Apple Music and Beats 1: A View from a Terrestrial Radio Guy

By on July 6, 2015

[A version of this article originally appeared at A Journal of Musical Things.]

As someone who has worked in FM music radio for decades, I’m fascinated by Beats 1, Apple Music’s “global radio station.” I’ve been listening quite a bit over the last week in an effort to figure out what Apple’s intentions are and what the effects might be on my industry. Here are a couple of things that have occurred to me so far:

1. The Word “Radio” is Back

I love how Apple has decided to use “radio” to describe this particular offering. And it’s apt because it is radio: a 24-hour stream of music curated by humans punctuated by outbursts from DJs/announcers/presenters (pick your term based on your geographic location) that’s not programmable in any way by the end user. You either accept what Beats 1 is playing or you don’t and you move on. The only differences between Beats 1 and any good FM station is turn on is (a) its delivery system; and (b) er, that’s about it.

By using “radio” to describe what it does, it brings the notion of radio forward in the thinking of those who don’t use radio as much as most of us. As an old-school FM person, I like that.

2. And the Media Goes Wild!

Have you noticed that almost all the media coverage about Apple Music has focused not on the streaming offerings but on Beats 1? It’s like the media–especially writers who cover tech industry–believes that putting radio on the Internet is a revolutionary new thing!

I hate to be a dick about it, but radio has been on the Internet since Rob Glaser introduced RealAudio back in April 1995 so he could listen to baseball games from faraway cities . What is good is that all these tech people seem to like what Beats 1 is offering. The most common review I’ve heard/read is (and I’m paraphrasing a little bit) “I can just put it on and let someone else select the music. I don’t have to worry about it. That’s so cool!”

Um, hello? Isn’t that what radio has been doing since about 1916?

To be fair, almost all of these commentators are in the US where the radio industry has been decimated by greed, consolidation, cost-cutting, voice-tracking, ill-conceived syndication and real estate hubris, all of which has resulted in truly crap broadcasting. (Blame the Telecommunications Act of 1996.) There are only a handful of music stations in the US that I’d listen to. The rest are truly awful garbage. Given what they’ve had to put up with for the last twenty years, it’s no wonder that Beats 1 sounds so fresh to these people.

Another reason Beats 1 has caught the attention of the US media is because it’s produced in a very BBC Radio 1 sort of way. It’s much slicker than the canned radio Americans are used to. Its forward momentum is addictive.

3. Is It Time for a New Monoculture?

When I was growing up, me and all my friends were glued to our radios. The DJs on our favorite radio stations told us what was new, what records to buy, what concerts to go to, how to talk, how to dress and generally how to be cool. Listening to the radio was a learning experience. This common source of information helped created consensus about what was good and what was important.

In an era where everything has become hyper-personalized–everyone is now their own program director for all the media they consume–might it be time for a new type of monoculture? You know, a place around which people of different persuasions can gather to form new consensuses about what’s good and what’s important for the community at large. With millions of people around the planet listening to Beats 1’s offerings, we could see new a whole new series of audience dynamics come into play. The results may be similar to how me and my friends used radio when we were in high school.

This could, in fact, be great for terrestrial radio.  People who have never used regular radio might be inclined to give it a try–maybe even for the first time–based on what they enjoy about Beats 1. Could this give the industry a new shot in the arm? Here’s more on that line of thinking. Meanwhile, there are things that terrestrial radio should steal from Beats 1.

Frankly, I’m excited about the prospects Beats 1 introduces into radio and the music industry. Who knows where this will go?


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