Thursday, May 24, 2012

Radio Challenge Part 3 - The Conclusion

In part one of this series, I outlined the experiment. Compare an hour of commercial radio against an hour of Pandora. Part two goes into greater detail about how I conducted the research and the actual results. Which just leaves the question -- how do they compare?

Music Content
Over the course of the hour, the radio station played ten songs, and Pandora played fourteen. So if music was all I was interested in, Pandora was the winner. Plus, these weren't any old songs. Radio stations carefully craft their playlists to ensure that listeners know exactly what they'll hear when they tune in.

In this case, I was listening to a classic rock station, and I wasn't disappointed. All the artists and songs I heard fell under that definition. And I even heard a (relatively) new song by Joe Walsh!

To set up my Pandora station, I took the first three artists I heard on the radio and plugged them in. I could have carefully crafted my station's playlist by using the thumbs up/thumbs down feature. But for this experiment, I just let Pandora's algorithms do the selecting. And they did a pretty good job. All of the artists (well, maybe with the exception of the Hollies) fit comfortably into the classic rock format.

Local Information
Surprisingly, this was pretty much a draw. Of course I didn't expect to hear any local programming or information on Pandora. Sometimes on the website local ads would pop up, but going only by what I heard, my Pandora station was an anonymous music machine.

Unfortunately, the classic rock station wasn't much better. The DJ intro'ed a few tracks, and read the weather once, but that was all. I didn't hear about any local events, any local news, or any local traffic alerts. With the exception of that lone weather forecast, this station could have been broadcasting from anywhere.

Overall Listening Experience
So which would I prefer to listen to? Well, it depends. Had there been more local content on the radio station, it would have been closer. As it was, I really only had two factors to consider:

1) How much music did I want to listen to?
2) How many interruptions was I willing to put up with?

The radio station lost on the first point, and definitely lost on the second. There's a reason why I put spaces between each music/non-music element in the lists. Because each break represented an interruption. On Pandora, the interruptions were minimal -- one 15-second commercial after every four songs. That's not to say it wasn't irritating, but it was tolerable.

Not so much on the commercial radio side. I understand the concept of station promotion -- I really do. I practice quite a lot of it when I'm on the air. But they were all for the same thing, the morning show. Really? There's no other special programming I need to know about? Who's on in the afternoon? What's happening this weekend? Anything else going on I should stay tuned for? Now those spots were irritating.

But worst, I thought, were the marathon commercial breaks. Yes, by clumping all the ads together into two blocks you can boast about "long music sweeps." But four minutes of unrelenting pitches is strong encouragement to turn the dial (or move to another music source). And as I listened through the breaks, I wondered how much value the advertisers of spots #2 and #3 really received for their ad dollar.

When the music started again, I tried to recall the ads I heard. I could remember the last one, and with less certainty the first one, but the ads in the middle? No idea.

So is Pandora radio? Well, based on my listening, I think it is. The primary difference I heard was the commercial station played more ads and ran more promos telling me how great they were. When both sources were just playing one song after another, the experience was the same -- it just lasted longer on Pandora.

Let's go back to Gordon Smith's keynote at the National Association of Broadcasters convention I cited in part one.

"[Broadcasters] have what everyone else wants --airwaves, content and a local connection."

Airwaves? Yes
Content? Not as much
Local connection? Not that I heard

So if two of your three key differentiators are neutralized, where does that leave you?

The Radio Challenge
Part 1 - The Premise
Part 2 - The Details

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