Mar 3, 1999 at 12:00 am

Ever since my tape deck broke, I’ve listened to the radio while driving. Usually, I’ll put on WDET because it’s public radio and it’s diverse. Sometimes, I’ll search for college stations at the left end of the dial. And every once in a while, I’ll surf the AM band to find obscure country music drifting in from down South. On a clear day, I can sometimes pick up the Bible Belt states.

But the type of radio I work hardest to avoid is the kind that’s impossible to miss. I’m talking about the format-sanitized, audience-tested, commercial-laden schlock that fills most of the dial. Smooth rock, adult alternative, urban hits – if it’s got a name, I’m probably not interested.

So when I first heard about Internet radio, I was understandably skeptical. Could the Web really deliver something noticeably different from what most 9-to-5ers endure during morning drivetime? I was determined to find out.

Based on a technology called "streaming audio," Web radio is still shiny and new.

Instead of making you wait minutes to download sound files from a Web site, streaming audio sends music, conversation or any other sound to your computer via the Internet – in real time. If your Internet connection is fast enough, it sounds like a conventional radio broadcast (see box).

Alas, the first Web radio stations I encountered were hardly different from the stale bandwidth I routinely ignore. This is because the easiest Web broadcasts to find are the hundreds of traditional radio signals now simultaneously transmitted to the Internet. Yes, these are the stations that you’d hear on your car stereo or Walkman if you lived in large cities such as Dallas or Los Angeles, or near remote towns such as Anchorage, Alaska or even Lafayette, La.

At first, the novelty of tuning into distant states felt like high-tech eavesdropping –maybe on a conversation happening in some other room, or in the neighbor’s house down the street. But then those annoying formats barged in and the illusion was ruined. Babbling shock jocks or the latest from Celine Dion are no more inspiring coming from my PC than from my old Sears clock radio.

I sensed things might be different overseas, so I was optimistic when I discovered the Live Radio site. Claiming to be the "largest collection of working links to radio stations broadcasting live on the Internet," Live Radio is a portal to 2,000 radio stations in more than 100 countries.

Figuring I’d start someplace linguistically familiar, I began in the U.K. London’s KISS-FM was promising, delivering a clubby techno beat that has clearly not yet reached mainstream U.S. airwaves. Better still was England’s BBC Radio Five. Although easily recognizable as talk radio, the show’s call-in discussion about the ethics of swearing seemed decidedly British.

I was definitely on a roll now. Digging deeper into the Live Radio site, I chose my next destination adventurously. Radio Mayak is from Russia, and the music they present won’t be added to American playlists anytime soon. The highlight of my visit was hearing a vocal version of Rimsky-Korsakov’s "Flight of the Bumblebee." It sounded like the first-ever Russian scat hybrid of balalaika and cocktail jazz. And by the time I’d made my way over to the wonderfully exotic Middle Eastern rhythms heard on Tehran’s "Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting"... well, clearly I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

But if getting away from it all is the goal, there’s probably no better cyber radio escape than A-Net Station. Webcasting straight from Antarctica, A-Net is run by a group of Australian-born South Pole researchers who spin a quirky blend of acoustic blues and country folk. According to its home page, A-Net "supports your mental health by providing stimulus beyond the range of commercial media." These are my kind of snowmen.

But if surfing so far down under makes you feel homesick, it turns out you can find unique Web radio originating closer to home. On my way back up North, I uncovered the salacious APB Online. A favorite of "true crime" aficionados, APB Online features live unauthorized police radio conversations. My favorite channel is the New York City scanner, where I spent several voyeuristic minutes listening to New York’s finest track a 28-year-old male through Battery Park.

Only in America. Now all I need is a Web hook-up for my car.