geert lovink on Fri, 26 Apr 2002 04:28:47 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Interview with Micz Flor: Tactics of Streaming

Tactics of Streaming
Interview with Micz Flor
By Geert Lovink

Micz Flor is a multi-talented cultural worker. As a programmer, artist,
teacher, writer and project manager Micz has been organizing a variety of
events, net projects, magazines and temporary media labs (see: I got to know Micz in 1997 while working with him in
the team of the Hybrid Workspace project (Documenta X/Kassel: One year later he organized
his own temp media lab in Manchester. Micz is a cool, busy and ambitious
person that loves to tinker and play around with media and code. He
operates in a laid back, Berlin minimal techno style. Very post-German.

Micz Flor lived and worked in London, Liverpool, Vienna and Prague and is
now back in his base, Berlin. In 1999 he got very involved in supporting
independent media in Former Yugoslavia. Lately he has been working for the
Camp lab in Prague, which trains journalists all over the world how best
to integrate new media in their work. In this capacity Micz traveled to
Indonesia and other Asian countries. On his Crash site
( you can see his streaming video about Radio 68H
Indonesia, Reaching Everyone. Radio 68H is an independent radio network
for hourly news programs and magazine formats. The local hub in Jakarta
maintains the network and redistributes local news via satellite. Radio
68H consists of over 250 radio stations. As a 'tactical' medium it uses
email to collect and distribute MP3 reports from the entire archipelago.
There will be a longer documentary version on Indonesia's Radio68h
available soon, as part of the 'Scattered Frequencies' mini-series on
radio networking he produces together with Philip Scheffner. The first
part on an independent radio network in Nepal is already available.
Another of his web films, EUrope on your Doorstep looks the impact of
European funding the economically underdeveloped region of Liverpool (UK).

In Berlin Micz has lately been working on, an online youth
magazine, developed for German Ministry for Political Education
( This project has been initiated by the company of Micz Flor
and Tanja Lay, named Redaktion und Alltag
(, one of many small web design and
content offices working out of Berlin. Last but not least, his hobby label
SueMi has been releasing a number of 7-inch vinyl

Micz's specialty is connecting hi and low tech taking all local
circumstances into account. However, his passion lies in streaming media
and radio in particular, which started in Berlin with his involvement in
the group called convex tv. Micz won several awards for his works but is hesitant to label himself an artist, feeling
increasingly uncomfortable with the way in which the art world deals--or
rather does not deal--with new media and its social and political aspects.
The following interview focuses on the current situation of streaming
media networks and standards.

GL: What makes in your experience so different from normal
radio? It is important to further explore these differences? Or is it just
a matter of adding another distribution channels to the growing list of
(new) media outlets?

MF: is very different from normal radio. In fact, -
and the hype surrounding it - made 'normal' radio reconsider itself. In
the early days of audio streaming over the Internet, many 'normal' radio
stations were trying to jump the bandwagon and went 'online'. In those
days, you would find websites of radio stations to provide nothing more
but the station logo and a button saying 'live' - launching an external
player. This clumsy attempt of translating an established medium into a
network environment really put a finger on the strength and weaknesses of
radio as we knew it; the linear, one-way, no-frills-no-thrills
transmission it is.

Only recently, 'ordinary' radios put more effort into living up to the
world wide web, providing an adequate environment to which listeners can
come, dwell, contribute, search, discuss and get on-demand material. But
in return, this process of redefining 'ordinary' radio when it goes online
has also put a finger on the strength and weakness of; the lack
of definition and tangibility. In fact, seems to be everything
normal radio is not ... and it is on the Internet.

This is a very powerful starting point for experimental
projects. It is not so much the question if it is important to explore the
differences between the two. First and foremost it is not 'ordinary' radio
- and then it's just anything else as long as it is online.

Of course, audio streaming is more and more becoming a central part of the
growing list of new media channels. But at the same time, we are all still
waiting for the new front end, the browser of the next generation, where
all these media outlets are coming together at the screen and speakers and
what else of the user, listener, or whatever you would want to call the
next generation receiver.

This client 'solution' is not there yet. And that's a good thing. So far,
not even multi-national lobbies such as Microsoft or AOL managed to prune
the Internet into the shape they would dream of. In fact, every attempt to
shape the multitude of formats, players and codecs has only put strength
to alternative solutions. A peer-to-peer distribution channel, such as
Gnutella is one example; alternative audio video formats such as Ogg or
DivX are another.

GL: The Xchange network, which established itself in 1998, has been
relatively stable in size since its first year. Whereas the overall
Internet has grown exponentially, going through the dotcom period of
intense financial speculation, many non-profit streaming initiatives have
remained low key. How would you explain this? Would this be related to the
relatively growing (self) isolation of the new media arts? Or rather with
the problems of the streaming media sector at large?

MF: I would assume that many of the more experimental initiatives in the field have reached a certain level of saturation already early
on. And now they stay that way, keeping the financial turmoil at an arms
length distance. I doubt that this has to do with a tendency for
self-isolation. The experimental scene is based on an intriguing
mixture of challenging sonic liking, obscure technical interests and a
radiant interest in new distribution channels. No surprise that many of
these people were online early on, playing with Internet broadcasting
formats and finding a like-minded audience years before the big hype.

So the motivation of such closely-knit communities never really went
towards establishing business solutions and supplying sustainable business
plans. If anything, throughout the hype period I sensed some level of
frustration and suspicion towards all these start-ups who would take
half-baked ideas and rake in venture capital. It restricted many
communities in terms of their free flow of ideas, as one would never know
if someone else would listen in, pick it up and get some money from this
idea, simply because she or he looks better in a suit.

In a way it seemed as if the 'avant-garde' of was mostly
surprised by the cash flow surrounding it. Coming from inside the system,
nobody really understood how and why this should make any real money and
certainly not the sums flying around at the time. Looking back on these
days, I am sure many of the early DIY streaming experts think "I could
have told you" as well as "I wish we had driven a million against the
wall, that sounds like fun."

GL: Would you say that the technical limitations and the confusion of
standards for streaming media over the past five years have been a good or
a bad thing?

MF: The confusion is still going on. But within all the confusion some
developments are getting clearer.

The most prominent yet quiet development over these years of confusion was
the clear separation of media player and streaming format. In the early
days, to encode your media for the Internet, to stream it over the
Internet and listen to it at the other end came all in one box. Take
RealMedia as an example. They started very early on and for a long time
provided the only reliable and compatible solution for streaming media. In
order to stream RealMedia content, you needed their RealEncoder, their
RealServer and the RealPlayer to listen to the stream.

Today, MP3 is a very dominant format for streaming audio on the Internet.
In order to do this, you pick one of many encoders, one of many server
solutions and one of many too many players at the client side. It is all
using the MP3 standards, but there are even many codecs who provide
different quality and require different processing power when encoding or
decoding the audio.

Most users have some media player on their machine. So let's take a closer
look at commonly used players, such as WinAMP, RealPlayer, The Windows
Media Player or the Quicktime Player. Most of such applications are little
more than a shell providing clear definitions to developers of audio
codecs. So in order to establish a new form of audio compression, you
should not only think in terms of quality. You should also develop your
codec to be compatible with many or all of the commonly used players, so
that people can listen to material that uses your format. MP3 is a good
example. You can play this type of audio with almost any player.

Going back to your first question, bringing together all different types
of new media channels into one player - or browser - seems to be an issue
for many streaming media players. RealMedia for example is putting great
effort into making their player compatible with many available formats.
Even Flash films can be player in the RealPlayer, a format that usually is
embedded in ordinary web pages. All this seems to aim towards establishing
a browser of the next generation, including all formats available on the
Internet. The fact that WinAMP is also capable of displaying HTML web
pages in an extra window is also indicating this development.

So the confusion remains, but the confusion is not only tied into the
standards and formats, it is also tied into the rules of the game of
developing players and codecs. It's almost like a chicken and egg
question: if you want to establish a new player, make sure it plays as
many popular codecs as possible. If you want to establish a new codec,
make sure it can be played on as many popular players as possible.

As for the technical limitations, they will always be part of the rule
set. But, the more time goes by, the more solutions become available live
and online which were never originally developed to be streaming media
formats. Again, take MP3 as an example. At the time of development, this
codec was meant to provide the audio track of Video CDs. Only few people
would have thought that it could become a standard for streaming live
audio over the Internet. The available bandwidth was just too poor and the
processing power it took to encode MP3 in real time was too much to allow
live streaming. And now you have it.

And the confusion is far from over. As the separation of players and
codecs is a fact, media itself become less and less clearly defined.

Quicktime was one of the first to think of media files not only as linear,
frame based data-streams. Instead they thought of their media files as
containers where you can dump all your individual media into and add a
time line and that's that. So audio might be using one type of compression
and video another. And you could even add some stills, and text and so on.
At the other end, the Player will take a look at the media container, pick
up the time line and the instructions and see what codecs are available to
play what's in the container. In this case you might find a situation
where the player will play no video at some parts, because it lacks the
right codec for the image, but the audio is fine. Later on, it all looks
just perfect.

Thinking of media as a container is far removed from the close connection
between content and technology that we know from the analogue world. Try
to play an audiotape with your VHS player and you know what I mean.

Understanding media files as containers will be the base camp. So there
you have all the confusion you want in one box: the player is an empty
shell, the media file is an empty container and inside is a multitude of
media using a multitude of codecs.

You were asking if I thought such confusion is a good or a bad thing. It's
certainly a lot of fun to look at. I guess as long as the concept of the
'media file' remains as open as it is today, it is very adequate in
allowing adjustments. Some technical limitations suddenly are no longer
obstacles pulling some formats suddenly into the ballgame. At the same
time, there is always enough room to throw them out again at some point,
as many solutions used on the Internet today for streaming media still
carry restrictions of their former use - again, take MP3 as an example.

The confusion shows one thing clearly. Those big players with the
financial muscle to flood the market with their solutions don't seem to be
providing the best solutions. Or why else would the confusion remain and
smaller developers suddenly become essential players in the game.

GL: Where would you like to see the critical and cultural streaming media
practices go to? Unlike pirate radio or mini FM does not (yet)
have legal troubles. Do you see the freedom to narrowcast turning into a
closed and self-satisfied, stagnating subculture? Napster was a lost

MF: It is hard to imagine that streaming or exchanging audio over the
Internet would face the same restrictions and out-of-proportion penalties
that mini FM or radio piracy are threatened by. Having said this, the
Internet also provides the best possible framework by which restrictions
and penalties could be coerced on deviant users. Confusion again.

What a complicated way to charge someone who listens to FM radio. There is
no way to track reliably and on a large scale who is switching on their
receivers to listen to a program. What an easy thing to track who is
listening to a program over the Internet. And in most cases there is
already a payment process in place: the phone bill. From that point of
view it seems so easy to imagine restrictions and charges for Internet
listeners and broadcasters.

The fact that there seems to be a legal gap where has escaped
into, says little about the endurance this situation might have. The
silence and indecisive actions from legal bodies only hints at the scale
at which adequate means of restrictions are required to tackle the
'problem'. The silence is anything but peaceful and the partial eruptions
as in the case of discussing new forms of copyright laws hint at the
direction this might take.

As the independent scene is using the new distribution channels for their
means, and with little success of the large multi-national corporations to
use the same channels for their means, the big players have chosen
different paths. Copyright lobbyists are not fighting over peanuts in
court with some broadcasters from Manchester. Instead they are
working behind the scenes to implement an all-encompassing solution.

In the case of software piracy you can already see how lobbyists managed
to get governments on their sides. In the Czech Republic for example, the
government can ask you to present your software licenses alongside with
your receipts when checking your books. Why? Well, for no other reason as
to do the work for the software industries and identify cases of software
piracy - which will then be taken to court. It sounds like its against the
law, but most recently this practice has become law in itself. The
government turned itself into a tool for the software industry.

Unfortunately I believe it is on that level that multi-nationals are using
their muscle to put these levels of coercion into place.

GL: Which are issues for 'tactical' interventions for you?

MF: Using a combination of old and new media still provides a powerful
tool against national regulations in many countries. The ANEM network,
which was established in FRY (Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) by local
radio stations like B92 and others across the Balkan region, is still a
good example.

In the FRY at the time there was no way you could get a national license
for radio broadcasting, neither could you get the technology into place to
have a network of transceivers which would carry a signal throughout the
country. However, local licenses for smaller stations were possible to
get. So in order to bring independent news to many regions of FRY, news
were collected and produced at a central hub in Belgrade, then streamed
out of the country through the Internet, picked up by a satellite
transmitter and put onto a satellite. From there, all the decentralized,
small stations could receive the signal with an ordinary satellite
receiver and rebroadcast it on their local frequency. The combined radio
footprint of all the participating radio stations at the time reached
around 65% of Yugoslavia - without breaking any laws, without any
expensive technology and without dismantling the decentralized nature of
the network, as only a small percentage of their program was used for news

A similar network has established itself in Indonesia, using the audio
track of a spare TV satellite channel to get the signal into the sky.
There, over 250 stations are participating in the network. And we are
currently working with some local radio stations in Nepal on a similar
situation. However, Nepal provides even more obstacles as independent
media is a very young phenomenon and neither the network technology nor
the journalistic experience are in place to manage the structure.

GL: Often people associate streaming media with broadband and fat pipes.
You have worked with streaming media initiatives, for instance in
Indonesia. Is it fair to wipe out technological differences worldwide (in
terms of resources and infrastructure) and say that streaming media is
there to be used by all, under every possible circumstance?

MF: Streaming media is available in almost any corner of the world where
technology is available. In most cases streaming media would mean nothing
else but a phone line. Using a cellular phone, you are using streaming
technology on a low bit rate of about 8 kBps.

The Internet, of course, is not available in all corners of the world. The
Indonesian network I described above started their services with providing
news bulletins over the Internet. Based in Jakarta, they could find a
provider that would host and distribute their files. But with only one
governmental ISP in the far regions of the country who themselves only had
a 56k modem connecting all users with Indonesia and then going into the
backbone hell knows where, this was not a feasible solution. Today they
are retrieving news from remote stations via cellular phones, digitize the
material, add their own commentary in the studio and then push it up onto
the satellite.

Without a reliable, safe and reasonably fast Internet connection in place,
such tactical networks need to be centrally organized. In Nepal the
situation we discovered is even more difficult. A commercial TV station,
broadcasting satellite television every day, is producing the shows and
news in Nepal, then they put the tapes into a suitcase, someone flies to
Bangkok and they put the material on the satellite there. So television
will deliver yesterdays news. This might sound strange, but once you are
about 200 kilometers outside Katmandu, print media will possibly be two
days late anyway. And then you might realize that there are not that many
people who can read.

Sometimes it is surprising to see that online here in the West we might be
able to get radio stations from very remote places in reasonable quality.
The reality is that you might not be able to pick up the signal 10
kilometers from the station itself. In many cases, streaming over the
Internet is only available because some local ISP puts a radio receiver
into their office and takes the signal off that radio and into the
Internet there and then. The station producing the program might not even
have an Internet access itself.

So you can see that right now it is easier to get a streaming signal out
of developing areas and into the Western world than providing the
information to a neighboring village, island (Indonesia) or valley

The development for radio networks in these areas is lagging behind, but
creative solutions are filling the gaps the infrastructure leaves open for
the time being. But building a decentralized network does require a
reasonable infrastructure to allow the exchange between stations in the
periphery, without requiring a central hub.

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