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Apple’s Beats 1 Radio Is Interesting Because It’s Purposely Global

I started listening to Apple Music’s new Beats 1 Radio this morning at 10 AM PDT, two hours after the new service launched. On the face of it there is nothing particularly innovative about the station. Even though Apple unsuccessfully tried to find a new word for “radio,” Beats 1 is just that.

The most standout feature that the press has latched onto is the growing lineup of celebrity DJs, including Dr. Dre, Elton John, and St. Vincent. No doubt, Apple must have invested much more money in Beats 1 than most broadcasters spend on any one station.

However, to me the station’s most distinctive aspect is that it’s trying to be truly global in a way that very few, in any, music stations are. It’s not just because Beats 1 has DJs spinning from London, New York and Los Angeles–that’s the least interesting part.

Rather, as I heard DJ Zane Lowe explain it during his show this morning, Beats 1 is scheduling its anchor programs for global listening. The program schedule shows Zane Lowe’s LA-based show, Ebro Dareden’s NYC show and Julie Adenuga’s London show each play twice a day, twelve hours apart.

While most internet radio is available worldwide, most of the time the programming is scheduled around a home time zone. Sure, I can listen to the BBC’s digital 6 Music or terrestrial BBC 1 services–which Beats 1 is not dissimilar to–here in the US, but I have to accept hearing the morning show during the afternoon and adjust accordingly.

In this way Beats 1 more resembles international shortwave broadcasters, like the BBC World Service, which schedule programs based upon which part of the world is awake and listening. Beats 1’s twelve-hour repeat doesn’t strictly target many regions, although it does make it easier for someone in both New York and Sydney to catch the anchor DJs during normal waking hours.

It must be noted that it’s programmed for English speakers, and so far has an Anglo-American bias. However, I did hear a French-language song during Lowe’s set, “Tout les Mêmes” by Stromae.

Beats1_scheduleRight now, however, the station’s celebrity shows have just one scheduled time. St. Vincent’s and Josh Homme’s shows broadcast only at 10 PM ET on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively. If Beats 1 adds more celebrities from outside North America and the UK I wonder if those shows will be scheduled for the convenience of the star’s home countries. Or perhaps the celebrity programs also will get repeated.

Musically, so far the station has played a mix of current pop hits across genres like rock, hip hop, electronic and even house. Though I hope DJs puts their own imprint on their sets, I’m curious to hear how widely the mix varies. Lowe definitely played some British artists that are new to me–he hails from London even though he hosts his show from LA.

When the broadcast shifted from NYC to London at noon Pacific Time the change was radical, by pop standards, featuring distinctly London genres like Drum n’ Bass and Grime. At the same time there is definitely a rotation that cuts across locales–I heard three tracks repeated across the three sets I heard originating from LA, NYC and London. I appreciate the localized variety, but I question if all listeners will.

If the mix varies too much show-to-show then Beats 1 faces the same problem that college, community and many public stations face in having eclectic schedules. That is, while there is an audience that enjoys eclecticism, or is willing to tune in specifically for a favorite program, the average radio listener is trained to expect one format per station, and often will only give a station one or two chances to play something she likes before rejecting it altogether.

The simplest way for Apple to address this problem is to splinter Beats 1 into more narrowly formatted stations. Of course, this runs counter to the proclaimed globally unifying ambitions of the station. Also, it’s more common for music radio outside the US and Canada to be a little more eclectic and not ahdere to so tightly to genre. So perhaps the global audience will find Beats 1 more instantaneously familiar, while US listeners may enjoy the slightly different approach.

The other way to make Beats 1 more user friendly is to offer shows on demand. Again, that seems to run counter to its ethos. But it sure would satisfy that St. Vincent fan in Edinburgh who can’t stay up until 2 AM local time to catch her Beats 1 set.

Despite my cyncism about the fact Beats 1 isn’t particuarly innovative, it is nevertheless an ambitious undertaking. When it was announced I mused if it–and all of Apple Music–would be a threat to independent internet radio. So far, I don’t think so. There are programs I want to check out, but on the whole I think Beats 1 is more of a threat to your local CHR station or global pop stations like BBC 1 than any college, community or indie station I’d listen to online.

It’s still an open question as to whether it will catch on after some of the newness wears off. Moreover, celebrity DJs likely will come and go as obligations like recording and touring take precedence. Will a Queens of the Stone Age fan remain a Beats 1 listener if Josh Homme’s show goes on hiatus or ends? Who knows.

Beats 1 Radio is available for free to anyone with an iOS device and an Apple user account, and is certainly worth checking out. It does require updating to iOS 8.4, which just became available today.

Beats 1 also will be available to anyone using iTunes on Windows or MacOS, as long as you have an Apple account. The service requires iTunes 12.2 which is scheduled to be available sometime Tuesday, but has not yet rolled out as of noon PDT.

For those who feel like they’re missing out because they don’t have an iOS device, don’t sweat it–it’s not worth buying an iPhone for. It may be worth installing iTunes for (when 12.2 becomes available), since it is free.

I’ll share more thoughts about the music and sound quality, along with the newly launched Apple Music service, in tomorrow’s Digital Watch feature.


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