Sunday, May 28, 2006

Playing Music the Way I Like It

Ever since the days of Marconi, people have been trying to find that one perfect radio station, the one that plays only the music they would play themselves.

Actually, Marconi’s radio transmitted nothing more than a series of blips and beeps with intermittent fuzz – kind of like modern day hip hop. In 1901, he succeeded in sending this signal wirelessly, across the Atlantic. Radio was born.

In the early days, there were very few stations. But even with the plethora of radio stations out there today, I seldom listen. And it goes back to the same age-old problem of not being able to find the right station for me.

I’ve come close. There is at least one station in Indianapolis that plays nothing but smooth jazz. I could listen to that kind of music all day, but even they throw in the occasional R & B song. I’m not fond of R & B.

I once wrote a column about how I used to fantasize about owning my own home jukebox. I could put in my collection of 45s and LPs and just push buttons to bring up my favorite songs in whatever order I wanted.

As it turns out, I can do that now with my computer. I have more than 1,800 songs residing on my hard drive and a program that allows me to play them, one after the other, in whatever order I want. I can pick and choose at will. And with a nice sound system connected to my computer, they sound pretty nice.

Thankfully, the same thing is happening to radio. Not to the over-the-air commercial stations, unfortunately, but to online radio.

For years, several online radio stations have existed that let you pick your genre. But I like several genres and I don’t like every song in any of them. So I still didn’t listen to much radio, even online.

Then, along came sites such as that let you rate the songs you like. Over time, it would start incorporating more songs from those genres and fewer songs from the genres of songs you rated low.

It worked better, but the stations would still throw in a lot of music that other people rated highly, in anticipation that I would like it, too. Typically, I did not. But it was still the best reasonable facsimile of my perfect radio station.

Recently I discovered the latest incarnation of listener-centric online radio. It’s called Pandora Radio at

It’s different in the way it interprets what songs you will like. It pays no attention to genre. It doesn’t care what other people like or have rated highly. It makes no difference to Pandora which songs are popular on regular radio stations or which ones are in the Billboard Top 40.

Pandora’s music experts have spent the last six years identifying the music genome of 200,000 songs. A music genome is kind of like a genetic blueprint. It is obtained by dissecting a piece of music and identifying its many parts. The experts have identified 400 of these so-called music genes.

When you pick a seed song and enter it into Pandora, or a seed artist, the program picks a song at random from the artist and analyzes its genetic make-up. It then adds 100 or so songs of similar genetic make-up to your play list.

You can fine tune your play list by giving each song that’s played thumbs up or thumbs down. If you give it thumbs up, the program will play it more often and play more songs like it. Thumbs down means the program will never play it again, and play songs like it less often.

It’s still not perfect, because those who created the genome, although supposedly experts in their field, still used subjective criteria. And it still sometimes confuses jazz with R & B. But it comes as close as could be expected to allowing me to create the ideal radio station for my taste in music.

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