Music Public Radio: Not Safe

I don’t want to go into a long explanation or diatribe at the moment, but this news about Pandora — the online music listening and discovery service — is really important for the public radio community, especially for stations that are using music as a core service.

This week saw the publication of a TechCrunch article on some new Pandora stats, including these tidbits:

  • Pandora has more than 40 million registered users as of this month
  • The service doubled in size in 2009 alone
  • They’re currently adding 600,000 new registered users per week
  • Half of all new users are on mobile devices
  • The iPhone has 10 million of the 40 million users all by itself
  • iPhone registrations for Pandora are up 400% in 2009 alone
  • By “Ando Domestic Ranker” calculations, Pandora represents 44% of all Internet radio listening hours
  • Among 18-24 year olds, Pandora gets 2X the daily visits as Hulu or ESPN

I gotta say, I don’t get public radio music stations. Even before the iPod’s introduction in 2001, I was “self programming” music for the most part, jumping around genres and artists via CDs in the car and even mix CDs of my own creation. Today I would never listen to a music radio station. I have so much music of my own it would be a virtual “waste” to listen to someone else’s stuff.

I know there are a lot of classical public stations out there, and a few jazz stations, and I suppose those could be viable just because they’re unusual — there’s no competition on the dial.  The AAA stations are interesting, too, I suppose. But with iPods, Pandora, streaming Internet stations, satellite radio and so on, this just doesn’t make sense to me, economically.

The only way music stations make sense is if they build a viable community around the shared interest. Two AAA stations that seems to understand this are KEXP and WXPN. And WOSU’s venture with their own Capital City Radio is attempting the same thing — melding a local music community to a streamed service.

But if you’re just a broadcaster and you don’t do anything more to galvanize a real community around what you collectively love, I don’t see much of a future for you.

Pandora’s two primary failings, I would say, are community and technology.  This is where pubcasters that want to do music can get a leg up. Pandora’s technology failing is that you have to have a live Internet connection for it to work. Of course, live Internet access is pretty darn widespread these days, so that’s not a complete deal-breaker. And there’s more Internet in more places every day, so this failing is rapidly dissipating. I can already listen to Pandora in my car over a 3G wireless stream. And Pandora is bringing their service to cars directly very soon. Still, it’s not as cheap or ubiquitous as over-the-air radio.

The other failing Pandora has is the community aspect. Yes, there are sharing and friend-discovery systems in Pandora, especially on the full-blown web site, but it’s not the same thing as what a local station could achieve. There’s no geographic unity to Pandora’s “community,” so meeting in person is not really an option. If there’s anything a geographically-bound broadcaster has over Pandora, it’s the option to build a community with real depth and face-to-face participation and sharing.

So for those of you doing public radio classical, jazz, AAA formats or whatever, make sure you’re building a community with direct interaction, sharing, authentic hosting and the smartest damn genre curation on the planet. All that may or may not be enough to be economically viable in the long run, but it’s your best chance if music is your stock in trade.

Hat Tip to Todd Mundt for the Pandora article find.

2 thoughts on “Music Public Radio: Not Safe

  1. “I gotta say, I don’t get public radio music stations. Even before the iPod’s introduction in 2001, I was “self programming” music for the most part, jumping around genres and artists via CDs in the car and even mix CDs of my own creation. Today I would never listen to a music radio station. I have so much music of my own it would be a virtual “waste” to listen to someone else’s stuff.”

    I listen to radio, public or on-air, internet or not, to hear music that I don’t already have or know. I subscribe to Paste Magazine for the same reason. One of the main advantages Pandora and services like it has, for me, is that music discovery benefit. I don’t want to spend my life playing the same songs I already own over and over.

    As for the rest of your post? I agree. I also hate over-specializing my listening, as with super niche systems like XM Radio.

    Great post. Thanks for the thoughts!

    • Thanks for the comment, Rob. I’ve been using Pandora for music discovery, too, and most stations are too tightly programmed for my tastes. Or at least they used to be — back when I was listening!

      Pandora has gotten me to spend real money on new music in ways that radio never has. That means something, I think.

      Still, if a station can find the right music mix and build the right audience, it may very well work out.

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