The news last night that AOL is shutting down its Nullsoft division, which makes the venerable Winamp music app, hit me like a ton of bricks. Now, I haven’t used Winamp regularly in at least 7 years, so the loss of this software won’t have an immediate effect on my daily life. But what’s not being widely discussed yet is how a Nullsoft shutdown would impact internet radio, especially independent internet radio, because of the widespread use of its Shoutcast streaming software. Nullsoft’s Shoutcast Radio Directory is home to tens of thousands of live stations.
Now, today there is a report from TechCrunch indicating that Microsoft is in talks with AOL to buy Nullsoft, potentially saving Winamp and Shoutcast from the chopping block. That would be a welcome reprieve, assuming Microsoft is willing to at least maintain the status quo of keeping Winamp and Shoutcast software available as free and accessible tools. But not enough is known yet to feel optimistic.
This is important because Nullsoft jump-started the proliferation and accessibility of internet radio with the creation of its Shoutcast streaming server and software that makes it very easy for just about anyone to set up a station using their own server or an outside service. While not open-source, the Shoutcast software has always been free to download and use.
Internet audio streaming existed before Shoutcast, but typically required the use of more complex software like Real Server, Apple’s Darwin Server or the Windows Media Server, that was either expensive to purchase or was bundled in with expensive server operating systems. Anyone who used internet media before 2006 should recall the days when audio and video didn’t play in the browser. Instead you had to download player software like Real Player in order to access audio or video streams, and that these players typically would only play streams encoded in their format. Especially prior to 2000 it wasn’t uncommon to find a station that only streamed in Real Audio or Windows Media, which meant that the listener had to make sure several players were installed and updated regularly. It could be a pain.
Shoutcast changed all of this by adopting the widely available MP3 format for its streams, and building plug-ins for Winamp that turned it into a broadcaster, too. The Shoutcast protocol was so simple that media player apps of all kinds began supporting it. You didn’t need to have Winamp to listen to a Shoutcast MP3, which was important for users of MacOS and Linux computers, because Winamp–true to its name–was Windows only. Pretty soon all major media players, including Real Player, Windows Media Player, Quicktime and iTunes would all play Shoutcast MP3 streams, turning it into the de facto internet radio standard that is still in use today.
Nullsoft was founded as an independent company in 1997 and bought by AOL in 1999. Not everyone was happy with AOL’s stewardship over Nullcast, Winamp and Shoutcast over the years. At the very least the company has been accused of benign neglect, investing very little resource into maintaining and updating these platforms. Folks in the open source community were upset over the requirement that Shoutcast Radio users install a toolbar they said was full of “spyware.” That requirement didn’t extend to all of Shoutcast streams, just those found using the Shoutcast Radio directory.
14 years later the Shoutcast streaming technology has propagated so far and wide that it will live on just fine with or without AOL. The open source Icecast platform provides a comparable server platform that is still under regular development, and plenty of other proprietary applications provide both broadcaster and server tools.
Yet, some 50,000 internet stations, many of them independent, still depend on Shoutcast Radio to index and advertise their streams to listeners who use Winamp–now available for MacOS and Android–as well as internet radios, A/V receivers, game consoles and other devices that use the Shoutcast directory.
If AOL shuts down all Shoutcast servers millions of listeners will suddenly have much more difficulty finding their favorite stations. Thousands of independent broadcasters will see huge swaths of audience disappear. It would be a bad thing for internet radio.
Here’s to hoping that Microsoft really does save the day, and that any transition is smooth for the thousands of stations that still rely on Shoutcast to make internet radio a rich, diverse and accessible medium.