Internet Radio Is Terrible — But Apple's Beats 1 Could Save It

Internet Radio Is Terrible — But Apple's Beats 1 Could Save It

When was the last time you tuned in to a radio show? If you have a smartphone, you carry around entire music libraries, music recommendation engines and endless podcasts, and the last time you called yourself a radio devotee was when you stayed up to catch Loveline in the late '90s. The era of DJs talking about news and lifestyle while recommending songs and taking calls is feeling more dated than ever. But all that could be about to change.

Apple launched Apple Music on Tuesday. Along with it comes a 24/7 radio station called Beats 1 that will feature curated music, three live hosts and, presumably, call-ins and interviews. It's the kind of old-school radio that the digital age lacks, for the most part.

What about podcasts? Many people describe podcasts as radio for the Internet age, but podcasts aren't radio stations at all. Podcasts aren't live. They're pre-recorded shows, serially updated albums of spoken-word content. Some podcasts have live call-ins and music curation, but this is usually because they are terrestrial radio shows that have been recorded from live broadcasts and are being distributed via podcast.

Algorithmic Internet "radio" stations like Pandora, iTunes or Spotify's radio station are also not radio stations, in the traditional sense. These services use favorite artists to try and guess what kind of other music you'd like based on preferences you've already described.

Actual radio includes hosts who hand-curate music based on personal tastes. But most importantly, it offers live interaction — the ability for listeners to reach through and take part in the show, creating a common project or community.

Live media is having a moment. For the first half of 2015, all anyone could talk about was live-streaming apps like Periscope and Meerkat, while streaming platforms like Twitch.tv and YouNow got their first mainstream play and new, high-profile competition from video incumbents like YouTube.

This is what Internet radio offers that Spotify and Pandora — and even most podcasts — can't: live interaction with hosts. And since the music libraries are functionally the same, this also offers a strategic advantage in its war against Spotify: An original station is one of the few things another service can't just copy. For anyone not impressed by Apple making Taylor Swift's 1989 available, having a radio station you can't get anywhere else offers a reason to switch from one service to another.

As the weeks roll on, and Beats 1 either falls flat or gains a following, we'll see if Beats 1 can rack up the kind of loyal following that local radio stations and national radio personalities have traditionally. In the meantime, you can bet that Apple will continue to roll out more shows and stations while it fixes inevitable technical issues.

"They've called it Beats 1 — the ambition is quite clear, isn't it," Radio 1's Ben Cooper told the Guardian. "We're going to get Beats 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, maybe even local versions as well."

For now, they've lined up three international DJs, interviews with stars like Eminem and Jaden Smith and enough talent and hype to bring in users across the world. Now they just need them to stick around and fall in love.

"We spent the last three months trying to build this radio station and we can build no more," Beats 1's first DJ, Zane Lowe, said at noon today as soon as Beats 1 came on air. "We must launch."