Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Pandora, the Radio Pandemic

The most recent comment by Pandora's Tim Westergren has the public radio listserves I subscribe to buzzing. According to a Cincinnati Enquirer interview with Westergren,
"Our goal right now is nothing less than to completely replace radio with this whole new thing called personalized radio"
Well, there's been a lot of hand-wringing and righteous indignation as you can imagine within the public radio community, but let's take a closer look at what's going on here.
First off, what is Pandora? It’s basically a music selection service. You start by creating a "radio station" (carefully chosen terms, those) by selecting some songs and/or artists. Each track in the Pandora database has over a hundred different characteristics assigned to it. Pandora starts by using its algorithms to select a song that fits the criteria of your core tracks.
The selection then plays, and you decide if it's great (thumbs up), awful (thumbs down) or OK (no response). “Thumbs up” adds that song (and its criteria) to the guidelines for the next selection. “Thumbs down” does the opposite, and helps filter the list.
The more you work with your "radio station," the better Pandora gets at finding music that fits your "format."
Most of the negative responses I’ve seen on the listserves tend to run along the following lines.
  1. People will get tired of hearing the same old thing. They'll come back to the wonderful variety of our programming.
  2. It's too high-maintenance. People will get tired of voting for every single song all day long soon enough and come back to our broadcasts.
  3. Other media was supposed to kill off radio but we’re still here. This, too, shall pass.
  4. Pandora’s not very good with classical. You only get individual movements, not complete works.
Well, there's truth in all of the above. But it’s clear some of the commentators have no first-hand experience of Pandora. As a user, here's how I see it.
  1. People do get tired of hearing the same old thing. That's why they're moving away from commercial radio. And as for public radio, the genres are different, but are playlists really that much broader?

    Speaking just as a classical music listener, I can count on my local public radio stations (WTJU excepted) to NOT play any lieder, early music, contemporary works, anything from the renaissance, any significant amount of chamber music, or any compositions over 40 minutes in length. So just how varied is this variety?
  2. It's too high-maintenance. That just depends on how high-maintenance you want your Pandora radio station to be. I've set up some of my stations with deliberately broad criteria so I don’t have to mess with them. I just press play and get taken on an adventure.

    Some of my other stations I treat like audio bonsais and scrupulously work the selections to get just the mix I want. But I don't have to. Sometimes I just let those channels play untouched as well -- if I don't vote on the track, it doesn't change the parameters.
  3. Radio’s still here. Well, other media may not have killed radio, but each new development impacted what radio was. Initially, everything was on the radio -- concerts, news programs, comedy shows, variety shows, comedies, dramas, soap operas – even audio adaptations of popular films. TV pulled away the dramas, soaps, sitcoms and variety shows, leaving radio to play records and cover the news – the audience changed.

    Cable TV took over the role of news coverage, leaving just music and talk shows -- the audience changed again. The rise of social media (of which Pandora is a part -- you can share your stations and check out what other people are listening to on the site) is replacing the radio as the place to discover new music. Sure, radio will be around, but what will the remaining audience want of it?
  4. Pandora isn’t very good with classical music. Agreed. Some people are quite happy to hear the middle movement of a symphony followed by a piano prelude, followed by the minuet from a dance suite and so on. I personally prefer to hear a work in its entirety straight through.

    Advantage public radio? Depends on which station you listen to. WTJU (where I do my classical music show) has a policy of airing complete works. The other two classical music broadcasters in our area have no such qualms. So that’s not entirely true.
So will Pandora totally replace radio? Not the medium, certainly. But just as TV took over part of radio’s programming, I think Pandora will do the same. When radio soap operas and dramas lost their audience, programmers moved on to different formats. The danger here – and it’s the same one commercial broadcasters made years ago – is that public radio broadcasters will assume that Pandora and similar services are but a passing fad and that it’s business as usual.
It isn’t, and it’s not.
- Ralph
Day 224 of the WJMA Web Watch. (I guess if you consider the whole Interwebtubie thing a passing fad, Pandora doesn’t even show up on the radar.)


  1. Good post, and I'm glad that this is getting outward looking discussion (blogs) as well as on inward facing (mailing lists). I feel bad that Pandora-using public radio friends are now ashamed to admit it on the public radio lists.

    I do use a lot of net sources for music, but Pandora was just a hassle for me...that doesn't mean it won't fit into the media picture for many people, nor does it me that I'm not subscribing to some of our competition. But I'm surprised that a source that benefits from the fragmentation of media use expects everything to re-coalesce...and around them.

    (and hey, WV Public Radio plays those varied classical things that you mention above! But not everyone is as awesome as WTJU and WVPR;))

    Classically Speaking / @wvclassical

  2. Anonymous8:59 AM

    Broadcasters have nothing to worry about from Pandora. Just keep up the local service that the Pandoras of the world can't offer and they'll do fine.


  3. Mona:

    Right on! Pandora works for some people -- in a previous post I estimated that this "free" service has cost me about $170.00 in CD purchases. But you're right. Each new technology just helps serve smaller groups more effectively, and it's unlikely we'll have everyone under the big tent again.