A Special Kind Of Radio

The other day our 90-day family trial of Apple Music ended. My children were disappointed, as I would not be paying the $15/month to keep it alive. In this age of “small monthly payments” one has to draw the line somewhere.

I’ll be honest I liked it too. From the very beginning I enjoyed having access to nearly every song I could ever want to push into my headphones. I liked it so much I wrote about it in a post on November 30, called Remix.

As sad as we all were to see Apple Music go the way of the cassette tape (at least in our family), the other options we have are so numerous, the loss will ultimately be nary a blip on the musical radar of life.

In addition to the nearly 15,000 songs in our owned iTunes library, they have Pandora, iHeart Radio, plus several things I’ve never heard of. In an act of conciliatory kindness, I offered each of them access to my Sirius/XM satellite radio subscription via the free app.

They are far from deprived.

I only pay ($5/month) for one stream, so the deal I made with my children, as I enabled the app on each of their devices was this, “If the app tells you someone else is logged on and it’s me, I win. If it’s one of your siblings, you work it out. If I hear of one fight I will cut you all off.” So far it has been pretty quiet.

I have been a satellite radio subscriber since 2002, but in 2009 the Sirius/XM app became available for iOS. Use of the app was initially free to all subscribers and since I had an unlimited data plan from AT&T with my original iPhone, the app was great for taking my satellite tunes into my wife’s minivan on long trips.

One day while cruising an interstate, bound for some distant family member’s home, I popped my trusty cassette adapter into the stereo of the Grand Caravan and plugged the other end into my iPhone.

radio

The last link in a long and complex chain

I fired up the Sirius/XM app and chose a station I knew would be amenable to both the missus and me.

After an hour of commercial free music, the DJ came on and was talking about some other programming on another channel. My wife turned to me and said, “I think it’s neat you can get your satellite music through the phone. How does that work?”

Surprised at her question I replied, “You don’t really want to know how it works do you?” Without looking up from her crossword puzzle she said, “Not really, I just wondered if it used the same satellites.”

Of course, the app on my iPhone wasn’t using satellites at all, at least not in the same way the radio in my car did. It did however get me thinking about all the things necessary for the music to make it into my marginal minivan stereo. Please indulge me as I geek out for a moment and share the details with you.

  • Somewhere in America, there is a large computer holding millions of song files, all tagged with the data that appears on the screen with the song title
  • The DJ selects songs for the queue, and when a song gets to the top of the list it plays
  • The music file (and all the accompanying data) is streamed to a specific address on the Internet
  • When the app is launched from a phone and a channel is selected, the music and data at the address is sent to the phone over the cellular data connection

One interesting point to ponder here is the fact that data networks use something called packets. Instead of the song flowing in a constant stream like a traditional radio, it is chopped up into little blocks of data (packets), which must be reassembled into a song once they reach the app. Since the Internet is a completely distributed network, each packet may actually take a different path from source to destination, furthermore a single 3-minute song is made up of thousands of packets.

The point is simply this – this shit is horrifically complicated and the fact that it works at all is a small miracle.

Our minivan was cruising at seventy miles per hour, and all the crazy techno-babble I’ve just described was flawlessly happening, producing a steady stream of Van Morrison in my speakers. But wait a minute; we’re getting too far from the cell tower from which we’re receiving our packets.

Just then, the cellular network hands off our connection to another tower two miles ahead and the music doesn’t miss a note.

Like I said, freakin’ miraculous.


One Saturday in the summer of 1948, my father sat on the front stoop of the family apartment building in Montclair New Jersey, waiting for his cousin Bob to arrive. Bob was the eldest child of my Father’s, Father’s, Sister, and although he lived out on Long Island, they spent many a Saturday together.

Once Bob arrived, they went inside, and when the time came, they sat down in front of a large console radio to listen to their favorite show, Captain Midnight. Just before the show started, Bob looked at my Dad and said, “Hey Larry, I hear radio is going to have pictures soon.”

My father was very excited at this idea and asked, “When Bob? When is it going to happen?” Bob wasn’t sure, but after a moment of contemplation replied, “I think pretty soon, like maybe even today.”

Just then the theme music for Captain Midnight began to play and their attention locked on the radio. For the entirety of the episode, neither Bob nor Larry looked away – neither wanted to miss the first radio pictures.

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Bob and Larry stared at a radio like this one.

When the show was over, they sat back in their chairs and after a moment of silence Bob took in a deep breath and said, “Larry, I’m thinking maybe you need a special kind of radio.” On that note, they got up to go and play.

I saw something last week that compared a current 2016 smartphone, and all the things it can do, to state of the art technology from 1985. Adjusted for inflation the iPhone 6 in my pocket is functionally as valuable as 32 Million Dollars worth of kit from the year I was a high school junior.

Technological progress will always baffle the old, spoil the young, and both benefit and annoy the rest of us. All we can do is enjoy everything we have today and keep a cautious eye on tomorrow. Cousin Bob was talking about the advent of TV, not my iPhone, which (to date) is the most special kind of radio… we’ve see so far.

Click on the infographic for the whole article.

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Image Credit: networkworld.com

Copyright © 2016 – Stephen S. Nazarian – All rights reserved.

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