Monthly Archives: November 2008

Deconstructing the Car Talk Jukebox

The great folks at National Public Radio’s Car Talk recently switched from using Real Player to a flash based MP3 media player for online listening. I think this is a fantastic change as the only thing I was still using Real Player for was to listen to Car Talk online. I do realize that for some time a podcast version of the show has been available through NPR but I tend to listen to it spread out over several days and the Real Player (and now Flash based player) allow me to jump directly to specific segments of the show, a big advantage over one long MP3 file for my purposes.

The only problem with the new player is that I initially couldn’t get it to work with my system. The player would never fully load and would not play the show. This really presents a problem if one wants to listen to the show. Of course I submitted an email to Click and Clack notifying them about the problem, apparently they’ve been receiving quite a bit of email about the new player for better or worse because it took about 5 days to even get a form response back. Like most of what Click and Clack have to say it wasn’t that helpful (install the latest version of Flash, etc). Since I already regularly waste time with Flash websites on a regular basis I was sure that Flash wasn’t my problem. This led me to start deconstructing their player architecture to find out and fix the problem myself, in true Car Talk fashion.

To make a long story short for the impatient reader I’ll cut to the chase. Ads are loaded and played from a third party site (NPR) and require cookies (3rd party cookies) to play. The ad must play before the player will load the show audio. I had 3rd party cookies disabled, hence no show. I fixed this by explicitly allowing cookies from both and Of course, there are many more interesting ways of solving the problem and more that can be learned by total deconstruction so the reader looking for further edification may want to read on.

By looking at the page source and link formats I fairly quickly determined that Car Talk was using the JW FLV Media Player and it was loading a playlist file called showAllsmil.xml which likely contained the asset (MP3 audio) URLs to be played. The trick would be to find this file and figure out why my player wouldn’t work. By looking at the source of the player page I could determine that before the player fully loaded it needed to play an ad from NPR. That certainly gave me quite a clue as to why things weren’t working and eventually led me to the cookie solution you read about above but let’s explore the javascript code that selects and gives the player a URL for the MP3 ad:

var site = 'CARTALK';
var area = 'Cartalk.Player';
var pageNum = Math.round(Math.random() * 100000000);
var randomNum = Math.round(Math.random() * 100000000);'+site+'/area='+area+'

It’s interesting that this is all done in client side javascript instead of randomly serving an ad from a static server side URL, but I guess doing things in javascript is the Web 2.0 way! Now you know what to do if you want to listen to NPR ads all day long. Generate a bunch of random numbers and load up some URLs. What if you want to listen to an actual Car Talk show, perhaps on an unsupported player/OS like Linux without Flash installed. For this you’re going to want to get your hands on that xml playlist file. First you’ll want to find the URL, which as it turns out is also generated by some bits of javascript which could also be done server side:

var f=gup('play');
var s=gup('show');	
if (s==null || s=="") s="WeeklyShow";
var file2 = ''+s+'/'+f;

Where gup is a function which pulls some variables out of the URL, again something really easy to do in a server side language like PHP, oh well…javascript it is. If you want to listen to the entire most recent weekly show you’ll end up with a URL that looks something like:

If you want to just hear the last segment (segment 10 of the show) you’d end up with:

Of course it’s similar for 01smil.xml through 09smil.xml. Note yet again that this could all be handled without creating a million files if it were done server side, but I digress. When you open up that XML playlist file you end up with something where it’s easy to see the MP3 asset files can be found at:

and so on. Note that these streaming MP3s can be played in any MP3 player so you could play them on Linux or just about anything else that plays MP3 files.

An interesting project would be to create a script which dynamically generated an advertisement MP3 URL, pulled the SMIL file and stripped out the asset URLs and spit out a more standard M3U playlist file. If this were done in server side scripting (PHP anyone) you could easily create a link which would feed any player a playlist of the most recent show segments (plus an opening advert to keep NPR happy). Such a M3U playlist would be useful as it would allow you to play streaming Car Talk MP3s from just about any player/OS without manually getting all the segment URLs.