iTunes Radio Is So Good, I Almost Forgot About Ping

iTunes Radio feels like the first truly modern take on what terrestrial radio wishes it could be—a super-slick promotional tool sitting right on top of the world’s biggest music store. It’s also Apple's chance to slowly build in social features that make sense.

Opening the music app on an iOS 7 device, I was greeted by iTunes Radio asking if I was ready to try it out. As someone who listens to a lot of music and primarily uses streaming music services, radio has lost its appeal, but my initial intrigue gave way to some overwhelmingly positive first impressions.

[Editor's Note: You'll need to download and install the iOS 7 beta to try this at home.]

Pushing buttons and navigating through the radio section of the former "iPod" app, everything isn't just smooth and responsive, it’s also pleasant to use. While this is partly due to iOS 7's redesigned music player, everything about Radio is intuitive from the layout of featured stations to digging into a current song and seeing what other music the band has to offer. The design and goal is clearly focused on listeners purchasing music—but even so, iTunes Radio feels like the first truly modern take on what terrestrial radio wishes it could be. Radio was always meant to be a promotion tool, a way to sell more music, but without being built directly on top of the world's biggest music retailer, it was always too distant from the marketplace to be more effectual. Now a "buy" button lives next to every song, or a wish list one for those hesitant, and it feels like this is how modern radio should function.

Clicking on the featured "Artists On Tour" station provided a good selection of songs you'd expect to hear on any Alt/Rock station in any city. Starting with Capital Cities mega hit "Safe And Sound" followed by the likes of The Killers, Tegan and Sara, Fun., and Paramore, the results didn't leave me shocked or disappointed. One of the most interesting featured stations you’ll currently find in Radio is "Trending on Twitter." The station is exactly the type of thing you'd hope for and expect from Twitter's recent leveraging of music on their platform with Twitter #music. Starting with Gold Fields, moving to Elephant Stone, the station provides a random and wild collection of songs users somewhere are currently talking about.

You can start a new station with pretty much any song or band, however, starting stations with smaller bands like Paper Route or Kodaline provided songs that were a stretch, but not beyond belief. This is the same thing you run into with Pandora or any other radio service—variety suffers when the bands aren't well known.

Some of the more interesting aspects of Apple’s Radio service include the History list, which showed more than a few dozen songs back to when I first started listening (as seen above). The ability to look back, click on a song to hear a clip, and then buy it is the service's crown feature. If you’re currently listening to a station and click on a song in the history, it pauses the music, plays the clip, and then fades back to the stream when the clip is done. Exactly what you’d hope for and expect. Though I wouldn't call them lacking features, the ability to scroll forward in a song is sorely missed, as well as the ability to go back to a previous song. It's doubtful the future versions will be including those features, as licensing restrictions will likely keep them away.

After using and putting the service through some tests, my hopes for it are simple. Rather than running into another Ping situation where Apple tried to artificially create social around music, Radio has the potential to organically provide a water cooler with which sharing and social will naturally occur. As is, I found myself wanting a way to see what others people are listening to, and a way to share my own current tracks. This is Apple's chance to slowly build in social features that make sense. Maybe radio ain’t dead after all.

Tyler Hayes contributes to Hypebot.com and does interviews for NoiseTrade's blog. He often writes about music and the impact of tech is having on that industry, which can be often be found on his personal blog, Liisten.com. Tyler also runs the site Next Big Thing which ranks user submitted links for an interesting hub of music related content.

[Image: Flickr user Sergio Enciso]

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  • Diar

    Other than the buy button, can you explain how this is really better than regular radio? This still has commercials (the very thing that makes everyone hate regular radio the most) and you're still completely at the mercy of whatever is played for you. There still is not likely to be any web client to listen to music without your phone/tablet. I don't think you can pick individuals songs (except maybe to start a station) or albums. You can't download for offline play. You can't listen to songs an unlimited number of times. Can you even listen to a song back-to-back if you really like it? Here's what you wrote:

     "The ability to look back, click on a song to hear a clip, and then buy it is the service's crown feature."

    The hell it is. You mean if you want to go into your history to hear a song you listened to you only get a clip? You're very impressed by what is essentially a list of songs.Other than moving the awful experience of radio to the Internet and adding instant purchase, I am struggling to see the appeal of this service, other than music discovery, which I imagine would be good. It works and looks good...great. Where are the functions, the extras? Why choose this over Pandora, Spotify, Rdio and others, when they're arguably better?And Google Play Music All Access blows all of them away (though it's not free). It does everything iTunes Radio does, what Pandora does, what Spotify does, creates playlists for you, lets you download streamed music (songs and entire albums) for anytime listening, lets you add streamed music to your library so when shuffling it will mix your personal collection with the streamed music. Please don't limit yourself.There are much better choices out there.

  • Comment Zilla

    You can hear the whole song when it is played over the personalized station, then if you choose to buy, then you only hear a clip.

  • Comment Zilla

    Easy, for $25 per/year no ads plus you get hires copies of anything you pirated in your iTunes library.

  • brianericford

    >>Other than the buy button, can you explain how this is really better than regular radio?

    It's better than regular radio for the same reason Pandora is better (even with limited ads): Radio rarely plays music and when they do, they tend to play the same 10 popular songs you heard yesterday on that station. At all other times you're listening to some wise-ass DJ and his sidekick trying to be funny or edgy or whatever. In the time I'd hear 5 songs on regular radio, I could be through 20 or 30 on iTunes Radio, or Pandora. I'll hold off on reviewing the commercials because 1) I subscribe to iTunes Match so I don't hear them and 2) it's too early to say whether they're useful or not. Commercials aren't terrible by nature, they're terrible by nurture. We'll see.

    >>The hell it is. You mean if you want to go into your history to hear a song you listened to you only get a clip?

    But, again, this is comparing one discovery tool (iTunes Radio) to another (traditional radio). Personally, I find such a service more useful than (say) Rdio, because the goal (for me) is to find new music I'll like. I don't do very well on that on services that just allow me to go pick a song and listen to it. Then, when I discover something I love, I can go buy it and listen to it over and over.

  • Sumocat

    "Radio was always meant to be a promotion tool, a way to sell more music" -- Actually commercial radio was introduced as a way to sell radios.

  • terrysaunders

    To be a true radio replacement though surely it's missing the personality of DJ's - could there be any scope for truly curated and announced tracks/shows in future iTunes radio?

  • brianericford

    I'm not sure I'll miss having my music interrupted by a DJ -- though I suppose there was a time when they actually spent time being informative about music, and didn't spend so much time being annoying. As it stands, though, my favorite part about iTunes Radio is that it's just music all the way down.

    I remember a bit before podcasting really took off that some people I knew would produce live streams in which they'd play music they really liked and talk about it or do call-ins and requests. I always thought it'd be neat if Apple built in a really easy way to broadcast a radio station of the music you've purchased if you were an iTunes Match subscriber. Sort of a GarageBand for would-be DJs that could then be pushed out as a live-stream that I could subscribe to.

  • terrysaunders

    I'd definitely agree that no DJ is far superior to modern commercial DJ's, but a great (and rare) one guiding you through their collection is a fine thing. Maybe this could have the potential to be a resurgence of that? 

  • brianericford

    Gruber asks why it's not already released, and I think the answer is the same reason iOS 7 isn't already released: It's buggy and unpredictable. It's not fair to hold that against Apple in Beta, but WOULD be fair if it were a public release. Maybe pre-Maps someone would have pushed to get this released, but I'd bet that semi-debacle taught them a valuable lesson.

    It's hard to judge the discovery engine right now because (unless I'm an anomaly) the "discovery slider" which ranges from "play the hits" to "discover new music" isn't actually implemented yet, so you're left with whatever the default is. (It's in the pictures on the iTunes Radio section on apple.com, but I don't see it in-app -- am I just missing it?) With that said, listening to the alternative station has hit on a ton of songs I've never heard and have really liked, even if it does play a bit more of a certain T&S song than necessary. Maybe this just means I'm out of touch, though and younger, hipper crowds will find the selection predictable. 

  • John Lascurettes

    The history is KEY to me. I hear Spotify most often when I'm driving or riding and cannot interact with the app. It's a damn shame that I can't ID my favorite tracks I've heard. Now I can. 

  • John Paul Titlow

    How do the recommendations and discovery engine stack up against, say, Pandora (other than the obscure artist issue you mentioned)? Does Pandora have anything to worry about, do you think?  

  • Tyler

    They don't have anything to be worried about initially, but long term they'll need to do something to differentiate themselves I think.

  • Michelle Olivera

    I have found Pandora's playlist predictable. I knew which song would come next. I'm hoping that with more exploration with iTunes and rating songs that it will prevent the predictedness. I love iTunes ease and wish list feature. I really like it do far. Hated Pandora's commercial. Could not take it anymore I deleted it months ago lol.