Pandora: Radio Done Right

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In May there was a series of specials called “The End” [defunct link] on CBC Newsworld about the end of traditional media. I finally got around to watching the first one about radio tonight, and found both a wealth of music options and, in my opinion, confirmation that terrestrial radio is dying a slow and agonizing death. The most important find was Pandora, a web service for creating your own streaming radio station.

Back in the late 1990’s while I worked at eBay, I used a vaguely similar streaming radio service. You rated songs as they came up and based on your ratings the station slowly tuned itself to your interests. This was fantastic until the music studios had the service shut down. Their argument? Adding artists and rating them meant the listener could basically listen to whatever they wanted whenever they wanted for free.

Now that the media conglomerates are finally starting to experiment and relent just a little, new web services have better options for licensing their content. Pandora allows you to start listening to music right away without setting up an account. An account gives you greater access to songs and you can listen on different computers, though only one at a time. A paid subscription (around US$36 a year) gives you ad-free access to the Pandora site.

Pandora station setup began with choosing a song or artist I like. I chose my favorite band: Fleetwood Mac. The service then began playing a Fleetwood Mac song, followed by other artists’ songs that Pandora believes are similar in sound. This similarity comes from what Pandora calls the “Music Genome Project” – a group of musicians and music experts who analyze music to capture those attributes than can relate songs together. As songs play, you give them a thumbs up or a thumbs down and the service will tailor itself based on your votes. My “Fleetwood Mac Radio” station now includes Gin Blossoms, James Taylor, Queens of the Stone Age, The Pretenders, and artists I have never heard of but who turned out to be great. You can ask Pandora “Why did you play this song?” and it will respond with something like “Based on what you have told us so far we’re playing this track because it features electric rock instrumentation, a subtle use of vocal harmony, major key tonality, electric rhythm guitars, and many other similarities identified in the music genome project.” How true 🙂

If you want more variety in your station, you add addition songs or artists and the station will search for wider ranges of music. I added another favorite band – The Weakerthans – and a different “genome” of music started to queue (leading to songs from the Beatles!) You can create separate stations for specific sounds, or stations with a wider variety of favorites across multiple genres.

All of this activity is through Flash, done correctly. Navigation is easy to figure out. Other features of Pandora include the ability to search for songs and albums for purchase on Amazon or iTunes; read more information about the song, album or artist; and send family and friends your stations and lists of bookmarked songs. You can even add your lists to your blog (something I may add here in the near future). Here is my page if you want to take a listen to my station [defunct.]

Music options today are nearly endless. Pandora is a wonderful example with its mix of streaming favorites and new discoveries. The only thing missing is portability. The day Pandora becomes available in my car will be a box opening worth living for.

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