According to Custom
September 27, 2013
I've been trying out iTunes Radio, the Next Big Threat to Radio As We Know It. It's... okay, I guess. Kinda like Pandora. It's nice to be able to customize music, but, like the other customizable music offerings, it's repetitive and bland, too. At least you can skip songs, but if you're limited to five skips on a particular channel at a time and they keep throwing Imagine Dragons at you, you're going to run out quick. "Ha ha!," I imagine the server thinking. "We will make him listen to Imagine Dragons yet!" I would assume that the algorithms will improve over time, but it still has that computer logic working for it, too: I clicked on a pre-programmed stream called "If You Like Arcade Fire..." and the first song was by... Arcade Fire. THANKS FOR THE SUGGESTION. I WOULD HAVE NEVER THOUGHT OF THEM. (There's also the technical issue of buffering -- if you're not on Wi-Fi and your signal's not rock solid 4G, skipping means a mighty pause as the buffer builds back up. Still beats HAVING to listen to a song you don't like, but those pauses are annoying in their own right.)
Is it a reasonable replacement for "regular" radio? Yes and no. Like Pandora, it has its place, but it has a way to go to smooth out the annoyances, and, well, we have to go back to something we always end up talking about when we talk about new media competition: it's missing personality. I suppose that there might be ways to add that in, like mixing in features every few songs, but that's not going to sound smooth. When iTunes Radio or Pandora drop in ads or promos, it's always clunky -- pauses before or after, sort of out-of-the-blue. It could use some flavor... but so can "regular" radio. More and more, music radio is becoming personality-free. That's what the inexorable progression of voice-tracking and shut-up-and-play-the-hits has gotten us.
Now, for talk radio. There is no talk radio on iTunes Radio. Pandora says they want to do talk, and there are things like Stitcher and iHeartRadio Talk, but they're just repurposing regular talk content and podcasts in a time-shifting manner. What would REALLY be interesting is to be able to customize based on topics you pick. You can already customize music by picking a song you like and letting the algorithm do the rest. Wouldn't it be great to say, like, "horror movies" or "Somali pirates" or "iOS 7 glitch" and get segments from all over the place, from radio shows and news reports and podcasts, and then have it figure out that if you want talk about "iOS 7 glitch," you'll like talk about Apple stuff and cell phone stuff and tech stuff? The way things are going, and as indexing technology advances, we could be there sooner than we think.
For now, regular old radio, streaming, and podcasts are still my primary go-to sources for spoken word and music alike. I don't like to work for my entertainment. I like to be surprised. But I can see a day when custom talk is as common as Pandora and iTunes Radio and Rdio and Spotify are now, maybe more so. And when that happens, I hope radio's ready with plenty of good content. I'm not sold that the industry even knows what that is, though. And that's a preamble to next week's column....
Speaking of talking about all sorts of things, you'll find a plethora of topics at All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics, easily accessed by clicking here for the full column or going to Twitter at @talktopics, where every story is individually linked to the appropriate item. And read this week's "10 Questions With..." WTVN-WYTS/Columbus PD Mike Elliott, who has a lot to say about talk radio's future and maintaining a heritage station's success.
So, about next week: I'll be appearing at the L.A. Podfest, an event in Santa Monica at which a number of the best podcasts will be taping live, from "WTF With Marc Maron" and Jimmy Pardo's "Never Not Funny" to Phil Hendrie doing his Bobbie Dooley podcast, Doug Benson's "Doug Loves Movies," the current buzz recipient "Welcome to Night Vale," Aisha Tyler, the Sklar Brothers, Dana Gould, Kevin Pollak, and many more. I'm a judge on a panel reviewing new podcasts next Sunday. You can see the entire schedule and buy passes here. And I'll have some things to say related to that in the column next week.