Foraging through the 100,000 plus global stations available on the internet might seem daunting. Trust me, embarking on such an amazing adventure will yield boundless rewards. But as with any journey, having a map and some guideposts will maximize your experience.
You might want to check out the first installment of this story if you’re entirely new to internet radio. If you’d rather dive straight in, these tips and top station picks will help you find what you’re looking for quickly.
On first landing, you’ll be encouraged to create an account with a name and password. Doing so allows you to establish lists of favorite and recently visited stations. These picks then automatically pop up again on future site visits with the same device or on another if you sign in with the same credentials.
While the directory and connectivity are “free,” the most visible (in the U.S.) internet radio portals, TuneIn Radio and iHeartRadio, tempt visitors to sign up for their premium services with 30-day, no-charge trials. TuneIn’s $10-per-month Premium package adds sports team coverage for the NFL, MLB, NHL, and NBA. The $10 TuneInPro app upgrade for iOS and Android devices eliminates annoying “pre-roll” commercials and lets you record content for later play. I recommend it.
iHeart Radio offers two paid upgrade options: The $4.99-per-month Plus service available for iOS and Android devices adds unlimited song skips, songs and albums on demand, and the ability to save/replay radio content, so long as you remain online. The premium iHeart All Access, $9.99 per month, adds true download/offline listening and unlimited playlists. The latter service would be much more valuable if it cut out all the commercials.
Digging deep into the bandwidth bastions of a favored musical category is a good place to start, and it will really blow your mind. Talk about a bottomless pit. Then stretch out. Exploring exotic, unfamiliar music genres will make a new person of you.
Sometimes it pays to begin a search in the town or region where the musical style was born and local broadcasters have special knowledge to drop. If you’re a fan of country music, use an aggregator’s navigation tools—By Location, if you’re using TuneIn—to drill down from “North America” to “United States” to “Tennessee,” and then finally to “Nashville,” where you’ll discover sonic delights like Roots Radio WMOT 89.5.
For Blues fans, a cruise to Kansas City’s Kansas City Online Radio can only do you good. But meandering paths work, too. Krakow, Poland’s RMF Blues Radio offers a smart take on America’s (and the world’s) electric rockin’ blues. Similarly, some of the most entertaining Jamaican ska and reggae I’ve found has been far offshore, at Rio De Janeiro’s Radio Reggae Brasil and in Madrid, Spain at Banana Ska Radio.
In theory, shouting out the call letters or station name to an Alexa- or Google Assistant-powered smart speaker is the fastest, hands-free way to start your musical day, lighten up the dinner prep, or whatever. In practice, the dear girls aren’t always the best listeners unless you phrase your request just so.
If I murmur “Play BBC six” on a Sonos One or Bose Home Speaker 500, Alexa mishears and sends me to BBC One. My JBL Link 300 speaker running Google Assistant doesn’t make the same mistake. To reach the expected adult rock destination with Alexa, I’ve found I must say “Play BBC six radio,” or better still, “play BBC radio six music on TuneIn.”
“It’s best practice to specify ‘on TuneIn,’” shared TuneIn’s senior director of marketing Ana Guillen. “We do not control what Alexa does with requests that do not specify TuneIn as a provider.”
Special events on internet radio
Losing track of time in the lockdown? Streaming-only radio stations won’t help, as the programming is pretty consistent 24×7, with nary a time check, news update, or weather report. Happily, the streaming versions of broadcast stations do shift gears some nights and on weekends, providing special appointment events to mark on a calendar and attend.
Saturday afternoon performances by the Metropolitan Opera and Saturday evening or Sunday afternoon concerts with the esteemed local symphony orchestra juice up New York’s WQXR and Philadelphia’s WRTI. My British fave (couldn’t you guess) BBC Radio 6 Music is alive on Saturdays with the eclectic global meanderings of Gilles Peterson, then a classic Funk ‘n’ Soul soiree, a lively top-tracks countdown hosted by rocker/DJ Tom Robinson, and then a head spinning trip to the “Freak Zone.”
Special kudos, too, for the wonderfully informed Brazilian Tudo Bem and World Journey music shows that enrich Saturday afternoons on New Orleans’ WWOZ. Love you madly, (show host) Suzanne Corley!
The best internet radio stations
To borrow a phrase from Bernie Sanders: Let’s be clear about this. Anyone daring to publish a “Best of internet radio” list with just a dozen station entries suffers from immense hubris. I’ve been listening to internet radio stations for at least a dozen years, and I regularly go bobbing for fresh apples. I still feel like I’ve just taken a few bites of a ridiculously huge and juicy selection of fruit.
So, take what I’m offering in the proper context. These are my top-three picks in a small collection of genres from some of the outlets that I keep going back to. But please, use these as a jumping-off point for an ear-opening, around-the-world journey of your own. And understand that it’s an adventure that may never, ever end.
With a brand name like The Current, Minneapolis’ gift to non-commercial, adult alternative rock (aka KCMP) better be free as the breeze, and hip to what’s happening. As it is. Even the all-important morning drive DJ has the freedom to go off on tangents, such as a recent, listener-suggested grouping of classically rearranged rock covers mashed up with the originals. The Current’s British-accented evening jock Mark Wheat also earns a big thumbs up for sonic diversity (and dulcet speaking tones).
Santa Monica’s KCRW is often cited as a leading hipster music destination, but they’re locked into NPR news mornings and late afternoons. So, I’ll steer you instead to their nothing-but-music KCRW-Eclectic24. Yes, contemporary rock, electronica, soul, rap, and world flavors can happily coexist!
BBC Radio 6 Music offers lots of new, old, and ever tasty music for mature listeners—the prog rock/album rock-loving generations (count me in) who don’t identify with many of today’s juvenile pop wonders. This Beebilicious station is also useful for interviews and concerts from seasoned English artists who never got their due in the States.
If the rootsy revelry and deep soul of New Orleans WWOZ doesn’t put a smile on, check your pulse. Volunteer DJs do a fine job celebrating the Crescent City’s rich R&B, Creole Cajun/Zydeco, and jazz heritage, plus those afore-mentioned world music connections on weekends. Live feeds from local festivals are also generously served to a far-flung audience. At the moment WWOZ is “Jazz Festing at Home,” replaying past sessions from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival which should have taken over the town this week.
Do you relish folksy down-home singer/songwriters, old timey blues and bluegrass bands, but not the commercial country stuff? Dig in to Roots Radio WMOT 89.5 from Murfreesboro/Nashville, Tennessee. Or to the twangy, tangy, internet-only-served Boot Liquor, billed as “Americana roots music for cowhands” and one of 30 well-curated stations flying under the banner of SomaFM. Charmers, both.
The banging, spitfire, one-tone rap blasting out of car stereos pains me. But I can listen for hours to L.A.-based Sensimedia Hip Hop Radio. Putting the spotlight on wise guys like Boogie Monsters, MC Serch, Black Sheep, and oldies but goodies Beastie Boys and Goodie Mob, every song offers a theatrically charged (often funny) story line and smart, sophisticated scoring, with elements of Dancehall, Roots Reggae, Hip Hop and Dub Step. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that composer Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton and In the Heights) has found inspiration here.
If the rapping flava of the hour is more your thing, New York’s (and the nation’s) top-rated hip hop outlet Power 105 (aka WWPR) can’t be beat. They’re keeping the music pretty calm these days, amidst the pandemic disruptions. And with advertising way down, they’re now serving at least two “commercial-free” hours a day.
Germany’s popular web outlet Antenne Bayerne Black Beatz opts for the boppin’, poppy hip hop that doesn’t need translation. That means crossover collaborations like Kid Ink featuring Chris Brown, and two-tone singing and rapping talents like Bazzi, Blackbear and Beyoncé. Antenne Bayerne also fields a Classic Rock outlet, a Hits fur Kids, and more at webradio.de.
Mainstream jazz lives extra-large and well at listener-supported WBGO, Newark, NJ. Artist birthdays, deaths, and important album anniversaries spark daily focuses. Young bloods get a good shake and DJs regularly intersperse wry jazz and crossover vocalists. Some station hosts also cross the river to spin in NYC at SiriusXM’s RealJazz.
As a largely acoustic art form, jazz lends itself to high resolution recording and playback. That’s a point proven quite well by Linn Jazz, a 320Kbps MP3 stream put together by the British Hi-Fi products maker and record label of the same name. High-res Linn Classical and eclectic (jazz, classical, pop mixing) Linn Music streams are also ripe for listening.
Paris based TSF-Jazz pays homage to classic American artistes like Louis Armstrong, Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, Nina Simone, Chet Baker, and Ramsey Lewis, plus Hot Club of Paris legends Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli and young affinity artists like Madeleine Peyroux, Michael Buble, Joey Alexander and Norah Jones. Commercials only interrupt in the morning. C’est magnifique.
While always a potent prescription for creativity, contemplation and tranquility, classical music radio has been enjoying a special resurgence in these stay-home stressful times. Need a lifeline? Start with Chicago’s classical music legend WFMT, delivering lighter fare in the daylight hours, and a glistening (AAC 131Kbps) signal all the time.
VPR Classical, from Vermont Public Radio, is another calming charmer, with easygoing air talent sharing homey backstory introductions to the sonorous symphonies and pastoral small ensemble works. Close your eyes and it’s easy to imagine you’re cruising the Vermont hills and valleys, tapping into the maple trees and tending to contented cows—a big part of VPR’s listening audience.
As New York’s WQXR is the nation’s top-rated classical station, it certainly gets plenty of props. But not nearly enough is written about the operation’s spinoff New Sounds Radio, also tagged Q2 and WQXR-HD2. Here’s where classical meets contemporary, where chamber music intertwines with back-porch folk and electronica, where Philip Glass and Steve Reich are hanging with the Kronos Quartet, Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble, Bela Fleck and Chris Thile.
If you’re not familiar with this genre, think slow tempo (mostly) minimalist music, like you might hear in a fashionable boutique, night spot or at the spa while getting a massage. Chill is also a cool comfort for these stressful times. Dive in with the British station called Smooth Chill or the more diversifiedGlobal Chillout, which tempts with up-tempo dance beats on occasion. It still sounds terrific at its newly reduced streaming bit rate (to save the world’s bandwidth) of 192Kbps. And from Russia with Love comes Radio Caprice Chill Out, laced with tasty neo-folk vocals (including a techno-beat-infused remix of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence”). Radio Caprice fields a huge crop of 192Kbps specialty outlets.
I don’t speak a word of Portuguese, but I’m a sucker for hauntingly pretty Brazilian refrains of the samba/bossa nova/jazz/folkloric persuasion. So I keep coming back to musica de qualidade stations like Radio Rio Verde FM and Radio Blue Bossa Nova. Yeah that’s two picks for the price of one.
Jamaican reggae makes me gleeful, too. Lately I’ve been breezing through the 1,500-track catalog of Alpha Boys School Radio, an online-only station started by a religious-order-backed vocational school in Kingston, Jamaica featuring only tunes recorded by school graduates. Most notable is the winking rascal Winston “Yellowman” Foster.
Glascow, Scotland-based Celtic Music Radio is often so sonically haunting I contemplated slotting it in the “Chill” pile. But it’s traditional folk music, pure-hearted, unvarnished, and endangered. If you fancy Enya and Loreena McKennitt, come take a swig!
A little bit of everything
InternetFM.com: The website is a mess, but the pushbutton radio-styled smartphone app is appealing for this curated lineup of 40 stations, making it uniquely useful for listening on the go. Subsets of rock dominate—from “Acid Flashback” to “All Dixie Rock” to “Jemp Radio” (Grateful Dead/jam band); singular jazz, country, color-blind soul, and ambient outlets also earn a slot. Commercials and DJ interruptions are rare. Users pick out three sets of favorites from the list (just press and hold) to populate the pushbutton presets: nine stations per screen. Feedback is more refined than on Pandora—you can do a thumb’s-up or -down on artist, music style, and a particular song—so a single reject won’t spoil your chances of ever hearing other tunes by the same talent.
Jonathan Takiff is a veteran tech and entertainment writer based in Philadelphia. A long time staffer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com, his work has also appeared in numerous publications including Sound & Vision, Playboy, and Popular Science.