You are listening to Radio Free Bob, a pirate radio station broadcasting on the Microsoft corporate network


Back in the late 1980's, when NETBIOS ruled the land at Microsoft, one of my colleagues ran a pirate radio station on the Microsoft corporate network. Let's call this colleague Bob, my generic name for a Microsoft employee.

Bob had converted a bunch of songs to WAV format (mp3 not yet having been invented) and kept them on his machine to listen to while he worked. But he also travelled from room to room to investigate problems in various offices and labs. This was also the days before laptop computers and iPods. A portable computer was one of these puppies, affectionately known as a luggable because it was the size of (and weighed more than) a suitcase.

Bob liked to listen to music while he worked, and since he couldn't take his music with him, he did what he thought was the next best thing: He had his music come to him.

Bob wrote a program to stream his music collection over the Microsoft corporate network. Of course, Bob didn't want to have to pre-program the list of offices and labs he was going to visit during the day (in part of course because at the start of the day, he didn't know where he was going to be), so the program broadcasted his music collection to every computer at Microsoft. That way, no matter where he (or anybody else) was, he could listen to his music collection. He called this service Radio Free Bob.

Radio Free Bob was not on the air for very long, however, before getting the heat from The Man. Pumping that much data to every computer at Microsoft, even the machines in overseas offices like Hong Kong and Berlin, doesn't sit well with corporate network administrators. I don't know the exact number, but it was consuming some huge percentage of the network bandwidth of the entire company. The IT department frantically triangulated the packets, identified the building that was the source of the network broadcasts, narrowed it down to a specific wing of the building, then began a room-by-room search for the offending computer, descending upon it like a SWAT team.

Thus ended the short life of Radio Free Bob.

Comments (43)
  1. Andrew says:

    Wouldn’t it have been easier to just connect to the computer hosting the music, rather than the other way around?

    [We’re talking late 1980’s, client/server, and NetBIOS, not 2000’s, peer-to-peer, and TCP/IP. To “connect to” a computer, the computer has to be running a server operating system. “It would be much simpler if you just reformatted your computer, quadrupled the RAM, and installed Xenix.” -Raymond]
  2. RobertWrayUK says:

    @Andrew – maybe it would’ve been, but it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as much geeky fun! ;)

  3. Spike says:

    Andrew’s right.  Haven’t you got that time machine working yet Raymond?

  4. BOFH says:

    Ah yes, back in the days of unmanaged switches.

    They had no way of identifiying the switchport where the source-MAC originated from.

    So you have to go hunting.

  5. Andrew says:

    [We’re talking late 1980’s, client/server, and NetBIOS, not 2000’s, peer-to-peer, and TCP/IP. To “connect to” a computer, the computer has to be running a server operating system. “It would be much simpler if you just reformatted your computer, quadrupled the RAM, and installed Xenix.” -Raymond]

    My bad. Not having started my venture into computers until the mid-1990’s, I was raised with TCP/IP for networking (on the Internet, of course). I didn’t know it wasn’t commonplace in the 80’s.

  6. porter says:

    >> even the machines in overseas offices like Hong Kong and Berlin

    My doubts are growing, NETBIOS is a LAN protocol and dreadful as a WAN protocol.

    [That’s how the story was told to me. I’m sure some facts got corrupted along the way, but they don’t impair the underlying story. -Raymond]
  7. bp says:

    I’m no native speaker, but I think you meant “You are listening to Radio Free Bob”?

    [Fixed, thanks. Amazingly, nobody noticed that typo for over a year as it sat in the queue… -Raymond]
  8. Bob Slydell says:

    I admit it, it was me! I was streaming my Michael Bolton collection. For my money, I don’t know if it gets any better than when he sings “When a Man Loves a Woman”.

  9. Aneurin Price says:

    I’m having some difficulty with the concept of a network stack that doesn’t allow for incoming connections (this is actually the most interesting part of the story to me). Does anyone have pointer to a relatively brief reference that might enable me to understand Raymond’s response to the first comment, or is such a thing a contradiction?

    [Sure, it could’ve been done (after all, that’s how file servers work), but writing an entire file server seems like overkill for just streaming music. -Raymond]
  10. Jim Lyon says:

    Raymond, I thought the original title ("You are listen to") was a subtle play on words, akin to to old "All your bases are belong to us."

    If I had realized it was unintentional, I would have mentioned it months ago.

  11. Lazbro says:

    And the day this station went off the air, the great music industry depression ended, just in time to save the majors from bankruptcy.

  12. Todd Laney says:

    I think RFB is what inspired Rob Glaser to leave MS and found Real Networks.

  13. Aneurin Price says:

    [Sure, it could’ve been done (after all, that’s how file servers work), but writing an entire file server seems like overkill for just streaming music. -Raymond]

    Ohhhh, so you just mean that nobody had written any filesharing software, but doing the broadcast was not much work. Thanks for clarifying – I interpreted that comment as saying that it would be infeasible to do it on a NetBIOS network (and I was thinking through things like ‘well, you could listen by polling for a broadcast telling you where to send the stream’ and so on :-))

  14. Rich M says:

    Should that be:  "Back in the late 1980’s, when NETBIOS ruled the LAN…"?  ;-)

  15. Michael MOl says:

    I had something similar happen to me at community college.  I had dial-up at home, and was using Debian Linux at the time; Getting more software meant sitting somewhere with decent bandwidth and downloading the packages.

    I worked in a computer lab on campus, and it happened that the only computers in the lab that could burn disc images were some Macs running OS X. It also happened that those weren’t closely tied into any of the college’s authentication or security systems.  And while the campus had decent connectivity throughput, they had a budgeted usage limit that may not have been updated since the days the whole campus was on a T1.

    I was in the middle of disc image 12 out of 13 before the infrastructure folks burst into the lab and were checking every port number against their notes. Because of the layout of the lab, my station was among the last four that was checked.

    They let me finish downloading that disc image. I still have the disc I burned, somewhere.

  16. Anon says:

    I once worked in a company where we all shared our mp3s as music$. That way, given a list of machines anyone in the know could find them, but $ shares don’t show up to a casual observer. The end result was a batch file that generated a m3u playlist which you could play in WinAmp.

  17. Aaron says:

    Nice… Of course that would have been a fire-able offense just about anywhere I have worked:)

  18. Proaxiom says:

    Aaron: I noted that Raymond didn’t say if Bob remained a Microsoft employee.

    It is possible Bob was physically ‘erased’, Tron-style, having his consciousness converted to a Microsoft simplified-UI product of the same name several years later that, like his radio service, was tragically short-lived.

  19. Mark W says:

    I think I am a few years off when we played doom over broadcast IPX and crippled the local LAN.

  20. Mike says:

    I had the happy opposite experience. Mid-90s I was working a contract at a company which was trying to be first-to-market with a gig-ethernet switch. We were encouraged to play Doom to stress the prototype.

    Saddly, the company missed the window and collapsed along with so many others during the telecom bust. I was long gone by then (had just been engaged on a short contract to build remote panel displays for their network management software).

    But it was a fun and lively summer that I spent there, and it was the only time I ever got an email from my boss telling me to drop my work and get on with the serious business of playing!

  21. Gabe says:

    What makes this story seem apocryphal is that in the 1980s it was unlikely that any random machine Bob went to would actually have a sound card with correct drivers and speakers.

    [The machines Bob went to were not random. At the time, Bob worked on the multimedia team. A randomly-picked machine on the multimedia team had better have a sound card. -Raymond]
  22. Daniel F. Van Der Werken, Jr. says:

    NetBEUI is a non-routable protocol.  Back then, Microsoft used NetBEUI (NetBIOS-based protocol) and not TCP/IP.  If it was the late-80’s, then likely LanMan was the server software.  Windows 3.0 or 3.1 with some sort of real-mode redirector.  Maybe Xenix was involved.  Microsoft ITG would have had to narrow it down the way Raymond says for sure.

  23. Darryl says:

    Doom was a great network diagnostic tool.  I used it on a couple of occasions to identify cabling issues on a 10base-2 network by segmenting the network and seeing what segments could still talk until I found the problem.  

  24. Jonathan says:

    @Gabe: Also, how much music (in uncompressed wav format!) could you fit on a HD? My 1991 machine had 40MB HD, that’s about 4 minutes of CD-quality music.

  25. HeadlessCow says:

    You could convert it to 8-bit 11khz mono wav and get bitrate that’s even lower than most mp3s you’ll find today (something like 40kbps, I think). Sure, it sounds way worse, but at least you’ve got music!

  26. <blockquote>What makes this story seem apocryphal is that in the 1980s it was unlikely that any random machine Bob went to would actually have a sound card with correct drivers and speakers.</blockquote>

    You could fake it by doing pulse width modulation on the PC speaker.  To do this, you’d program the 8253 timer so that the timer channel that was attached to the timer interrupt ran at (say) 11025 interrupts per second, and every interrupt you’d retrieve the next sample, program the 8253 channel attached to the speaker in one-shot mode for a duration proportional to the sample value … and Bob’s your network-flooding uncle!

    As for flooding the network: just sending a lot of broadcast packets with WAV data in them would be easy to code on a modern UNIX (in fact you can do it in shell with the appropriate tools).  Thankfully I’ve never had to write DOS NetBIOS code, but I imagine it’s much simpler to blast out broadcast packets then initiate sessions, etc.

  27. Gabe says:

    Back then it’s unlikely that he even had a way to extract WAV files from any CDs he may have had, let alone a 16-bit stereo sound card to play them on. It’s likely he would have recorded 8-bit mono mu-law or ADPCM from the line-in on his sound card. Bob could have likely fit 3 hours of music on his gigantic-for-the-time 80 MB hard drive.

  28. DWalker says:

    @Jonathan:  Were CD-quality music files common in the 1980s?

  29. Yuhong Bao says:

    "My doubts are growing, NETBIOS is a LAN protocol and dreadful as a WAN protocol."

    Yea, MS even at this time knew this:

    http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2005/05/12/416846.aspx#416927

    http://blogs.msdn.com/oldnewthing/archive/2005/05/12/416846.aspx#416950

  30. steveg says:

    SWAT team to Bob, "Listen to the [bleep] radio!"

  31. Leo Davidson says:

    "This was also the days before laptop computers and iPods."

    There were portable cassette players but I guess Bob liked to travel light. :)

  32. Will Hughes says:

    My version of this is when I was moving some large databases from one part of the corporate network down to my local machine.

    The problem was, I was in a ‘regional’ building that had only 2x 2Mbit links, and ~800 other people trying to use the network for more time critical things (like answering customer questions).

    I was quite shocked to get a call from someone in IT telling me to stop doing whatever it was that I was doing.

  33. Worf says:

    Huh. I would’ve thought Bob would make his "music server" watch for a specific broadcast packet, the send data to that particular host, listening for broadcasts. As Bob moved, he would re-run his program, and the music would follow as the server swapped addresses. That’s how you "connect" – the client broadcasts, the server observes and strams data.

    Assuming of course, that netbeui supported direct transfers and control signalling…

  34. Morten says:

    You could fake it by doing pulse width modulation on the PC speaker.

    I seem to recall a game doing just that, "TRACON" or "Terminal Radar Approach Control". Great game.  The speech coming from the PC speaker was good enough, with just enough distortion to make it sound like radio transmissions.

  35. Mark (The other Mark) says:

    It never ceases to amaze me the distance some people will go regarding music- Broadcasting it over a corporate network, downloading it from shady sources, buying expensive portable players…

    I generally use a small, cheap, FM receiver.

  36. Mike Swaim says:

    Many years ago, I worked for a contractor contracted to do document management software for an industrial company. We had a T1 line to one of their plants for support purposes. (It was in another state, so it was fairly expensive.) At one point they, replaced the T1 with ISDN, believing that it would be less expensive. (It could connect on demand, and we wouldn’t pay for idle time.)

    One of the things that we did was index CAD files. The process would grab the files from their server, read the attributes off the drawing, associate them with the appropriate real life hardware, categorize the drawing, and write all that back to the document server. One of my coworkers started off a set, and an hour later we got a call because we were running up ISDN charges at a ridiculous rate. We ended up disconnecting the modem, and going back to the T1.  

  37. Neil says:

    Wouldn’t it have been easier to host the music on an existing server?

    [But then it wouldn’t be a radio station! -Raymond]
  38. Blake says:

    My recollection is that the Microsoft corporate network was using XNS with Ungerman Bass NICs and monolithic driver stacks in era that sound cards first started appearing in PCs.  (And that that wasn’t till 91-92, with the first ‘MPCs’.)

  39. Yuhong Bao says:

    "My recollection is that the Microsoft corporate network was using XNS with Ungerman Bass NICs and monolithic driver stacks in era that sound cards first started appearing in PCs."

    Here is a story on Larry Osterman’s blog about it:

    http://blogs.msdn.com/larryosterman/archive/2005/11/09/490869.aspx

  40. Worf says:

    @Morten: Heck, you could find a Win3.1 driver that did that – it implemented a sound driver, and modulated the PC speaker. So any PC that could run Win 3.1 could experience the dings and tadas, though it was quite tinny.

    Heck, you probably could play MP3s on that for amusement. I think I did Mod4Win.

    Too bad it was never ported to Win95.

  41. Gabe says:

    I had that Win3.1 PC speaker audio driver. It sounded horrible and used all the CPU on my 486 when it was playing. Bob would not have used that technique to listen to music while he worked.

  42. Gabe says:

    As I recall, in 1989 the Creative Labs Sound Blaster was the first PC sound card that could play PCM music (the kind needed to play back recorded audio). Prior to that, sound cards were just synthesizers (think MIDI vs. WAV). Since CD-ROM drives didn’t become generally available until 1990, it’s unlikely that MS actually had anything you could consider to be a  multimedia division in the 1980’s.

    Bob most likely misremembered the timeframe, as this couldn’t have happened until the early 1990’s.

    [Who knows, maybe they had prerelease hardware. At any rate, the year isn’t important to the story. In the future, I’ll just write “a long time ago.” -Raymond]
  43. Aaron Huang says:

    That recalled me when i was in Redmond the first time back in may~oct 2006. 2006 FIFA World Cup was in Germany. My coworkers would go to the office and watch the games via an internal TV channel(some kind of testing project). I hope that channel is still alive.

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