This ain’t your grampa’s AM radio

In January, 2003, I bought an XM satellite radio with a car kit and promptly signed up for the monthly subscription service. Compared to commercial radio, XM offered an excitingly vast world of musical variety. It had music channels for most genres and many of the tracks it offered were semi-obscure tidbits of random recordings. So caught up in the fascination, I didn’t realize that the choices, in actuality, were still quite limited. There was so much music lurking beyond my realm of perspective which I wasn’t aware of. I eventually dumped the satellite radio and subscription in order to curtail superfluous expenditures (which satellite radio is…dreadfully so).

As internet speeds increased, the next economical level of musical niche participation to present itself were the plentiful internet radio stations which proliferated in the ensuing years of escalating computing power and enormous data pipelines. I listened to radio stations offered through i-Tunes and Windows Media player for years. The stations were ubiquitous and I was able to find several that catered to most of my decidedly anti-pop tastes. This exposed me to a variety of bands and musical genres I was unaware of.

My early-70s memories of AM radio-listening days quickly faded into a foggy past. Now, with the correct software, it was also possible to record sounds streamed in from the internet and convert them to mp3 files, adjust the sample rate and burn them to a CD. For a music and technical geek, this was nirvana.

In spite of the musical variety I could stream into my living room, there was still the limited nature of a radio station. The radio station was limited by a playlist designed and gathered by stranger’s hands and ears. Essentially, I was at the mercy of these gatekeepers of internet radio. If a song played which I did not like, my only choice was to change the station, bear the song and hope the next one would appeal to me, or just turn the volume way down.

Recently I discovered a couple of new musical streaming internet options which are basically “smart” algorithms which distill your input in order to formulate a “personalized” radio station which is tailored to fit snugly over your ostensible tastes based on your “like” or “don’t like” feedback for each song that plays. The two that I’ve used are Pandora Radio and last.fm. Both services offer a free version as well as a $3.00/month subscription version. It seems Pandora is slightly more limited in the free form. In its free version, you can only listen to 40 hours of music per month and the sound quality is lower than the pay version. Similarly, last.fm’s subscription service offers “ad-free” playback and “uninterrupted” listening, whatever that is. last.fm’s superior draw is that the free version’s monthly usage is not capped. For now.

As far as content, both boast a seemingly bottomless trove of music. I’ve searched for some pretty obscure bands and artists and both services easily spit out a radio “station” centered around the artist and music which the service’s inner computational music-recognition software equates and matches with the taste of someone who would choose said artist. Once you search for an artist, each service will create a station named after the artist. For instance, if you search for Merle Haggard in Pandora or last.fm, both sites will create a “Merle Haggard Radio.” Your new playlist/radio stations will be gradually populated by the nature of your likes and dislikes, but the primary music to filter in will largely be Country-Western as performed by brooding male singers with gruff voices, circa pre-1980. If you type in Lady Gaga, chances are Pandora or last.fm won’t summon up much Abba or Dionne Warwick.

Pandora paired with Sony Internet TV and Google TV and have created an app that is pre-loaded into the the Smart TV home page menu as I detailed in my review last week. I was pleased to discover that I can access last.fm through the Smart TV’s Chrome app browser and listen to it instead of Pandora, which re-affirmed my faith in the free market as offered through the infrastructure of the Sony TV. Incidentally, last.fm is an app on Microsoft’s Xbox Live network.

I’m newly acquainted with Pandora and last.fm and I look forward to learning more about these awesome musical providers. I would suggest these especially to those music fans whose tastes lean toward the alternative, anti-pop persuasion. Generally, pop music “aficionados” are not picky or demanding about the format of the music they listen to and they are happy to listen to AOL Radio or other restrictive mainstream offerings. Pandora and last.fm are best utilized by the typical “fringe” music fan who cannot find enjoyment in the mediocre choices found in the pop environment.