itunes radio

The much talked about iTunes radio service rolled out on Wednesday as a built-in feature in the new mobile iOS 7 and in the latest version (11.1) of the iTunes software. In advance of the Apple launch, the big question was: Is this a Pandora killer? We don’t think so. There are a lot of nice things about iTunes Radio, and it will undoubtedly eat into Pandora somewhat, but iTunes Radio also has some significant flaws.

Interface and First Reactions
Putting aside the first day difficulties in downloading iOS7 or the new iTunes update, as promised, iTunes Radio was accessible and intuitive. Of course the interface on each device is different, due to differing screen size. To get the full benefit of all the features, you have to access the iTunes version rather than the mobile ones. For example, on all the stations I tried (pre-programmed and custom) iTunes radio allowed 6 skips per hour per station. On the desktop version, you get an on-screen notification of how many skips you have remaining. The mobile version doesn’t have this.
iTunes offers a range of featured and curated channels, covering a wide spectrum of genres and artists (“Pure Pop,” “If You Love Arcade Fire”, “Jazz Showcase”, etc.). As other observers have pointed out, Apple isn’t offering any spoken-word stations or options in iTunes Radio. This is a big difference compared to competitors such as Pandora, iHeartRadio and Sirius/XM. Apple, of course, offers plenty of spoken-word programming via its Podcast service, but it’s not integrated into the new radio service.
iTunes Radio does have a tight integration with the iTunes Store to let you buy any song you hear. But let’s face it; most services have a “Buy” button. However, with the other services, if the user’s not sure about an immediate purchase, how does he get back to it without going to the trouble of writing it down? iTunes Radio takes care of this with a couple of cool features. First, there’s a history of what you’ve heard across all devices and all stations. So if you want to go back and listen to a sample of something with the intent of buying, you can do so. Second, there’s an “iTunes Wish List” feature that lets you keep a running list of songs you might want to buy. This is a great addition.
But, Pandora’s interface has iTunes Radio beat when it comes to artist and song information – Pandora’s desktop and tablet platforms show song lyrics and artist bios. Apple’s interface just displays a list of other curated channels, along with information about my custom channels.
On the other hand, Pandora’s non-premium platforms include a lot of annoying display ads. In fairness, Pandora’s ad program has been going for years; it’s too soon to tell where Apple will go with its.
Customized Stations
After dabbling with a few of the Apple curated stations to get a sense of how the service looked and how it worked, I quickly turned my attention to creating my own station. The process was simple and intuitive, allowing me to choose artists and/or songs that I wanted to build my station around.
I especially liked a clever feature called “Tune the Station,” which gives you a slider to determine whether you want “Hits,” “Variety” or “Discovery.”
I set mine for Discovery and started to pick the music, which is where the problems started to appear. I began with U2, then selected 3 other artists and 2 specific songs (from 2 other artists). In the process, though, I discovered that one newish song from Dawes and one ‘70s track from Fleetwood Mac weren’t recognized, so I had to choose others.
Once my station was set up it was accessible on all my synched devices: iPhone, iPad and PC.


Song and Artist Repetition
The most startling thing was the amount of repetition on my custom station. Having created it by naming 4 artists and 3 songs, I expected a lot more variety than I got. Thanks to the History feature, I was able to track back the first 60 plays (about 4 hours of listening), on my station, across all 3 devices, and I counted just 25 different artists.
At one point, the same Coldplay song, “Life In Technicolor ii,” played twice in a 4-song span – not just Coldplay; the same Coldplay song. And, to compound the problem, the song played again the next morning. Coldplay was not one of the artists I had specifically chosen, but it fit the general tone of the music I had selected. Still, I didn’t expect that 6 of the first 60 songs would be from the same artist.
Coldplay wasn’t the only artist to play a lot. Here’s how the most-played artists looked on my station over those first 60 plays (artists I chose for the station are in bold):

  • Coldplay – 6 plays, 4 songs
  • U2 – 6 plays, 6 songs
  • Deer Tick – 6 plays, 6 songs
  • Dawes – 5 plays, 5 songs
  • Jason Isbell – 5 plays, 4 songs

That’s significantly more repetition than you’d find on a terrestrial radio station, except for a Hits station. It’s certainly a lot more than you would expect on a station set for “Discovery.”
And how do you reconcile that with iTunes having access to millions of more songs than Pandora?
In Between the Songs
The non-musical elements were unobtrusive. There were limited audio ads, roughly one every 15 minutes or so. Most of these lasted between 15 and 25 seconds. Many of them were ads for the iTunes Festival, but other products and services were there too. They also air some interstitial station IDs, giving the name of the station.
The iTunes Radio experience – at least with my custom channel – could have been better. I was surprised at the amount of repetition. And, because of this, I couldn’t help feeling that Apple was trying to force feed me specific artists, rather than truly offering “Discovery.” This is a real issue, which Apple will need to clear up quickly.
A clean interface and drop-dead simplicity is nice, but it’s no substitute for great music variety.

– Pat Welsh