When I was growing up in a mountain town in Pennsylvania, shortwave radio seemed an exotic gateway to faraway locales.
This was in an era before satellite communications, when almost everything I knew of places such as London, Moscow, Berlin, Peking and Quito came from books, photographs, film clips and recorded news reports.
Listening to live broadcasts from these cities on an old, wooden-case shortwave that sat on the porch of a friend's house was not an educational experience, however. I didn't much care about the content. What struck me with awe was the fact that, halfway around the globe, someone was speaking at that very same moment that I was sitting on that porch, listening. It made me feel a part of a much larger world.
Now you no longer need a radio to tune into foreign broadcasts. You can hear more than 500 stations live from around the world via the Internet.
On a recent evening, I listened to an oldies show from Dublin, an essay on Chinese philosophy broadcast from Australia, a news program from London, a cell phone ad from Sri Lanka and an interview show from Taipei, all while sitting in front of my home computer.
In addition to these stations and others broadcasting in English, there were outlets presenting programs in Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Korean, Portuguese, Spanish, Vietnamese and more.
Because these stations feed their signals directly onto the Internet, there is neither static nor interference. The audio signals are a bit compressed when heard online, which results in the sound quality not being on a par with your FM radio. Still, radio on the Internet is perfectly listenable.
A super-sophisticated computer system is not needed to receive these stations, many of which make their broadcasts available 24 hours a day. All that's necessary is a computer equipped for sound (the vast majority of home units sold over the last two or three years are so equipped) and a modem or some other means to link up with the Internet's Web at a speed of at least 28.8 kbps.
Unless you already have downloaded the RealAudio player, you'll need that, too. It's free and comes in Macintosh and Windows versions . Follow the instructions at the site to install RealAudio on your Web browser.
On the aforementioned evening, I first tuned into a live British Broadcasting Corp. service, Radio 5.
Radio 5 is on the Web continuously, except when it is broadcasting a sporting event for which it does not have Web rights. (There's a whole new area for sports lawyers to explore.)
Coincidentally, at the moment I tuned in, the announcer was doing a telephone interview with the manager of the Biltmore Hotel, here in Los Angeles, about that establishment's plans for an upcoming anniversary.
The next news feature concerned the tragic story of a girl who died due to gross obesity. This was also a U.S.-based story, but when the British announcer gave the girl's weight at death, it was "48 stone."
I found most of the other stations I listened to that evening at Timecast.com, a RealAudio site that provides links to hundreds of live radio outlets.
One of the most entertaining sites is sponsored by ICRT-FM radio in Taiwan. In addition to providing access to its live broadcast, the site also includes a digital photograph -- refreshed every 60 seconds -- of its on-air studio. So I could not only hear the affable Kev Morgan as he hosted his "Taiwan Tonight" show, I could also see him alternately shuffling through papers and speaking into the microphone.
As part of that evening's show, Morgan played a prerecorded interview with John Lone, a stage and film actor I've long admired. Best known for his role as the title character in the film "The Last Emperor," Lone was on a promotional tour for his new CD, on which he performs songs in Mandarin.
The majority of stations broadcasting live on the Web are local services that happen to feed their signal to an international audience via the Net. They remind us that broadcasting in other parts of the world has distinct flavors.
For example, it's unlikely that even public radio here would present an hourlong lecture, as Radio Australia did on the night I listened. And the "Up All Night" show on BBC Radio 5 featured news interviewers who were invariably polite, even when asking questions about controversial topics.
But these broadcasts no longer produce a sense of awe. If anything, they were too familiar, with the Sri Lankan station playing a song by Jewel and the digital camera in the Taiwan studio showing the program host wearing a House of Blues T-shirt.
I got a little nostalgic for those evenings on the porch, listening to the shortwave. The world no longer seems as big or quite as exotic.
Cyburbia's e-mail address is david.colker(at)latimes.com.