WXYC 89.3 FM
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
excerpted from an article in The Guardian, January 26, 1995, The Guardian Online Page; Pg. 4
Wendy Grossman looks at a technology that makes possible video broadcasting over the Internet
Nasa uses CU-SeeMe to broadcast live and pre-recorded video footage of shuttle missions. On New Year's Eve, the Electronic Cafe in California linked with sites in New York, Moscow and Paris using CU-SeeMe, as well as Internet Relay Chat, MOOs, and various other packages to host a global, day-long party. And at any time, users can connect to WXYC, a student-run radio station at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. This has started using CU-SeeMe to simulcast its normal output of what UNC graduate student David McConville calls "everything from hip-hop and new weirdo grunge to experimental 20th-century composers and local stuff", around the world.
But just as the Internet makes electronic publishing something almost anyone can afford, this kind of technology makes it possible for anyone with an Internet connection to broadcast (or narrowcast). In the US, Cogger says, you can buy a digital camera that plugs into a Mac's serial port and gives you a video feed for as little as $90. If all you want to do is listen to WXYC or watch Nasa TV, you need even less: download CU-SeeMe, which is free, set it to "lurk", and log in.
The question everyone asks is: won't video kill the Internet by swallowing up all the available bandwidth, especially if everyone wants to do it? Cogger's view is, on the whole, no: "Running video on the Internet — and showing that it's useful to people in spite of the compromised quality compared to TV — is a way to demonstrate that it's worthwhile upgrading the infrastructure." He thinks that increased demand will lead to increased capacity.
He'd get no argument from David McConville, whose goals in setting up WXYC's Internet broadcasting facility were rather different. McConville cites one example where the lower-quality signal just didn't matter: the day of the IRA ceasefire, McConville logged onto a reflector in Northern Ireland where someone had one camera pointed out of the window at the live event, and another pointed at the BBC's actor-dubbed coverage. "I was happy to settle for low bandwidth for that," he says, adding that in WXYC's case, "a lot of people are willing to deal with the decline in signal quality for an increase in content quality." This kind of service is, he thinks, more properly called "narrowcasting", since the footage is only sent to those who request it, rather than being sprayed all round the Net at random.
McConville, a graduate student in journalism and mass communication, says there were two goals in setting up the WXYC experiment. The first was the obvious one of just wanting to see how it would work and what kind of audio quality they would get. But more important than that, he says, "we wanted to get people to think about different ways of communicating. We wanted to introduce them to the concept of everybody being able to broadcast. It's important that people not accept the pay-per-view paradigm, accepting canned images. It's like the DTP (desktop publishing) revolution — it could be the same with music, video, and everything else." It matters now, he says, because proposals to rewrite US intellectual property laws work from the presumption that all digital transactions are the same — that any time you're transmitting data, you're reproducing it. WXYC, by contrast, is broadcasting in real-time, and McConville thinks it's ludicrous to claim that someone logging on to a reflector site and playing the transmitted feed over speakers is reproducing anything. Part of what we're doing," he says, "is showing that the issues are not as straightforward as people think."