Internet Radio Arrives (Again)

From the FM band to .FM domains

Ebro Darden, live from Beats 1 New York

It’s 2016, and it seems like we may finally be getting the internet radio experience we deserve; the experience we’ve long deserved, but no one’s ever quite thought to offer us because the versions of the concept we’ve had for 20+ years were actually quite adequate.

It seems like such a simple concept, especially when you factor in how modern technological standards are so much better equipped to support the bandwidth than at its inception in 1993. Audio data is continuously transmitted serially (streamed) over the local network or internet in TCP or UDP packets, then reassembled at the receiver and played a second or two later.

But, until only recently, the user experience has been… merely functional. In most cases, internet radio “stations” have been limited to an audio stream, playable from a certain web address. The benefit of these types of stations is that anything audible can be streamed (interviews, DJ mixes, talk shows), and people were able to access the streams through their favourite browsers or media players. Unfortunately, a stream of audio was about all you get. If you’re fortunate enough to listen to a station that has any other web presence, you might find tracklists and other desirable information about the broadcast on their website.

More modern services like Pandora have consisted of an interface in which users can listen to a station, programmed by an algorithm, based on artists the user likes, previous listening history, or any similar metadata. These services are usually stocked with fully tagged tracks to aid in music discovery. They’re subject to licensing agreements with performing rights organisations which usually means you can’t do things like skip ahead in a track, or skip too many times, but that does fortunately mean artists can get paid for their streams.

These were pretty much our options, and we were content to make do with what we got, but it was likely easier to chalk “the way it was” up to the sheer lack of importance. We were still an ownership society that was just getting comfortable with the idea of acquiring music via digital marketplaces, and some of these online streams were just another access point to traditional radio broadcasts for occasions in which you were away from your FM radio. No big deal, right?

The Glory Days

Believe it or not, terrestrial radio used to mean something. There was a time when radio stations were distinct and unique communication houses, (granted a broadcast frequency which was theirs) to deliver the latest and greatest music to anyone who managed to tune in while in range. There are actually several great stories of how modern radio evolved in various territories — my personal favourite is the history of the Pirate Radio ships in the UK during the ’60s — and a lot of what drives these stories was the local culture.

When Biggie talks about Rap Attack every Saturday, he’s not just detailing its broadcast schedule; he refers to a cultural and generational phenomenon of tuning into WHBI-FM (then WBLS-FM for six years after) every week to hear the first all-rap show on a major radio station. In this piece for Cuepoint, famed New York DJ Stretch Armstrong, having lived through that era, describes the experience of diligently catching your favourite shows every week; he really lets you know what that feeling was like.

And that’s exactly my point: listening to the radio, you used to catch feelings over your favourite shows, and the music you heard on them.

Nowadays, thanks to iHeartMedia’s (very expensive) crippling chokehold on the majority of FM radio stations in the US — and, subsequently, the precedent their and their contemporaries’ programming strategies have set all around — every station just seems to be versions of each other, painted in broad strokes devoid of all character (urban, alternative, dance & EDM, etc). It’s a bit of a generalisation, but one need only flip through a couple radio stations in a North American market to hear how homogenous programming has become.

Meanwhile, across the Pond

There has been some relief overseas, of course. UK outfits like BBC Radio 1, and pirate station-gone-legit Rinse FM have been particular champions of diversified programming. Their youth and underground-centric origins likely have much to do with this, though an argument could be made that these stations have made it more of a priority to be stay ahead of the curve in order to define it, rather than bow to corporate interests who would rather it remain familiar for as long as possible, in order to capitalise on trends.

Both Radio 1 and Rinse, as well as their various terrestrial and digital relatives, are known for their roles in breaking new records. Yes, of course there are stations in the US premiering new records (especially in their local scenes), but when’s the last time anyone tuned into Real 92.3FM from outside of LA to hear the premiere of anything?

They developed relationships with their listeners over shared taste.

And if there’s anything else the British broadcasters have also mastered, it’s the dying art of the radio personality. As Stretch describes in his article (and by his very existence in the canon of NYC radio), there was a time when radio hosts used to be musical icons in their own right. Their celebrity was directly related to their ability to captivate their audiences with the newest and freshest music. They developed relationships with their listeners over shared taste. And while we can look to figures like KCRW’s Anthony Valadez or many of the characters at Hot 97 to carry that torch today, sadly they’ve become the exception, not the rule.

DJs from BBC Radio and Rinse FM have become known the world over for the way they’ve introduced audiences to the stars of tomorrow’s musical landscape. Annie Mac, Benji B, MistaJam, and Gilles Peterson from the BBC; Hyperdub, and Plastician from Rinse FM, being some of the most household names, have shaped the way listeners worldwide are introduced to new and exciting music.

I might even go as far as to say these DJs and stations have shaped the way internet radio will present itself in the future, with alumni from each station, Zane Lowe and Julie Adenuga respectively, being scooped up alongside Hot 97’s Ebro Darden by Apple to anchor Beats 1 Radio.

Russ Hanneman, a character on HBO’s ‘Silicon Valley’, the fictional man who “put radio on the internet”

Finally Online

So, in consideration of all we’ve seen in the rise and stagnation of radio, it’s no surprise that the tech sector has sought to revolutionise the medium. We’ve long had the means and the tools to accomplish the practical task of streaming audio in real time so it was simply a matter of content, right?

In 1995, a Texas-based startup called AudioNet (later began doing just that with a few local stations, and later college sports. A few years later, they were acquired by Yahoo! for a substantial sum of money, and absorbed its radio functionality into the now defunct Yahoo! LAUNCHcast (formerly LAUNCH Media, later renamed Yahoo! Music Radio). The service eventually struck partnerships with CBS Radio, then iHeartRadio as a means of subsidising royalty costs, but features and user experience (UX) kept changing (which never makes your product popular with users). As of late 2013/early 2014, the service was shut down.

The 15 year lifespan of LAUNCHcast as a service was quite extensive, as far as services from that era of the internet go, and allowed it to see many competitors rise and fall.

On another corner of the internet, podcasts were thought to be the next wave of broadcasting (after all, the word is a portmanteau of iPod and broadcast). At its inception, it was quite an obscure means of disseminating information, as it required a level of technical savvy that was then uncommon, but its functional benefits have since been capitalised upon by developers to bring it into the mainstream.

Podcasts, while similar to radio broadcasts in that they are episodic, are usually pre-recorded audio shows that can be subscribed to, and streamed or downloaded in a software client called a “podcatcher” (e.g. iTunes, AntennaPod, VLC, SoundCloud).

While sometimes used for music shows, podcasts have gained popularity among content creators broadcasting other types of material, such as This American Life’s crime drama Serial, or Joshua Topolsky’s tech & culture talk show Tomorrow.

The growth in popularity of podcasts has definitely been monumental, and creators have even found ways to monetise them through sponsorships and the like (Josh Morgan calculates about 60,000 active podcasts as of 2015). It’s a medium that’s on an upward swing, for sure… but it can’t be done live.

Podcasts, and similar mechanisms like DJ-centric Mixcloud, have been used to archive previous broadcasts, but they’ve been more supplementary to the format, than an advancement of it.

The Next Generation

In June of 2015, Apple announced the next progression in their legacy of revolutionising digital music: Apple Music & Beats 1 Radio. The former was their entry into the digital music streaming battlefield, and the latter part of their strategy to funnel users toward the former.

But beyond using it as an on-boarding platform to Apple Music, Apple has been operating Beats 1 Radio as if disrupting the commercial broadcast industry, and setting a new gold standard for curation was their plan all along.

Beats 1 Radio hosts Ebro Darden, Julie Adenuga, and Zane Lowe

On the 14th of February, 2015, the BBC announced that one of their top tastemakers, Zane Lowe, would be leaving Radio 1 for a position at Apple. It was a huge announcement, considering his 13 year tenure at the BBC. At the time, details were scant about what his role would entail, but over time the specifics solidified. Lowe, anchored in Los Angeles, is one of the three flagship presenters at Beats 1 Radio, joining the aforementioned Ebro Darden leading New York, and Julie Adenuga heading up London.

In addition to these three broadcasting icons, Lowe also handpicked a dream team of musical heroes, and up-and-comers to host their own shows including A-Trak, Elton John, Q-Tip, and Joe Kay of Soulection. Drawing from his years of experience in the industry (and generally well-regarded taste), Lowe and Apple have begun building a next-generation broadcasting platform that rises to the challenges of a network-connected world.

If you’ve never listened to Beats 1 Radio before (accessible through iTunes, and via the music app on your iOS device, or the Apple Music app on Android), subjectively, I’d rate it a pretty great experience. I find the programming much more diverse than most traditional radio stations, there are no ads (at least not in the same obnoxious manner as we’re used to), and they have some of the best shows I’ve ever heard.

But, where the magic truly happens, lies in the user experience.

In their WWDC ’15 announcement, they made such a huge deal about the accessibility of Apple Music (and, subsequently Beats 1 Radio) — “… the entire Apple Music catalog at your fingertips across your favourite devices” — and rightfully so; it’s a huge deal. In entering competition with streaming frontrunner Spotify, Apple had the advantage of their app coming pre-installed on every iPhone in people’s pockets.

And while the debate about the merits and pitfalls of streaming rages on (see next week’s Official Position for more), an often overlooked fact is that Apple also managed to turn those same phones-in-pockets into radios that only tune to their station — a station that, as I mentioned earlier, on-boards Apple Music subscriptions and/or iTunes Music Store sales. Applause-worthy strategy.

So what does this user experience entail? A lot more information than radio has ever afforded us.

When you open the music app on your phone, and navigate to the Radio tab, you’re greeted with a massive Beats 1 hit zone that starts playing whatever’s airing live (indicated at the bottom), and a button to Explore Beats 1.

If you begin streaming their broadcast, it starts playing with the controls minimised, simply displaying the vitals: What song’s currently playing, by whom, from what album, and what station you’re on.

If you choose to pull up the full control screen (by simply tapping on the minimised info bar), you get a screen almost identical to the control screen when listening to your own music, except the only controls you have are stop, favourite, and volume.

It’s one of the most beautiful parts of the interface because, unlike regular radio, you can experience the music each DJ plays as if it was your own, or favourite so you can find it later to buy/stream on demand. It’s actionable metadata.

If you backtrack to the main radio page by minimising the control screen, you can go deeper, and learn more about the station’s programming.

You can glance ahead as to what’s coming up later in the day, or you can look around at what other regular shows air on the station. Digging into the other stations is a great way to get familiar with them.

A-Trak’s Day Off Radio is one of my favourite shows. It’s perfect music for when I’m in the gym, and he’s just such a damn good DJ, I’m glad I can listen to him play a set every week or so.

What’s also great is how Apple has integrated Apple Music’s into each show’s page. It allows Apple Music subscribers to catch up on past shows, and anyone to view playlists from each episode’s broadcast, and keep up with extra content the hosts may upload.

So is it deserving of all the fanfare? Well, the Apple Music & Beats 1 Radio experience is a revolutionary offering to broadcast at large. It’s far from a perfect piece of software, but it exhibits brilliant thinking as to the future of the medium.

One of the most frustrating usability aspects of traditional radio for a long time was the struggle to identify music, especially if you tuned in midway through a song, or after a track announcement. Even with tools like Shazam, you were always at the mercy of a track being submitted to their library (or a noisy room).

When you have a medium and a format whose purpose is to help users discover new music for them to add to their collections, a hinderance like the inability to identify a song at any point in its duration seems like a critical flaw.

Sure, that was a limitation of the technology at its inception, but we’re almost a century removed from the first commercial broadcast station, so it’s about time someone arrived with a solution.

The Future is Bright

There’s a lot of work to do in the internet radio sphere. And if the influence on Beats 1 Radio’s naming is any indication, Apple at least has left room for expansion. I, for one, am excited by the prospect of online radio developing from the place Apple has brought it.

Granted, there are few entities that have the infrastructure Apple has built for personal music consumption over the last decade-and-a-half since the debut of iTunes, and subsequent release of the first iPod. They’ve put tons of resources into the building the most reputable digital music marketplace, generations of the latest must-have devices, and locking consumers into their ecosystem. Adding a broadcast component to their portfolio has obviously been an insightful, and progressive venture.

But even without a “tuner” in every pocket, and the talent of dozens of mega-stars headlining their programming, online broadcasters now have a blueprint for an enjoyable AND useful radio experience; a blueprint being referenced by another outfit of massive importance to music and culture: Red Bull Music Academy.

Currently in private beta, RBMA Radio’s new web portal is building an interactive experience not entirely removed from the Beats 1 experience via iTunes.

Red Bull Music Academy, being more geared toward the underground, offers more eclectic programming than Beats 1. And because they’re not focused on driving you toward album sales or streaming subscriptions, users are offered a different skew of information, including labels. It’s very DJ-centric, which I can appreciate, and I think diggers will too.

Their approach to programming is notably different to Beats 1 — a rotation of hosts from RBMA Alumni and friends, rather than a regular stable of big names; programming to coincide with their live events, rather than confining everything to their studio — but the utilisation of the internet as a medium is similarly on point.

The public version of RBMA Radio (accessible via web browser and mobile apps on iOS, Android & Windows Phone) is still a stream of pre-recorded mixes, interviews, and features, but Red Bull has long established themselves as tastemakers with their ear to the streets worldwide, so a live broadcast comprised of the same attention to quality will be a welcome addition when they eventually bring the app out of beta.

There may be other players coming up in the game (and I certainly hope there are), and it’s almost inevitable that Beats 1 and RBMA Radio will continue to develop their stations, both content and delivery-wise. Gilles Peterson’s Worldwide FM is slated to launch this June, and though the initial six week transmission was simply an audio stream sans metadata, there’s always hope that they’ve been paying attention. The same goes for Toronto’s TRP Radio, which presently only lets you know what show is currently airing.

But regardless of whether new upstarts decide to adapt (or die), the gauntlet has been thrown down, and we’re officially… finally being delivered the online radio experience we’ve been waiting for.

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