How to Listen to Internet Radio

It's More "Streaming Audio" and Less "Radio"

Casual businessman wearing headphones and working at laptop in office
Caiaimage/Martin Barraud / Getty Images

Internet Radio: A Definition

Internet radio is a bit like standard radio in terms of quality and user experience, but the similarities end there. It's based on a technical process that digitizes audio and splits into small pieces for transmission across the Internet. The audio is "streamed" through the Internet from a server and reassembled on the listener's end by a software player on an Internet-enabled device.

Internet radio is not true radio by the traditional definition — it uses bandwidth rather than the airwaves — but the result is an incredible simulation.

The term refers generally to both this technology and to the content streamed by providers using it.

What You Need to Listen to Internet Radio 

First, you'll need the hardware. A few choices include:

  • "Smart" Communication Devices: You can access Internet radio content using a computer, smartphone, tablet, smart TV or just about any Internet- or Wi-Fi-connected device.
  • An Internet Radio: A bit like traditional radios, these are designed for the sole purpose of playing streamed content. They typically rely on the local Wi-Fi network or other broadband connection in your home, office or any other place you'd use a traditional radio. For more information, see A Buyer's Guide to Wi-Fi Internet Radio Receivers.
  • Your Car's Sound System: Many automakers now offer stereo systems in their vehicles that have built-in functionality to receive and control Internet radio transmissions. This typically requires a data plan or subscription to a satellite radio provider such as Sirius. Additionally, you can connect your cell phone to your sound system via Bluetooth or its auxiliary jack, so that audio received on your phone is played through your car's speakers. If you don't have either of these options, an FM transmitter can do the trick; it transmits audio from your phone to a station on your radio via FM technology. Unlike satellite radio, these methods rely on your phone's data plan and can use sizable chunks of data.

    Like traditional radios, these won't do anything unless you also have sources, and the choices are many. A great deal of Internet radio content is offered free of charge. Many local channels and national networks offer live transmissions through links on their websites, which you access using your phone, tablet or other device.

    Rather than seek out individual sources, you can subscribe to an Internet radio streaming service that offers access to thousands of radio stations locally and around the world through an app or website. A few of these include:

    To use these, you're typically required to sign up for an account with your name and email address. This allows you to set your listening preferences with regard to stations, music genres, artists, albums, locations and more. In turn, this allows providers to tailor advertising to your listening habits. Free accounts with most providers mean occasional commercials, which are no more intrusive than those you hear on traditional radio. In addition, most services offer paid accounts, which allow ad-free listening, more choices and more customization options.

    For more on the various ways you can listen to radio, see Technology Brings New Definition to Radio Broadcasting.