Five Things Internet Radio Should Steal from Broadcast Radio

This post comes from Music Content Strategist Chris Price, who was previously at BBC Radio 1 and Head of Music at MTV and A longer version first appeared on his website, along with a comparison of streaming service artist radio.

Zane Lowe has announced he’s leaving BBC Radio 1 to join Apple. If we were looking for a sign that the worlds of music streaming and broadcast radio are converging, then a move by iTunes to inject the one thing internet radio has always lacked – presenters – is surely it. Apple has started by poaching the greatest music broadcaster on the planet. At first sight it looks very much as if internet radio, which turns thirteen this year, might be growing up.

But in many other respects it’s still acting its age, personalised radio has actually learned very little from its broadcast parent. Slaves to the algorithm, most streaming services are stuck on shuffle, either ignoring or flat-out rejecting programming as a deviation from the personalisation mantra. Broadcast music radio could teach webcast a thing or two about optimising reach, share, session length and ad revenue. Not to sound too much like your evil stepdad, internet radio, but it’s really time you grew up.

For the first twelve years of my career I programmed music for broadcast media. Later I transitioned into internet radio, and as a consultant I’ve advised both broadcast and streaming clients. At radio stations I usually work alongside broadcasters and music programmers, in streaming those programmers tend to be of the ‘data scientist’ variety, and the difference between the two is marked.

Data scientists are incredibly smart people, they understand things like Python and Hadoop, collaborative filtering, matrix factorization, and canonical correlation analysis. Their great achievement using these tools has been to make the personal global and the global personal. But their huge brains have been less exercised, I think, by the universals of music flow such as mood, gender, texture and familiarity that engage the mainstream listener – that’s what radio programmers are great at. My hope is to bring the two types of programming closer together, with the aim of making internet radio more engaging, stickier and just better.

1. Familiarity trumps discovery at scale

Let’s get something straight right at the outset: music discovery, by which I mean people actively seeking out new music, is a niche pastime almost by definition. As any broadcast radio programmer will tell you, most listeners tune in not to hear new music, but to delight in lovingly crafted sweeps of (mostly) familiar songs. Mainstream audiences – which is to say large audiences, the kind that deliver advertising dollars worth writing home about – know what they like, and they like what they know.

The challenge for the radio programmer is keeping your output sounding fresh whilst grappling with this rather inconvenient but unavoidable fact. Even new music networks like BBC Radio 1, whose obligation to expose emerging artists is enshrined in its service licence, know that without solid golds and recurrents to underpin their daytime music strategy, there will likely be no audience to expose those new artists to.

Streaming services, especially all-you-can-eat providers, have become so fixated on solving the ‘discovery problem’ that they have, with a handful of notable exceptions, forgotten to fill their recommendations engines with the fuel that drives discovery in the first place – familiarity. Despite its occasional protestations to the contrary, internet radio is no different from broadcast in this respect. Among the numerous ingenious ways of creating stations on, for example – Artist Radio, Tag Radio, Friends’ Libraries and so on – by far the most popular is Your Library, or ‘music you know and love’. If streaming services expended as much energy on familiarity as they do on discovery, they would have bigger audiences, listening for longer.

2. Recurrents build audience and sell advertising

This point follows on from the first. Recurrents, and their sexier-sounding friends ‘hot recurrents’ and ‘power recurrents’, are the backbone of all contemporary music radio. They’re the songs that generate audience passion, keeping mainstream listeners coming back and – crucially – selling advertising. If you’re rotating records at all – and sometimes even broadcast programmers forget this – you’re doing it to develop recurrents, period.

Categorising songs in this way is relatively manageable when your library stretches to no more than a few thousand songs, as is the case for most broadcast music radio. But when your dataset runs to the tens of millions, manual housekeeping obviously isn’t possible. It is possible, however, to auto-generate categories that might inform radio flow – I’ve seen it done. Using these ideas, in 2012 one developer built an auto-categoriser that used chart data to determine popularity and ‘endurance’ metrics for bucketing tracks – a project sadly stymied by staff churn from developing beyond a creative hack.

3. Presentation is everything

Just as a great chef doesn’t just throw his ingredients haphazardly onto a plate and send it to the table, presentation in radio is everything. Great recommendations and similar artist accuracy simply aren’t enough. Internet radio sometimes gives the impression of having nailed the discovery problem and then retired to the Prince Arthur to celebrate a job well done. That’s approximately equivalent to Radio 1 loading its playlist additions onto an iPod and hitting shuffle. It’s not good enough.

Clock programming gives your output structure – and your listeners reasons to keep listening. Reward them for staying tuned through challenging content and they’ll thank you in spades. By ‘reward’ I’m referring to recurrents, by ‘spades’ I mean increased session length, and by ‘challenging content’ I’m talking about anything from sponsorship announcements and presenter links to trails, commercials or – the most challenging content of all – unfamiliar music.

Most broadcast radio stations conduct music research to test which songs work best with their audience segments – male/female, younger/older, even daypart by daypart – in order to be sure they’re making smart recurrent choices. Internet radio doesn’t need to do this; it generates usage, satisfaction and demographic data every time someone hits play, skip or like. And yet some of them – I’m looking at you Spotify, Deezer and Rdio – are failing to cushion the effects of challenging content with songs that are popular even on their own service. To collect all this data and then not use it to inform music flow is a missed opportunity.

+Spotify’s Chairman Has “Zero Understanding” of Why Artists Are “Complaining”

US internet radio giant Pandora averages 20 hours’ listening per user per month. Contrast that with BBC Radio 2, the UK’s national pop music behemoth with over 15 million listeners, which is averaging nearly 12 hours per listener per week. That’s what good scheduling delivers. If Spotify wants to truly compete with Pandora in the US – maybe even take a bite at the broadcast pie – it’s going to have to get a lot better at radio. Learning from broadcast programming techniques is one way to do that.

4. Think nationally, programme locally

This one is – or should be – very straightforward. It almost goes without saying that not all songs (or artists) that are hits at home are hits overseas. Broadcast radio knows this, but personalised radio seems to forget it sometimes. It’s the reason, even though I can advise radio clients from Serbia to Santa Monica on music strategy, I couldn’t programme a Belgrade pop station if my life depended on it – I just don’t have the local knowledge.

In an effort to eliminate any confirmation bias from my streaming service comparison, I listened to 20 hours of Foo Fighters radio – two hours on each of the ten biggest services. I made sure that, with the exception of services not available here, my location was set to the UK in all cases.

So why, Spotify, Deezer and Rdio, did I hear an uninterrupted stream of US modern rock staples like Bush, Creed, Incubus, Everclear and Candlebox, who are mostly unknown (and frequently unloved) in the UK? Play ‘Swallowed’ for British listeners or play nothing by Bush at all. (As an experiment, I changed my location to L.A. and played Foo Fighters radio on all three of these services from the US with the help of a VPN, and – yep – almost identical recommendations.) If Foo Fighters radio sounds exactly the same in London as it does in LA, then it’s not personalised, and it certainly isn’t smart.

5. Property scheduling gives you the edge

The kind of metadata that broadcast radio programmers use falls broadly into two categories. The first is objectively true information such as artist, title, duration and so on – the kind of metadata that streaming services receive every day in XML’s from labels and aggregators. But broadcast radio adds a whole load more subjective data to each song such as gender, mood, tempo, texture and others, usually referred to as ‘properties’.

Properties are used mainly to eliminate clustering – of several very sad songs in a row for example, or too many male voices – as well as sound clash, such as very thin textures running into full textures over a segue. Music intelligence companies like The Echo Nest do a pretty good job of machine learning and assigning these properties, but it’s how you use them that matters. Poor or non-existent property scheduling is the reason I had been listening to Foo Fighters radio for a full eight hours across four different services before hearing a female voice – poor even allowing for the macho genre selected – and why one four-song sweep of maudlin modern rock had me ready to give up on smart radio forever.

I won’t give up on it though, because I strongly believe that some elements of broadcast music programming philosophy can be brought to algorithm-driven music streams. I’m interested in working with data scientists, developers, music intelligence experts, streaming, and music scheduling software companies who share my conviction that internet radio can better. If that’s you, let’s talk.


Middle image by Eva Rinaldi, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC by 2.0).

10 Responses

  1. Name2

    Yeah, or there’s public, college, and listener-supported radio.

    (Until the RIAA kills them off, too. Because thieves.)

    • Remi Swierczek

      RIAA will allow anybody and everybody to play anything when we convert all music in the air, regardless of the source (any type of Radio any type of streaming or elevator speaker) to simple MERCHANDISE available for purchase or addition to the playlist.

      DJs will develop own mixing psychology and play the best material for conversion to CASH.

      $100B music industry by 2020 @ 39¢ per tune.

    • Anonymous

      Really interesting article. This guy gets it.

      Also, I see why now why breaking in with original songs is so difficult. People really are not that interested unless it sounds pretty close to something else that they already have grown to like.

      — Glenn

      it’s essentially impossible Glen, which is why so many covers of famous people exist and why so many talent shows where they use old songs for the contestants to cover exist, so that they can then get the exposure to maybe help the artist they are wanting to sign fans and numbers up to a point that once with some name brand well known super star producers, that maybe just maybe the team of top specializing pros has a meager chance of maybe breaking some original songs to a point they first make it to the shelf and that they then second maybe climb the charts and so that maybe one day will then get covered themselves, all desperate to recoup the tons of money theyve had to toss out just to get to that point, which is another reason the industry works like it does… Its just another hierarchical pyramid setup where you have very little choice but to give up a heck of a lot to just maybe have a small chance, and then let other more tenured players with big fan bases or huge proven names to make your music for you until youve done your time to be allowed to maybe do it on yourself…

      it does not matter how talented you are, you have to either build it up yourself or else take the long slow drawn out normal corporate ladder climb, which is also why majors are way more of a kids game, other then those already tenured such as legacy acts or those with huge fan bases…

      they dont really care about music so much in the business sense or in their jobs, its all about the numbers…

      How else can someone like jesse c write huge songs for the likes of la familia miley, who cant hum a tune herself or even write a 3 line kindergarten poem, yet have so few fans herself and so little industry help as an artist that everyone whos onto her early has to wait like half a decade just to maybe see her get a sliver of a chance to blow, so finally long down the road where shes made enough money for the sort of same old players and family members and club players, where theyll finally feel obligated or possibly even required to take that chance on her or whoever it is, monetarily and reputation speaking…

      i made a small hedge a few back pushing something to radio, and i got just pummeled and hammered because of it, i mean super show and industry and media annihilated it wasnt even funny, so its a real tough game like that… luckily i didnt dump much money or time into it else i would have been a bit upset, but i sort of had the heads up…

      i mean it is what it is, every wheel would stop spinning if massive collusion wasnt allowed, which is fine, i mean, society is whats most important right??

      • Anonymous

        thats why its such a rich kids and trust funders game and why big corps have such a vice grip on it..

  2. so

    One of the best pieces I’ve read on DMN – thanks, Chris. But a concern: familiarity may be the fuel that drives discovery, but by definition, it’s going to drive less of it. Some of us truly DIY artists are doing well on Internet and streaming radio and will likely start to get shut out. It’s actually a benefit to us that the algorithm doesn’t care which press agency reps us, or how much money we are plowing into advertising, or who knows who. The data scientists did much to level the playing field. From there, the listeners took over. With human curation, we get human foibles. Lastly, we feel like Internet radio as-is will draw songs from our entire catalog as opposed to reducing us to a handful of “recurrents.” Would very much appreciate hearing your thoughts on this.

  3. Name2

    One word: MOG.

    You started (because MOG is dead) radio based on an artist/album, etc, and there was a slider from (IIRC) 0 to 100 available for you to decide how adventurous you were willing to be: forcing the pushed songs to stay close to or drift more distantly from the picked item/artist. For instance, being unadventurous on “Rolling Stones” would get you classic rock, the usual suspects, and a fair does of Stones. Allowing MOG to go farther afield would get you old blues and R&B, reggae – and not necessarily strict covers. And of course, you could adjust live while listening, and what would follow next would be calculated by your slider.

    It’s the single thing I miss most from any dead/departed music service.

    • Julian

      LAUNCHcast had this 17 years ago. It also factored in what things you had rated. So your station, when set to minimal discovery, would give you artists and/or songs you had rated highly, plus obvious similar artists, eg Everclear for a high Foo Fighters rating. But if you had it set to discover more, your station would be this nice blend of familiar and unfamiliar, and somehow really found new things that you would like, even though you hadnt rated them! The recommendation algorithm was brilliant and no internet radio has matched it yet. This was all before Yahoo bought LAUNCH and systematically ruined all of their unique offerings.

  4. Radio Pro

    I started in broadcast radio in 1976. Today, I am syndicated on numerous stations. I also run an Internet based station. What was written is as true today as it has ever been.

  5. Jason

    Great article. I agree with the MOG comment. I believe MOG and its tech was purchased by BEATS which was purchased by Apple. We will see if the slider shows up again.