, simply because she or he looks better in a suit.
In a way it seemed as if the ‘avant-garde’ of net.radio was mostly surprised by the cash flow surrounding it. Coming from inside the system, nobody really understood how and why this should make any real money and certainly not the sums flying around at the time. Looking back on these days, I am sure many of the early DIY streaming experts think “I could have told you” as well as “I wish we had driven a million against the wall, that sounds like fun.”
GL: Would you say that the technical limitations and the confusion of standards for streaming media over the past five years have been a good or a bad thing?
MF: The confusion is still going on. But within all the confusion some developments are getting clearer.
The most prominent yet quiet development over these years of confusion was the clear separation of media player and streaming format. In the early days, to encode your media for the Internet, to stream it over the Internet and listen to it at the other end came all in one box. Take RealMedia as an example. They started very early on and for a long time provided the only reliable and compatible solution for streaming media. In order to stream RealMedia content, you needed their RealEncoder, their RealServer and the RealPlayer to listen to the stream.
Today, MP3 is a very dominant format for streaming audio on the Internet. In order to do this, you pick one of many encoders, one of many server solutions and one of many too many players at the client side. It is all using the MP3 standards, but there are even many codecs who provide different quality and require different processing power when encoding or decoding the audio.
Most users have some media player on their machine. So let’s take a closer look at commonly used players, such as WinAMP, RealPlayer, The Windows Media Player or the Quicktime Player. Most of such applications are little more than a shell providing clear definitions to developers of audio codecs. So in order to establish a new form of audio compression, you should not only think in terms of quality. You should also develop your codec to be compatible with many or all of the commonly used players, so that people can listen to material that uses your format. MP3 is a good example. You can play this type of audio with almost any player.
Going back to your first question, bringing together all different types of new media channels into one player – or browser – seems to be an issue for many streaming media players. RealMedia for example is putting great effort into making their player compatible with many available formats. Even Flash films can be player in the RealPlayer, a format that usually is embedded in ordinary web pages. All this seems to aim towards establishing a browser of the next generation, including all formats available on the Internet. The fact that WinAMP is also capable of displaying HTML web pages in an extra window is also indicating this development.
So the confusion remains, but the confusion is not only tied into the standards and formats, it is also tied into the rules of the game of developing players and codecs. It’s almost like a chicken and egg question: if you want to establish a new player, make sure it plays as many popular codecs as possible. If you want to establish a new codec, make sure it can be played on as many popular players as possible.
As for the technical limitations, they will always be part of the rule set. But, the more time goes by, the more solutions become available live and online which were never originally developed to be streaming media formats. Again, take MP3 as an example. At the time of development, this codec was meant to provide the audio track of Video CDs. Only few people would have thought that it could become a standard for streaming live audio over the Internet. The available bandwidth was just too poor and the processing power it took to encode MP3 in real time was too much to allow live streaming. And now you have it.
And the confusion is far from over. As the separation of players and codecs is a fact, media itself become less and less clearly defined.
Quicktime was one of the first to think of media files not only as linear, frame based data-streams. Instead they thought of their media files as containers where you can dump all your individual media into and add a time line and that’s that. So audio might be using one type of compression and video another. And you could even add some stills, and text and so on. At the other end, the Player will take a look at the media container, pick up the time line and the instructions and see what codecs are available to play what’s in the container. In this case you might find a situation where the player will play no video at some parts, because it lacks the right codec for the image, but the audio is fine. Later on, it all looks just perfect.
Thinking of media as a container is far removed from the close connection between content and technology that we know from the analogue world. Try to play an audiotape with your VHS player and you know what I mean.
Understanding media files as containers will be the base camp. So there you have all the confusion you want in one box: the player is an empty shell, the media file is an empty container and inside is a multitude of media using a multitude of codecs.
You were asking if I thought such confusion is a good or a bad thing. It’s certainly a lot of fun to look at. I guess as long as the concept of the ‘media file’ remains as open as it is today, it is very adequate in allowing adjustments. Some technical limitations suddenly are no longer obstacles pulling some formats suddenly into the ballgame. At the same time, there is always enough room to throw them out again at some point, as many solutions used on the Internet today for streaming media still carry restrictions of their former use – again, take MP3 as an example.
The confusion shows one thing clearly. Those big players with the financial muscle to flood the market with their solutions don’t seem to be providing the best solutions. Or why else would the confusion remain and smaller developers suddenly become essential players in the game.
GL: Where would you like to see the critical and cultural streaming media practices go to? Unlike pirate radio or mini FM net.radio does not (yet) have legal troubles. Do you see the freedom to narrowcast turning into a closed and self-satisfied, stagnating subculture? Napster was a lost opportunity.
MF: It is hard to imagine that streaming or exchanging audio over the Internet would face the same restrictions and out-of-proportion penalties that mini FM or radio piracy are threatened by. Having said this, the Internet also provides the best possible framework by which restrictions and penalties could be coerced on deviant users. Confusion again.
What a complicated way to charge someone who listens to FM radio. There is no way to track reliably and on a large scale who is switching on their receivers to listen to a program. What an easy thing to track who is listening to a program over the Internet. And in most cases there is already a payment process in place: the phone bill. From that point of view it seems so easy to imagine restrictions and charges for Internet listeners and broadcasters.
The fact that there seems to be a legal gap where net.radio has escaped into, says little about the endurance this situation might have. The silence and indecisive actions from legal bodies only hints at the scale at which adequate means of restrictions are required to tackle the ‘problem’. The silence is anything but peaceful and the partial eruptions as in the case of discussing new forms of copyright laws hint at the direction this might take.
As the independent scene is using the new distribution channels for their means, and with little success of the large multi-national corporations to use the same channels for their means, the big players have chosen different paths. Copyright lobbyists are not fighting over peanuts in court with some net.radio broadcasters from Manchester. Instead they are working behind the scenes to implement an all-encompassing solution.
In the case of software piracy you can already see how lobbyists managed to get governments on their sides. In the Czech Republic for example, the government can ask you to present your software licenses alongside with your receipts when checking your books. Why? Well, for no other reason as to do the work for the software industries and identify cases of software piracy – which will then be taken to court. It sounds like its against the law, but most recently this practice has become law in itself. The government turned itself into a tool for the software industry.
Unfortunately I believe it is on that level that multi-nationals are using their muscle to put these levels of coercion into place.
GL: Which are issues for ‘tactical’ interventions for you?
MF: Using a combination of old and new media still provides a powerful tool against national regulations in many countries. The ANEM network, which was established in FRY (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) by local radio stations like B92 and others across the Balkan region, is still a good example.
In the FRY at the time there was no way you could get a national license for radio broadcasting, neither could you get the technology into place to have a network of transceivers which would carry a signal throughout the country. However, local licenses for smaller stations were possible to get. So in order to bring independent news to many regions of FRY, news were collected and produced at a central hub in Belgrade, then streamed out of the country through the Internet, picked up by a satellite transmitter and put onto a satellite. From there, all the decentralized, small stations could receive the signal with an ordinary satellite receiver and rebroadcast it on their local frequency. The combined radio footprint of all the participating radio stations at the time reached around 65% of Yugoslavia – without breaking any laws, without any expensive technology and without dismantling the decentralized nature of the network, as only a small percentage of their program was used for news coverage.
A similar network has established itself in Indonesia, using the audio track of a spare TV satellite channel to get the signal into the sky. There, over 250 stations are participating in the network. And we are currently working with some local radio stations in Nepal on a similar situation. However, Nepal provides even more obstacles as independent media is a very young phenomenon and neither the network technology nor the journalistic experience are in place to manage the structure.
GL: Often people associate streaming media with broadband and fat pipes. You have worked with streaming media initiatives, for instance in Indonesia. Is it fair to wipe out technological differences worldwide (in terms of resources and infrastructure) and say that streaming media is there to be used by all, under every possible circumstance?
MF: Streaming media is available in almost any corner of the world where technology is available. In most cases streaming media would mean nothing else but a phone line. Using a cellular phone, you are using streaming technology on a low bit rate of about 8 kBps.
The Internet, of course, is not available in all corners of the world. The Indonesian network I described above started their services with providing news bulletins over the Internet. Based in Jakarta, they could find a provider that would host and distribute their files. But with only one governmental ISP in the far regions of the country who themselves only had a 56k modem connecting all users with Indonesia and then going into the backbone hell knows where, this was not a feasible solution. Today they are retrieving news from remote stations via cellular phones, digitize the material, add their own commentary in the studio and then push it up onto the satellite.
Without a reliable, safe and reasonably fast Internet connection in place, such tactical networks need to be centrally organized. In Nepal the situation we discovered is even more difficult. A commercial TV station, broadcasting satellite television every day, is producing the shows and news in Nepal, then they put the tapes into a suitcase, someone flies to Bangkok and they put the material on the satellite there. So television will deliver yesterdays news. This might sound strange, but once you are about 200 kilometers outside Katmandu, print media will possibly be two days late anyway. And then you might realize that there are not that many people who can read.
Sometimes it is surprising to see that online here in the West we might be able to get radio stations from very remote places in reasonable quality. The reality is that you might not be able to pick up the signal 10 kilometers from the station itself. In many cases, streaming over the Internet is only available because some local ISP puts a radio receiver into their office and takes the signal off that radio and into the Internet there and then. The station producing the program might not even have an Internet access itself.
So you can see that right now it is easier to get a streaming signal out of developing areas and into the Western world than providing the information to a neighboring village, island (Indonesia) or valley (Nepal).
The development for radio networks in these areas is lagging behind, but creative solutions are filling the gaps the infrastructure leaves open for the time being. But building a decentralized network does require a reasonable infrastructure to allow the exchange between stations in the periphery, without requiring a central hub.