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An Explanation For the Delay In Radio Streaming

We are going to try to explain the delay experienced in internet radio streaming. The audio can be up to five minutes behind what comes out of the original streaming source. For example, I hear the audio on my monitor speakers in my home radio studio. I turn on a mobile device, internet radio or Bose Wave radio in another room and the audio is about a minute or two or three behind what's coming from the studio audio source. We will try to explain a reason why. The following information was obtained from

The most noticeable difference between a radio station's broadcast signal and its corresponding Internet stream or Internet only radio stations is a significant delay. The same program is likely to come out of your computer speakers as much as five minutes later than it comes out of your radio. Surprisingly, technology accounts for only about 5% of the lag. The other 95% is a result of arguments over paychecks. (Disclaimer: those numbers were entirely made up.)

LATENCY: a billion little traffic jams

When I play a song on my radio station, it zooms out to every nearby radio at the speed of light. But online, delivery is restricted to the speed of Internet — a relatively pokey journey that starts when my song gets converted into a package of networthy digits. That conversion takes a fraction of a second. Before it gets to your iPad, my song will pass through scores of other network devices that each hold it for additional fractions of seconds. And those tiny delays start to pile up.

My favorite demonstration for guests: I can talk into my studio mic, which is live on the radio — then turn on an Internet feed and hear what I just said sixty seconds earlier. In that amount of time, my radio voice has gone halfway to Mars, while my Internet voice has only made a round-trip to Cincinnati by way of Mountain View.

The world's most expensive machine is slower than light, and slightly faster than yelling.

UNIONS: pay or don’t play

The biggest source of audio delay has nothing to do with technology, and everything to do with paychecks. Traditionally, when actors were hired to be in a commercial, the amount of money they got paid was roughly proportional to the number of people the commercial was expected to reach. Small towns paid small fees; national ad campaigns had big budgets and paid the fattest fees. Voiceover artists and their agents dreamed of working up to big juicy global endorsements.

Around the turn of the century, these actors had a wake-up call. Radio stations were starting to put their shows on the Internet. Commercials that had been created for single mid-sized cities were suddenly being played across the country. But the actors weren't getting the big national-spot fees their union had negotiated! Contracts were being violated. Lawsuits were threatened.

And radio stations knew they had a losing hand in this game. The law said that the union performers were owed much more money if their voices were broadly distributed. And where would that money come from? No station had yet figured out how to make a dime out of streaming radio.

The solution was one software upgrade away. Stations were already using computers to control playback of their audio. Developers created a feature that split the programming into two or more feeds. One would go to the broadcast transmitter, as always. The others would go to the Internet. And this new software could block the commercials that were being played on the radio station, instantly substituting different audio.


Problem solved. Ads created by SAG-AFTRA union members stayed exclusively on the radio, as before. As for the empty space left behind by the vanishing commercials, someone suggested that it could be filled with more music. Internet listeners would love it, this person said, and that might help this new service catch on and become big.

That person was promptly fired.

Station owners realized that they could replace the legally questionable commercials with other commercials. They could sell these online commercials and create an entirely new stream of revenue that might have unlimited growth potential. Because if there's anything consumers love, it's more commercials.


Oh, right. The differences between broadcast and Internet streams. Well, in practice, it shakes out like this:

  • The Internet commercial breaks are always longer than the broadcast radio breaks. It's basic math. The online commercial break can never be shorter than the broadcast commercial break. You don't want to jump back to regular programming before the regular program is there. But your Internet commercial break CAN run longer. Listeners won't miss anything. The program gets stored in a delay buffer, so it will pick up right where it should, even if your internet commercials ran twenty seconds too long. (Or if you snuck in one or two extra commercials, for more of that free profit.) At each break, the Internet version of your program slips a little further behind the broadcast version.

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