Jazzed About Online Music and Radio

May 2008

It’s been a long time since I regularly listened to a radio, and I never thought I’d get excited by online offerings. But then I was introduced to Pandora — and now I’m jazzed.

An acquaintance was listening to some lush music via speakers connected to her computer. When I asked what it was, she said it was her Brazilian station that she’d created: 24 hours a day of streaming Brazilian music that she can turn on whenever she wants.

The astonishing thing about Pandora, a free service, is how easy it is to create your own “stations” that only play the sort of music you like — and how effective it is at serving up your favorite music.

Here’s how it works: you go to the Pandora web site and type in your favorite song, recording artist, or composer. Pandora then scans its database for music that’s similar, based on hundreds of attributes.

I typed in Rimsky Korsakov, since I’ve always enjoyed his fun and colorful orchestrations. In about a minute Pandora had created a station that featured the same sort of lighthearted and richly orchestrated music from the Romantic period, with composers such as Dvorak, Smetana, and Tchaikovsky. It was so simple.

As each new song starts playing, you have the option of clicking thumbs down or thumbs up. Clicking thumbs down immediately ends that selection and goes to the next (though you’re limited to six “skips” per hour). Clicking thumbs up lets Pandora know that this is what you like, and in this way Pandora is constantly learning to better suit your tastes.

In some ways Pandora is preferable to playing your own music collection, because in addition to playing music that you’re familiar with, it mixes in music that’s similar but that you may not have known about. That happened with my Rimsky Korsakov station (which I’ve now renamed Classical Music). It played a number of his compositions that I hadn’t heard before.

You can set up as many as 100 stations. You can tweak a station to be even more in tune with your interests by adding more “seeds” — that is, favorite songs or artists. Also, in addition to listening to one station at a time, you can use the QuickMix feature to mix your stations, such that Pandora alternates playing songs from a specified listing of your stations.

Pandora has a ton of other features, such as viewing background information on each recording artist or composer, album, and song. Also, for each selection, Pandora displays a list of similar songs. And once you’ve created a station, you can share it with others, as well as browse through stations that others have created who have tastes similar to yours.

Plus, you can buy radio-like devices that let you stream Pandora in your living room connected to your sound system. Pandora’s paid service lets you stream to these devices as well as to select mobile phones. And it also eliminates the ads that appear on the home page.

Note that when you create a station by typing in a particular song, Pandora doesn’t start by playing that song because of some complicated thing about licensing. You can only create a station of similar music, but presumably your favorite song will be streamed at some point, just as my Classical Music station played a number of Rimsky Korsakov’s compositions after first serving up a couple other composers.

If you want to listen to a specific song, try Last.FM. The site has a catalog of 3.5 million songs, and you can request any song you like. But you can only listen to it three times.

Last.FM also lets you create stations, though at first glance it didn’t seem as quick and easy as Pandora.

Another great radio offering online is RadioTime. This web site lists radio stations in the U.S. that stream their content online, including information on their genre and what’s currently playing. And, more significantly, the site sells software, called RedButton, that’s like a TiVo for radio: you can pause and record live radio as well as schedule automated recording of your favorite programs. You have a choice among the file formats MP3, WMA, or AAC and can even record up to eight programs simultaneously. The software is only available for Windows, but the site recommends similar software for a Mac called RadioShift.

I, frankly, didn’t ever think I’d get excited about online music and radio offerings, but love Pandora. Hope you’ll enjoy it as well.

© 2008 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D

E-mail Jim Karpen