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The decade's most important radio trends: #5 The Age of Pandora

#5 in our series on radio trends of the decade

It’s difficult for me to write about the Internet radio phenomenon without disclosing my personal investment in the subject. I listen to the Pandora radio service most every day that I work at my computer. Pandora has saved classical music radio for me, and, I’ll bet, for tens of thousands of others.

I love classic music and all its historical eras. First it was the music of God, then of the Enlightenment, then of romantic nationalism, then of workers’ revolutions, and the complex multitude of twentieth century identities. But my local “classical” FM station here in San Francisco, KDFC-FM, stripped all of that out of the genre, save Vivaldi concertos in the morning and Tchaikovsky waltzes in the afternoon. The signal’s motto says it all: Everybody Remain Calm. As if the purpose of classical music was ever to calm you down, or keep you company in an elevator.

I don’t want to single KDFC out. Tell me of a big signal, commercial classical FM radio station in the United States that plays late Beethoven string quartets or a Bartok piano concerto at 2 pm in the afternoon. If you can, I’ll write a blog post singing your praises.

Pandora, which began operations in the summer of 2005, changed all that. It taps into a huge digital music library called the Music Genome Project. Pandora’s online listening program doesn’t allow you to pick and choose which specific songs you’d like to hear, but it permits you to create performer, composer, or genre channels that semi-randomly expose you to the compositions and performances you crave.

So, for example, I’ve got a Pandora channel called “Moritz Moszkowski,” named after the largely forgotten late-19th century virtuoso pianist. I can’t pick Moszkowski pieces at will, or press a rewind button to hear the tune again. But Pandora gives me something better than that. Its database searches for Moszkowski’s historical colleagues and plays me them as well: Paderewski, Saint-Saens, Brahms, Grieg, Chaminade, Faure, and others. The channel also gives me the option of adding other composers to the mix.

The result is something much more sophisticated than file sharing or downloading. I can’t quite bring myself to call it “radio” in the mid-20th century sense of the term, because there are no deejays (although Pandora says it’s working on that). But Pandora certainly is radio in the sense that it offers you more than just a mirror of your own musical preferences. It educates and surprises and moves you, and that’s what real radio is supposed to do.

Pandora has gone through a variety of hot-and-cold moments since its auspicious start. Its founder Tim Westergren told Bloomberg in May that the company would soon be profitable. Then he warned The Washington Post that the operation might “pull the plug” if it didn’t get friendlier performance royalty rates. But SoundExchange, the non-profit in charge of implementing copyright fees for streaming radio, eventually came through with a compromise that Pandora could live with (we’ve got the history of all that here).

There are a host of streaming services, of course, including play.it, live365.com, deezer.com, slacker, stitcher, grooveshark, last.fm, accuradio, and its affiliate, futureperfectradio. Some, like grooveshark, give you exactly what you search for. Others, like last.fm, offer a more visually elaborate version of Pandora (with perks like free music downloads!).

But the public has made it abundantly clear that it’s the Pandora model that they favor. The Ando Media research groups’ latest stats clearly show this. Last.fm’s owner, CBS radio, is the top audience getter, with 175,261 “active audience sessions” in September. That’s probably because CBS also owns LaunchCast and Aol.Radio. Then comes Pandora Corporate, with over 150,000.

The lesson is obvious. Music lovers want more than a juke box—a dispensary of their own knowledge and tastes. They want what commercial radio used to provide—a corridor to new, beautiful, and unexpected sounds. That’s why this is the Age of Pandora.



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9 Responses to The decade's most important radio trends: #5 The Age of Pandora

  1. Music Downloads December 29, 2009 at 9:30 am #

    Pandora is a good example of something going right with online music business.

  2. Frank December 29, 2009 at 11:24 am #

    KFUO-FM St. Louis…but not for long. A new owner is in the wings and wants to change it to Christian rock. But we’ve been lucky up to now.

  3. Blue December 30, 2009 at 1:24 pm #

    Granted I like KDFC, even if they can’t play everything. What Pandora doesn’t offer is anything local, even though they are a Bay Area company, I think. KDFC is the only radio station supporting the local arts community by staying classical. Radio can still be about supporting and interacting with the local community. Pandora is cool for folks whose tastes are outside the mainstream, or who just want Romantic Piono Concerts or all songs that sound like britany Spears. By the way, I bet you heard Moskowski on KDFC first. I did. Plus they play all the other composers you mentioned except not much Bartok. I’ve heard they are the most popular classical station in the country for years. Name a radio station in America that plays a Bartok Piano Concerto in the daytime that has a significant audience. KFUO, and many others that have gone away maybe didn’t play enough Vivaldi and Tchaikovsky, the stuff most people like. I suspect the “Bartok stations” are gone or very small. The Oingo Boingo stations and Mott the Hoople stations are rare too.

  4. Matthew Lasar December 30, 2009 at 3:48 pm #

    Blue is absolutely right when he notes Pandora’s lack of local content, something I’ve written about myself. And like so many commercial stations these days, KDFC can boast of a handful of local connections to the San Francisco Bay Area, most notably the signal’s broadcasts of Davies Symphony concerts and the San Francisco Opera. But this represents a very small percentage of the station’s air time. I just tuned in. They’re playing the first movement of the Grieg piano concerto, which is what I’d expect of KDFC.

    I seriously doubt that the staff there care about my criticisms, which they have doubtless heard a thousand times. They point to their Arbitron ratings as proof of their success. I’m perfectly happy to concede that KDFC has successfully created an easy listening radio station. But for me classical music is about more than the Grieg concerto at 2:30 PM.

    As for when I first heard Moszkowski, well, I guess I’ve got to give away my age here. I heard him first on an actual classical music radio station in New York City which is long, long gone. The station broadcast a live recording of Vladimir Horowitz performing Moszkowski’s miraculous Concert Etude in F major. It blew me away. Nothing on KDFC blows me away. In fact, KDFC is carefully designed not to blow me away, as far as I can tell. And so I blew myself away and now listen to Pandora.

  5. Zach January 1, 2010 at 4:35 pm #

    Pandora is the future. Terrestrial or satellite isn’t even close – although I will say Sirius XM has enough choices that it might be a worthy investment. I listen to Pandora more than my iTunes now, much of which I own because I heard it on Pandora, and I don’t see that changing.

  6. Gary January 1, 2010 at 5:51 pm #

    I, too, prefer Pandora for occasional listening but I listen to SiriusXM for the most part. As an opera fan, I don’t like how Pandora gives you the “greatest hits” approach. It would be nice to have the choice to hear a full length piece. For satellite radio, XM had the best with VOX but the Met Opera channel in the merged iteration is certainly better than the dearth of opera available elsewhere.

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