by Paul Edwards
Most of this article will be devoted to talking about three apps that are available for iDevices. However, I want to talk first about what I don’t know and a little about why we have so many options available to us now.
In the last five years there has been a revolution in the way that people interact with others. With the introduction of the iPad, there was suddenly a device that wasn’t really a computer and wasn’t a phone. It was a whole new animal which, over time, came to be called a tablet. These are fairly small flat-screen devices that usually include wi-fi and Bluetooth, which means that there are a whole range of applications that enable Internet access. As time has gone on, three operating systems have emerged. The iPad and the iPhone use one system and have done a good job of incorporating accessibility into their software as an inherent part of their operating system. The two other systems based on Windows and Android have done rather less well at accessibility. Android devices actually are quite accessible to people who are blind, but people who use Android tablets and phones need, I think, to be smarter than those of us who use iDevices because making braille and speech work can often require the use of several different accessibility applications. The Apple system essentially builds accessibility into their devices as a central component. This means that you don’t have to know which accessibility program will work best with which application. You just have to turn on features and load applications which may or may not work well.
I do not at all mean to demean users of Android devices. They are smarter than I am, and there are huge numbers of accessible applications which make Android devices perfectly capable of meeting the needs of folks wanting to listen to radio or do e-mail or surf the web. I know virtually nothing about Android devices and am not in a position to offer very much advice at all about this system. I hope that people who like and use Android devices will think about writing articles similar to mine for the E-Forum.
Microsoft has also gotten into the tablet business with their Windows operating system. Most of the reviews I have seen suggest that there are issues with both Windows 8 and Windows 10 and tablets. Again, I don’t even know enough to be dangerous about these devices. If you are to learn more about what these devices can do with regard to Internet radio or anything else for that matter, you will learn it from someone else. The real point of all of this is to suggest that we have benefited tremendously from the creation of smartphones and tablets because there are huge numbers of applications that have been made available that we can use because of the demand that these devices have created. In fairness I should also say that Android tablets in particular are far cheaper than Apple devices, so, for around $100, folks can buy a portable device that can be used for lots of things. That has actually had the other effect of meaning that many children now have their own tablets, which has changed how families compute.
In our last article, things were pretty simple. We talked about what Internet radio is and described some of the places where listings of Internet radio stations can be found. However, one of the consequences of competition and of the proliferation of available applications is that folks have gone beyond just allowing access to Internet radio stations. Virtually all the applications I am going to discuss do more than just access live Internet radio broadcasts. I should also tell you that I will be talking about apps that I use. There may be lots of others that work well. Many blind people use iHeartRadio, for instance. I don’t. There may also actually be better apps than the ones I use, and I hope people will tell me about them.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. I use TuneIn radio much of the time. In addition to allowing me to tune in to live radio, the application allows me to listen to particular shows that have already been broadcast. So, if I have missed an episode of a serial from the BBC, I can use my phone, go and get the missing program, and stream it. In a way, all three of the programs I will be talking about are hybrids that allow access to podcasts, shows and stations. They all allow you to save lists of favorites so that you can create a listing of the stations you want to listen to. One complication is that there are free versions and versions you pay for, for both of the radio applications I use most. I paid the $4.99 that each cost for two reasons. First, when you purchase the program, you don’t get advertising. That makes navigating the applications a little easier and more consistent. You never know when ads will pop up and whether they will make the application less accessible than it normally is. The second reason is that the full versions of both programs allow you to record what you are listening to and to set a timer to record a program when you can’t be around to listen. You can also set alarms so you can wake up to your chosen radio station.
I seriously suggest that you consider using at least two radio apps. Why? Because there are differences in what stations and shows different apps offer. I listen to stations on ooTunes that I simply cannot find on TuneIn. There are some elements of TuneIn that I prefer. I would say that I divide my time between the two apps almost equally.
I am not going to describe either program in detail because it really isn’t necessary. Both are pretty self-explanatory once you have loaded them. I will talk about some of the features I like about each. I use TuneIn a lot when I am not at home because it makes it easy, using the “options” category, to look and see whether there is a choice of streams for the station I want to hear. This is really important if you are using data rather than wi-fi. When you are home, you will usually be connected to your wi-fi network. If you are, you can stream to your heart’s content at no cost. If you are away from home and not connected to wi-fi, you will use data. There are a few lucky souls who have unlimited data, but most of us have plans that allow us to use a certain number of gigabytes of data. Standard plans tend to allow two but you can pay for more. (You can, by the way, set these programs to not allow themselves to work with data and, if you have set it this way, once wi-fi goes away, so does the station you are listening to.) The good news is that streaming audio does not use a lot of data. The other good news is that most providers allow you to check on the state of your data at any time. It’s a good idea to keep an eye on where you are, but you will find that with Internet radio your data will go a long way. When you start dealing with video or photographs, you will gobble data much faster.
This long explanation allows me to get to the point of the options menu. In general, when you look at the list of available streams for a station, the higher the number, the more data that you use. So, when you are at home, you may want to choose a stream with a high number to get the best fidelity. Many stations now have 320k streams, which generally gives very good fidelity. When you are out and about and listening to stations where talking rather than music is involved, you can get away with a much lower bit rate. I change to 64k or even 48k and can stretch my data further and also generally get more stable listening because less bandwidth is used both to load and stream the stations.
ooTunes allows for other kinds of searches and has some other features which I like. For the most part, though, it is much of a muchness. Both are good programs and both are very accessible. Again, there are lots of other apps that have features that these don’t have which I don’t know enough about. There are lots of apps which are country-specific. I have two apps for Australian radio stations, for instance. The advantage of programs like these is that you can quickly get to stations that might take a little longer to locate with more comprehensive apps like the two I have discussed.
The third app I want to talk about is iBlink Radio. This app is free and has been specifically developed for use by people who are blind. As with so many other apps, it is a hybrid program. Its primary advantage is that it pulls together in one application a huge range of blindness-specific options. One section has a number of radio reading services from the United States. I would like to see them include reading services from Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom, but they have collected reading services that are not available on other apps and they are all in one place. Another section is described as “community radio stations.” Here there is a very comprehensive grouping of radio stations operated by people who are blind. ACB Radio is available here, but it can also be accessed on both TuneIn and on ooTunes. There is a hugely useful section of podcasts. We haven’t talked much about those yet but we will in a later article. Put simply, a podcast is an audio or video presentation on a particular topic which has been especially prepared to be downloaded or streamed that the podcast preparer thinks will be of interest. There are gazillions of podcasts out there and we will talk later about programs that are specifically designed to deal with these. What is cool about iBlink Radio is that it has collected a bunch of the most relevant podcasts for access to technology for blind people in one place with an interface that is pretty easy to use. The iBlink app is made by Serotek, and also features prominently the range of programming they produce. There is also a section of blindness resources which is useful. In general, the app is very cool and I highly recommend it.
Okay, so now we know more about apps for the iPhone and we know what you haven’t learned from me about Android and Windows. But what do I listen to and what do I recommend? I thought you would never ask. In my next Internet radio article, I will provide some tips on how to search, talk about some of my favorite stations, and bring our Internet radio segment to a close with a discussion of the pros and cons of using notetakers and pocket readers to listen to Internet radio.