Listening to “Ideas”

[Long post warning: Read if you want to record internet audio streams on the Macintosh] I’m a big fan of the CBC Radio1 show Ideas. Over the years, I have found that it provides some of the most consistently thought-provoking content available on radio. My only problem is that the broadcast time for Ideas is … Continue reading “Listening to “Ideas””

[Long post warning: Read if you want to record internet audio streams on the Macintosh]

I’m a big fan of the CBC Radio1 show Ideas. Over the years, I have found that it provides some of the most consistently thought-provoking content available on radio. My only problem is that the broadcast time for Ideas is weekdays from 21h05 until 22h00, a period when I am almost always busy. To circumvent this, I need a way to time-shift the program so that I can listen to it later (typically, either when I go to bed or on the way into work the next morning).

As most of you know, I am a Mac-weenie. This website lives on my G5 server/DAW, as does my iTunes library. I sync my iPod to that library, so the easiest way to access the Ideas content is using the iPod. Given this, the problem statement becomes: How do I record CBC Radio1 (weekdays from 21h05 to 22h00) and convert the result into something I can listen to on my iPod?

The Content

Like all forward-thinking broadcasters (:-P), CBC Radio is available on the web, which means that I ought to be able to record it, without needing to physically hook up an FM tuner. Unfortunately, they have standardized on Windows Media Player, which they tell me is the “most commonly used” format. They would, of course, have been better off standardizing on the most compatible format, rather than the most popular one, but at least they make the content available.

The CBC online listening page explains that Mac users should use the Flip4Mac Windows Media plugin to play WMA content. I have this plug-in, but for me at least, if I follow the Ottawa Radio1 link, I get dubious results. There is something wrong with one or more of…

  • the CBC stream,
  • the Flip4Mac plug-in, or
  • Safari’s caching strategy

… that causes the resulting embedded Quicktime player to play the same 10 minute clip whenever I go there. That is, it will only play 10 minutes of audio before the “thumb” on the player reaches the end of the scrollbar, and returning to the same page at a later time will cause it to play the same 10 minutes of audio as last time — not very useful.

I imagine others have had problems using the WMA streams as well, since despite the claim that they were going to standardize on one format, it turns out that you can also listen to an Ogg Vorbis stream of (at least) Toronto’s Radio1 feed. I would have prefered getting the stream from Ottawa, but given that Ideas is available on both, I am set.

Or am I?

Setting Up the Recording

It turns out that iTunes is not able to play the “.m3u” wrapped Ogg Vorbis stream, but it at least recognizes that it is continuous (i.e. not just 10 minutes long). As usual, when faced with an audio or video file that I cannot play with the standard tools, I then pull out VLC, which is a very nice freeware audio/video player available for all major operating systems. I can’t say enough good things about VLC; if it wasn’t for some un-Mac’ish GUI choices, it would always be my first choice.

VLC happily connects and starts playing the OV stream, but wouldn’t you know it, it too stops after 10 minutes. Very odd. It has worked fine for other streaming content I have tried, which seemingly adds credence to the theory that there is something wrong with the way the feeds are being created, but who knows?

After trolling around on the web for a while, I discover that some problematic audio will play correctly from the command line VLC player, even though it will not play in the GUI application. Sure enough,…

/Applications/VLC.app/Contents/MacOS/VLC \
    http://www.cbc.ca/livemedia/cbcr1-toronto.m3u

… works perfectly, so I finally have something that I can use to listen to CBC. Whew!

The next step is actually recording it.

I believe the best application for recording the audio output of arbitrary programs on the Mac is Audio Hijack Pro. I purchased the Pro version because it has some nice features that I use more for digital audio work. There is also a non-Pro version, which seems like it would be perfectly fine if all you want to do is record something at a scheduled time. As of the time of this posting, it costs 16 $US (it’s a whopping $32 for the Pro version).

You can configure Audio Hijack to:

  1. Start any program you want on a flexible, repeating schedule.
  2. Record the audio output of that program (and not any other sounds your Mac is making) to a file of your choosing, optionally appending a timestamp to allow multiple recordings to be kept.
  3. Mute the output of the program, so that you don’t hear it, even though it is being recorded.
  4. Automatically exit the program after the recording is complete
  5. Import the resulting file into iTunes

As you can see, this is perfect for the task at hand. There is a wide range of format options for the recordings, including both MP3 and AAC at many bitrates. I use 48kbps AAC to record Ideas, which produces a listenable recording in an approximately 20Meg file (for 55 minutes).

The program I run is just a shell script that has the above command line in it, and that’s all there is to it.

A Final Note

It would not surprise me at all to find out that there are simpler ways to get this process going. What I ended up with is largely a result of trial-and-error. It works, but it’s not pretty. If you have found a better answer, feel free to leave a comment.

6 thoughts on “Listening to “Ideas””

  1. +1 on Audio Hijack. I’ve been using it almost since it’s come out, to record radio audio programs ‘on the web’.

    There is a similiar program available for Windows, but I had a lot of problems with it, when I tried to use it (>1 year ago).

  2. That Ottawa radio station link played perfectly via Flip4Mac. I might suggest you check that you have the most current version. Another good troubleshooting trick is to create a new, admin enabled, user account, install Flip4Mac and try the link from there. Telestream has been very good about updating F4M to accommodate all the weird, WMV wrapped, codecs out there, but a few slip thru now and then.

  3. Now that’s weird. I was running the free version that is posted at Microsoft. Given that that version hadn’t been updated since the middle of last year, I thought Antonio might be right.

    So I went to the Flip4Mac site and downloaded the demo of the latest version they have (2.1.0.33), but as far as I can see it behaves exactly the same way.

    Hey, Antonio, in case you’re still listening, this is what happens when I click the “Ottawa Radio1” link:

    1. The plug-in loads and it starts (correctly) playing.
    2. The “thumb” on the scroll bar starts tracking across the bottom of the player window.
    3. When it gets to the right hand side of the window, it appears to “skip back” about 10 pixels (but the audio continues).
    4. When it again reaches the right hand side, there is a pause, and then it resets to the left edge.
    5. At this point, it starts playing the “old” audio that played the first time the thumb tracked across.

    Are you saying that isn’t what happens to you? What browser are you using?

    As to the suggestion of creating a new account and installing Flip4Mac there, well I can do that to (maybe) prove that Flip4Mac is messed up, but if that’s the case it seems like they need to work on their installer — I’m not going to switch my main account just because they can’t figure out how to install cleanly.

  4. Btw, I tried pointing Quicktime directly at the .asx feed (i.e. I removed the browser from the equation). This appeared to fix the problem but after a longer time — say, 20 minutes or so — it also started to repeat what was being played from the start.

    For me, at least, it looks like the real problem is that the player isn’t properly recognizing the stream as continuous. I’m pretty sure the thumb isn’t even supposed to move in this case.

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