Make a personalized “radio station” in iTunes

How I created a personally-tuned playlist that I’ve enjoyed for the last 8 years.

When I was in college, I was required to take a class in radio programming. I’ve forgotten most of the class now, but one thing I did find really interesting was how radio stations perform focus group studies to test new music and determine which music listeners still loved, liked, tolerated, and absolutely hated.

Later, in a bout of music boredom, I wondered if I could apply the same ideas using smart playlists in iTunes. I found using a series of smart playlists I could auto-generate a dynamic “radio station” based on my tastes. Years later (8, in fact!), I’m still using this playlist. The settings have been modified over years as iTunes functionality and my needs have changed, but the idea remains the same. Here is how I built a customized “station” for myself based on five smart playlists.

Note: I should note that I spend far more time organizing my music library then most. That’s not really important for you when using these list. The only organization I would highly recommend is rating your music. You don’t need to rate all your music before you use these playlists. You can rate as you listen, which will fine-tune your lists.

★★★★★

These are your “power gold” songs. The songs you turn up the volume every time they come on. The ones you know the lyrics by heart and belt out every phrase. You love these songs and will never skip them.

Grouping and Genre are personal preferences. Rating and Last Played are the core ideas here.
  • Rating is ★★★★★. (Required)
  • Last Played not in the last 1 days. (Required)
    This helps ensure that you don’t get the same song playing too many times. If I could make this hours, I would. But, alas, days are the smallest time unit Apple gives us.
  • Setting: Live Updating (Required)
  • Genre does not contain … (Optional)
    This is optional. Most of year I don’t want to hear Christmas music nor the ever-growing portion of children music I find in my library.
  • Grouping does not contain … (Optional)
    This is optional. There was a time years ago when I shared mixtapes with friends. Instead of overwriting the genre of each track, I used groupings to organize them. Most can ignore this.
  • Setting: Match only checked items (Optional)
    Depends how much you music you uncheck. If you never uncheck music tracks, then ignore this.

★★★★

These are your “gold” songs. You like these songs. If the mood strikes you, you might turn up the volume, but more than likely you’ll just tap your foot and keep doing what you were doing. You also may skip this song if you’re not really in the mood.

Rating, Last Played, and Live Updating are still the core ideas. But we also add in limits now.
  • Rating is ★★★★. (Required)
  • Last Played not in the last 5 days. (Required)
    This keeps a recently played track, which you like but don’t love, from coming up too often.
  • Setting: Live Updating (Required)
  • Setting: Limit to ___ GB selected by random (Recommended)
    If you have a large library and if you’ve rated a lot of your music, you’ll most likely have a lot more four-star songs versus five-songs. If you do, the number here should be dependent on your library’s size. Play around with it. I limit my playlist to 10GB. I currently have 36GB of music rated four stars. As a comparison my five-star playlist totals 21GB.
  • Genre does not contain … (Optional)
  • Grouping does not contain … (Optional)
  • Setting: Match only checked items (Optional)

★★★

These songs are okay. They’re fine. You don’t mind them. Some days you’ll listen to them. Some days you’ll skip them. It depends.

  • Rating is ★★★. (Required)
  • Last Played not in the last 2 weeks. (Required)
    It’s a three-star song. I don’t really want to hear it that often.
  • Setting: Live Updating (Required)
  • Setting: Limit to ___ GB selected by random (Recommended)
    If I’m limiting my four-star playlist to 10GB, I really want to limit this one. I want to listen to the music I love—not a bunch of meh stuff.
  • Genre does not contain … (Optional)
  • Grouping does not contain … (Optional)
  • Setting: Match only checked items (Optional)

Unrated

These are unknowns. You haven’t rated these songs yet for one reason or another. Most likely you just haven’t gotten to it yet. This is a dominant playlist in the final playlist, but that’s a personal preference. I want to rate and organize my music, so I purposefully make this playlist larger to get more unrated music in my station then rated music.

  • Rating is (no stars). (Required)
  • Last Played not in the last 5 days. (Required)
  • Setting: Live Updating (Required)
  • Setting: Limit to ___ GB selected by random (Recommended)
    As I said above, I make this list large (30GB), but that’s because I want to rate and hear new music.
  • Genre does not contain … (Optional)
  • Grouping does not contain … (Optional)
  • Media Kind is Music (Recommended)
    This keeps podcasts, TV shows, music videos and movies from getting into your playlists. It’s happened before.
  • Setting: Match only checked items (Optional)

Listen To This

Like radio stations, you always want to give newer music some extra spins. This makes sure it’s getting an extra opportunity to get heard.

  • Date Added in the last 8 weeks (Required)
  • Last Played not in the last 1 days (Required)
  • Setting: Live Updating (Required)
  • Media Kind is Music (Recommended)
  • Genre does not contain … (Optional)
  • Setting: Match only checked items (Optional)

Station

Okay, now let’s bring it all together.

  • Playlist is 3 Stars. (Required)
  • Playlist is 4 Stars. (Required)
  • Playlist is 5 Stars. (Required)
  • Playlist is Unrated. (Required)
  • Playlist is Listen To This. (Required)
  • Setting: Limit to ___ items selected by random. (Required)
    The number here is up to you. I find 100 works best for me because of the live updating functionality and using “Up Next” (see note below).
  • Setting: Live Updating (Required)
  • Setting: Match only checked items (Optional)

Notes

Here are a couple things to keep in mind.

Live updating playlists are a blessing and a curse.
The benefit of live updating playlists is that they’re always updating. Yet one of the problems with live updating playlists is that they’re always updating. So when you change something about a song (like the rating), it removes it from the “Station” playlist because it no longer meets the criteria from the original playlist it was on.

In previous versions of iTunes there was you could load a playlist and make changes to the song’s rating without it stopping the song or changing the playlist order. The name of this features escapes me, but the nice thing with this though was that once a song played, it still cycled off the list and pulled in the next track.

Recent versions of iTunes have removed this functionality in place of Up Next. While Up Next maintains most of the same features, it drops the feature which allows you to select a playlist to play from. Instead you have manually add items to the Up Next list.

This isn’t a huge deal. More of an annoyance. I’ve coped by making my Station list larger so I don’t have to add it to Up Next as often.

What about ★ or ★★ star songs?
These are songs we never speak about. If five-star songs are songs I absolutely love, four-star songs songs I like, and three-star songs I enjoy then two-star songs are songs I skip every time and one-star songs are songs I would delete but I can’t bring myself to have incomplete albums in iTunes.


That’s it. I hope these playlists help you unearth old favorites, discover new tracks, and reacquaint yourself with forgotten tracks. Also realize that most of us enjoy new music, but we like the music we already know a lot more.