Internet Radio

I have elderly parents (in their 70s).  They immigrated to Australia (from Finland) nearly half a century ago.  As they get older, their immigrant friends are dying off.  Living in the country, as they do, they are feeling more and more isolated.  Their English is (still) not very good so reading local papers or understanding television news is… difficult.

They used to listen to Radio Finland when it was still broadcasting on shortwave, but that service was shut down about a decade ago.  They also had a subscription to Suomi Newspaper but dropped that for the same reason most people drop newspaper subscriptions.  Finnish language library books are hard to come by, dated, very few in number and logistically a pain to source.  I tried setting them up with a computer in the 90s but that failed — it was all too complicated (it would fail even harder today because their hands are shaking and mouse-control would be impossible; no chance at all with a track-pad).  Things looked grim.

Then, for inexplicable reasons, the little country town they live in all-of-a-sudden got connected to the NBN.  (Wow.  I’m in the city of 30,000 and won’t see the NBN for at least three more years, but a little town of 500 in the middle of nowhere is already connected.  The Australian federal government is just so broken.)

Anyway, I latched on to that news and decided to give the Internet another shot.  This time my strategy would be different.

  1. I’d pay for everything (router, connection, monthly fees) so there was no financial risk involved in them giving it a go.  There was nothing to lose.
  2. I’d start by giving them something back that I knew they would use… and use that as a foot in the door to expose them to bigger and better things.
  3. I’d use technology and approaches that made things as simple as possible.  It would need to be as easy to use as a kitchen appliance for it to work, so this was important.

After lots of thought and lots of research I finally decided to start with Internet Radio.

In the old days, the radio would be in the kitchen.  They would turn it on at the start of the day and let it run — only adjusting volume during the day.  They never changed stations.  When the signal got too weak, dad would go into the forest, cut down a taller tree, bring it home and use that as the new mast for the antenna.  Whether or not that actually accomplished anything I do not know, but it made him feel good.  Simple times.

There are currently at least 83 Finnish radio stations broadcasting on the Internet, and at least three of these play ‘old time’ music.  Perfect.

I researched hardware Internet radios — devices that look like old radios with an ethernet or Wi-Fi connection that plugged into your home network and tuned into stations that way — but decided against them after reading a pile of negative reviews.  The majority of complaints stem around complexity, reliability and, worst of all, codecs.  All Internet radio stations much choose what format to encode their broadcast streams in (MP3, AAC, WMA, …).  Hardware manufacturers build decoding circuitry into their devices to handle those formats.  The decoders cannot (usually) be modified.  So when the Internet radio station decides to change or upgrade codecs — everything breaks.  The stream, more often than not, simply stops working.  At that point, you’re left with an expensive boat anchor and, in most cases, there is no way to fix the problem by way of a firmware upgrade.  No thanks.

Having previously exposed the folks to tablets (specifically, iPads), it was known that direct interaction with objects on a touch-screen was still within their ability.  No abstraction between control device and on-screen pointer, and no double-clicking — just tap what you want (and maybe a little bit of swiping as well).  So I pressed an old iPad (v1) into service and reset everything.  I bookmarked direct links to a variety of radio stations and placed their icons on the home screen.  Tested it all on my network — no problems.

Once the NBN connection was up and running at their place, I made the trip and connected the iPad to their network.  A small amount of training later and the folks were able to:

  • turn the iPad on
  • swipe to go to the home screen
  • select the desired radio station from the half-dozen or so that were there
  • wait for the page to fully load
  • hit a play button to start the stream
  • adjust the volume
  • close the page/stream
  • turn the iPad off

I then left the iPad with them.

One week later I gave them a call and asked how it was going.  They said that they were listening to radio for up to 5 hours a day.  The only thing that stopped them from listening for longer was the battery — it kept running out.  Overall rating:  8/10.  Success!

Ok, now even though five hours was pretty darned good for an ageing iPad, that battery issue needed solving.  The sound quality out of the iPad’s tiny speaker also left a lot to be desired.

A subsequent experiment with a JBL Clip+ bluetooth speaker was marginally successful — much, much better sound, and better battery life, but more complicated (did anyone really think it would be easy for a 70-year-old to pair Bluetooth devices?) so it was time to think of something else.

Then, as chance would have it, Apple refreshed its iPod Touch line.  The iPod touch is basically a smartphone without the phone.  It’s got the camera and everything else.  It runs iOS — the same OS that the folks were already using — but, unlike the iPad (which was stuck on iOS 5 and could therefore only install a limited amount of apps from the App Store) the 6th Generation iPod Touch runs the latest version of iOS and can install pretty much anything — including dedicated Internet Radio apps.  Bingo!

Even though an iPod screen is smaller than the iPad, for playing music this doesn’t matter — the size of the icons is the same (there’s just less empty home screen space on an iPod).

I was focused on trying to optimise the Internet Radio experience for them so I had to do two things: make it simpler and get better quality sound.  The key to the puzzle was hunting down a straight-forward, no-frills dock/speaker for the iPod.  This… was… a… pain…

Since the folks aren’t interested in listening to radio on the go, the dock didn’t need to be portable.  Since running out of, replacing and recharging batteries is a pain, it had to run off AC.  It had to have decent sound quality.  It had to have a Lightning connector — the same as the iPod.  It wasn’t allowed to have any stupid features, like a clock, or an alarm, or a remote control, or any of that garbage.  All it needed was an ON/OFF button, volume UP and volume DOWN.  Do you know how many docks are that elegantly simple?  I found only one.

JBL OnBeat Micro

The JBL OnBeat Micro appears to actually be a discontinued product, and was notoriously difficult to source in Australia.  I ended up getting one from eBay for $69 and tested it out.  It worked.  So I bought two more.  The folks can put them in different rooms and, if one fails, they still have spares.

I experimented with a few different Internet radio apps but finally downloaded Simple Radio by Streema from the App Store.  It’s simple — really simple — and a quick in-app purchase unlocks all the featues and, most importantly, gets rid of the distracting ads.  The result is an app that you simply launch, it goes straight to your favourites list, and you tap the station you want to listen to.  That’s it.  Perfect.

The iPod now sits in a dock.  The docks are always connected to AC power.  The Lightning connector keeps the iPod fully charged all the time — no battery issues, no cables, no manual charging.

To listen to the radio the folks simply:

  • press the ON/OFF button on the dock to wake the iPod up
  • swipe to go to the home screen
  • tap the Simple Radio icon
  • tap the radio station of choice to start streaming
  • adjust volume using the +/- buttons on the dock
  • press the ON/OFF button on the dock to stop listening

Having launched the app once, iOS remembers it and the station being played, and makes it available directly from the lock screen… which simplifies things considerably:

  • press the ON/OFF button on the dock to wake the iPod up
  • press the PLAY icon on the lock screen to resume streaming
  • adjust volume using the +/- buttons on the dock
  • press the ON/OFF button on the dock to stop listening

That’s it.  Two presses to start listening to radio.  One to turn it off.  Easy-to-access +/- buttons to adjust volume.  Never-ending amounts of nice-sounding radio/music.

Problem solved.  Happy parents.  🙂

Troubleshooting Tips

Of course there were many obstacles in getting Internet radio to work this smoothly.  Some are mentioned above.  A few, however, were particularly difficult to pin down.  This section is provided to hopefully save some folks out there some frustration.

Using a web browser to play Internet radio

I started by using an iPad and Safari to play radio directly inside the web browser and it worked fine.  When I tried to play radio using Safari (or Chrome) on the iPod, however, it would cut out after about 10 minutes.

Somewhere between iOS 5 (which was on the iPad (v1)) and iOS 8 (which was on the iPod Touch (6th Generation)) Apple decided to add energy-saving code to the OS which would suspend apps that it thought weren’t being used any more.  Now, it completely escapes me how a browser app that is actively playing audio can be treated this way, but it is.  If you play radio/music using a browser on iOS 8 you will get cut off after 10 minutes.

There is no workaround to this that I know of.  Further, iOS 8 made the audio controls in Safari tiny so I’m not that interested in trying.  They are now too small for old folks to use.

Using an app to play Internet radio

You would think that all dedicated Internet Radio apps would be treated as such and would not be suspended by iOS 8 — but that’s not always the case.  Smaller apps, often dedicated to a single station (like Greek Radio 89MHz) get suspended after 10 minutes.

It feels like the app is not making the right calls to the iOS framework, and kAudioSessionCategory_MediaPlayback and UIBackgroundModes has probably got something to do with it, but I don’t code iOS so don’t know for sure.  In any case, it’s not an end-user-resolvable issue.

The apps made by big Internet radio companies do not get suspended.

JBL OnBeat Micro standby mode

Due to retarded EU regulations, JBL was forced to add detection circuitry into the OnBeat Micro that switches the dock/speaker into standby mode if no audio is detected for about 9 minutes.  While this bureaucratic regulation was bad enough, JBL made a big mistake in how they implemented the detection mechanism.

It seems like the dock probes the lightning connector on a regular basis and detects if a certain signal is being sent or variable is being set.  If you are playing audio/music using the default Apple iTunes/Music app, then everything is fine — the OnBeat Micro lets you play as long as you like.  If, however, you are using a web browser, or many, many other apps, then this signal/variable is not being sent/set and the dock goes into standby mode (slow blinking white light) after 9 minutes.  This. Is. Infuriating.  (And probably has a lot to do with why the unit has been discontinued.)

What they should have done is just detected the audio level going to the speaker and, if it was too low for too long, then go into standby.  But they didn’t do that.

There are ways to stop the JBL OnBeat Micro from going into standby after 9 minutes but they involve playing silent audio files, installing and backgrounding config apps, and jailbreaking the device.  Way.  Too.  Hard.  Apple is on a crusade to stop this sort of thing so any solution is likely to break each and every time the iOS updates.

The solution, for me, was to just keep installing and testing Internet Radio apps until I found some that play through the OnBeat Micro for at least 11 minutes without entering standby.  If they do that, then see if they make it to 20 minutes without being suspended by the iOS.  If they pass that hurdle then you should be fine.

Note:  If you use iTunes/Music it will ask you if you are still listening after about 5 hours and, if you don’t answer, will suspend the app.

For the record:  JBL OnBeat Micro + iPod Touch (6th Generation, iOS 8) + Simple Radio by Streema (v3) streams Internet radio for at least 12 hours.  Good enough for me.

Bandwidth

One final issue was that of bandwidth.  Would the folks blow the quota of the NBN plan that they had?  What happens if they set it playing, turn the volume down real low, forget it’s on, and leave it for a month?  Math time:

A 128kb/s stream chews through:

  • 128/8= 16kB/sec
  • 16*60= 960kB/min
  • 960*60= 57,600kB/hr
  • 57600/1024= 56.25MB/hr
  • 56.25*24= 1350MB/day
  • 1350/1024= 1.32GB/day
  • 1.32*31= 40.87GB/month … if left on all day, every day, for a 31-day-long month.

The folks have a 300GB plan, so would have to listen to 300/40.87= 7.34 radios all day, every day, all month long to come close to blowing their quota.  Either that or listen to one radio for 24*7.34= 176 hours each and every day.  Not.  Remotely.  Possible.

There’s plenty of bandwidth in a 300GB plan for as much radio as the folks could ever realistically listen to, even with multiple radios, and there’s still plenty left over for other uses.

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2 Responses to Internet Radio

  1. Lisa A says:

    Thanks so much for this- have been looking for the same setup for a while now (but for my Finnish grandmother).

    • Tim says:

      You’re welcome. The process of finding a solution was so complicated, and I encountered so many unexpected obstacles, that I felt obliged to document the whole experience. It took weeks to work out all of the kinks.

      The whole power save/standby mode/EU directive/App suspension thing was a nightmare. If a single thing is causing a symptom, it’s relatively easy to work out what is going on, but if multiple things are conspiring with each other to cause similar or identical symptoms but with different timings and preconditions, then… oh boy.

      Having said that, the folks use Internet Radio every… single… day… for an average of about four hours, so it was worth the effort. They really like the old-time music, and hearing news in their native language makes them more aware of what is happening in the world and helps them feel less isolated. The news also gives them additional topics that they can chat about — which is appreciated especially during those times of the year when foul weather keeps them inside for extended periods and the conversation tends to get a bit stale.

      I hope you’re able to get something working for your grandmother.

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