I love and hate radio. Mostly hate. But I’m really excited about Apple’s new Beats 1 live worldwide streaming radio station.
We won’t really know what Beats 1 will be like until it launches on June 30. Until then, I can hope that I will find more of what I love about radio, and less of what I hate about it.
The worst part of FM radio is the commercials. I completely understand that they pay the bills and make the entire enterprise worthwhile for the radio station owner. But why do they need to be so annoying and poorly produced? And there are so many of them. And they repeat much too often.
The ads make today’s FM radio unlistenable in my opinion. Any joy I get from hearing music or disc jockey banter is overshadowed by the annoyance of the frequent ads. This is especially true today when you have commercial-free alternatives like Pandora, iTunes Radio, Spotify and even commercial free pay radio from Sirius XM. Having used all of these at some point, I find it unbearable now to listen to radio with commercials.
Beats 1 can become worthwhile by simply not having commercials. And I don’t see any mention of commercials, so this seems to be the case. It would make sense for Apple to use Beats 1 as a way to get people using iTunes, buying music on iTunes or just easing people into an Apple Music subscription. Apple won’t be paying for any FCC licenses since they won’t be broadcasting Beats 1 over the airwaves. So a few celebrity disc jockey salaries, some staff, and some bandwidth is all that it will cost them. For a company serving up billions of app downloads per year without charging anyone for that bandwidth, I don’t see this as costing them much.
Think about a typical iTunes customer buying X songs on iTunes per year. But if they start listening to Beats 1, and they discover something they might have otherwise missed, then they will be buying X+1 or X+10 songs per year. That could fund the whole enterprise.
I’d even be fine with some commercials as long as they weren’t like the ones on FM radio. If a disc jockey mentioned that the “pick of the week” was “brought to you by Clash of the Clans — get it today!” I would be fine with that.
Beats 1 is supposed to play great music. The problem is, who says which songs are great? I’m fine with letting the three main disc jockeys and some others create the programming. But I’m worried that some songs will be played not because they are great, but because a music publisher, or Apple itself, wants to push them.
It would be natural for Apple to do this. In fact, it already does by pushing new releases on the iTunes Store home screen. No one is paying for this placement, but clearly those in charge of the picks can’t think that every new release by every major artists deserves to be there.
It will be interesting to see what happens if the disc jockeys don’t like a new song by a major artists. Will they play it anyway? Will Apple force them to play it?
This will be pretty easy to figure out after a few months. If every new song gets some airtime, then we know that Beats 1 will be about what they hope will sell, as opposed to what is really great.
I don’t expect my opinion on music to match the opinions of the disc jockeys and other people on the Beats 1 team. I’m fine with that. I’ll keep listening as long as they stay true to themselves.
Naturally any great new song will get played more than once per day. But top 40 radio and even genre-based stations seem to play from a slowly changing playlist. It is not uncommon to hear the same songs repeated in few a few hours.
I’d like to hear a mix of new songs, some deeper tracks, and some old material. Every once in a while play something that’s just downright weird. When it is a full moon, play a set of five songs with “moon” in the title. On the first day of summer, play some songs that celebrate summertime. Every once in a while play one of those covers where an unknown band plays a popular song in a different style. Most of those are available on iTunes, so it even makes sense.
Above all, play some independent music. iTunes has been great for independent artists in that their music is just as available to purchase as those from well-known bands. And some of it is just as good if not better. Beats 1 needs to be brave enough to play the indies alongside the major label stuff.
It seems like whenever we hear disc jockeys talk on the radio in movies, they are passionate about the music and have such interesting things to say. Real radio is never like that. But it can be. I want to hear the disc jockeys tell me why they love the next song, and why I should too.
I don’t want them to be annoying. I don’t want the morning zoo or “shock jocks.” I just want to know what they feel and connect with them. If one of them is having a bad day, I don’t want them to hide it. I want them to let it out. Play a depressing song that reflects their mood and then follow it up with a defiant song as they try to cheer themselves up. If they are celebrating something, then let the listeners share in the celebration. If the disc jockeys let us in a little without stupid tricks or shocking talk, then I think people will stick around.
I’m very excited and optimistic about Beats 1. All of the things I mention above are not only possible, but make sense as something Apple should want from the radio station. Add to that the idea that you’ll feel a little connected as thousands, perhaps millions of people listen at the same time. That’s a very powerful idea.