Beats 1 vs. iTunes Radio: The good, the bad, and the noisy

With the launch of Apple Music, iTunes Radio was rebranded as just Radio with the flagship 24-hour station Beats 1. Here are all the new (and old) features.

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Credit: Apple

When Apple was tinkering with adding a new radio component to its just-launched music streaming service, the company opted to go for more of a BBC Radio 1 vibe than Pandora.

So naturally, Apple recruited Zane Lowe, the most popular DJ on BBC Radio 1, to be the voice of Beats 1, its 24-hour radio station curated by real people with interviews, exclusives, and even a request line. That’s right: Beats 1, a terrestrial-style radio station on the Internet, is the most significant change to Apple’s radio offerings. Sure, it’s just one radio station, but it has the hype and early ambition to make it a standout feature, even if it sometimes falls flat.

Beats 1 is on nonstop, with live radio programs scattered throughout the day. It’s not all live, however—programs repeat 12 hours later in case you miss it in the morning. In addition to Lowe, Apple has enlisted Ebro Darden from New York and Julie Adenuga from London to be on air Monday through Thursday. Their programs often include artist interviews and exclusives—on his first day, for example, Lowe premiered a new song by Pharrell and on his second day he interviewed Eminem.

apple_music_menu Apple

Other artists will appear on Beats 1 with their own music-oriented programs. Elton John, Ellie Goulding, St. Vincent, A-Trak, and Dr. Dre have signed up to be celeb DJs.  

One radio station for every Apple Music listener in the world? Yes, it’s ambitious but the Beats 1 crew seems to think they can cater to its massive audience by playing “great music.” Apparently, it’s not subjective—so there’s a bit of musical snobbery going on. Even if Beats 1 DJs hand-pick songs that rock your socks off every time, it’s difficult to create programming that will strike a chord with local audiences in different timezones.

The Beats 1 musical programming is eclectic, to say the least. It’s an iPod-fueled, post-genre direction that may enlighten audiences to good music. But for a certain occasion or mood, you need more than just a good song—you need the right song.

It’s not surprising that Apple has launched one radio station for everyone to listen to. Cupertino likes its products to be considered, consistent, and simple with a singular vision. But can that mindset be applied to music? It’s too early to tell whether Beats 1 will lose hype over time or if it will become Planet Earth Radio. 

Right now, it just combines the dated aspects of a terrestrial radio station with none of the benefits of Internet radio. You can’t skip songs or programs, so you have to lower the volume if a Dr. Dre song comes on while you’re dropping off your kids at school. Never mind that explicit songs are bleeped on Beats 1: The DJs interrupt the music to plug the radio station every chance they get. But we know we’re listening to Beats 1. We had to install a software update in order to do so. Apple needs to remind Lowe that he is talking to people on the Apple Music app, not to people who randomly stumbled through the station by flipping through the radio dial.

The rest of Radio: less human, more tolerable

Now that it includes Beats 1, Apple Music has rebranded iTunes Radio as just Radio. Apple kept iTunes Radio’s featured stations, however, heavily centered on explicit genres like “Pure Pop” and “Country.” Whereas these radio stations spawned from a Pandora-type algorithm, Apple now claims that these new featured stations have been “expertly refined by our music pros.” You might notice that most playlists in Apple Music’s For You and New sections have been created by “Apple Music Indie” or “Apple Music Pop.” These former Beats Music tastemakers now also make sure there’s a human feel to the radio stations. 

Radio has also kept the NPR and ESPN stations. Those are the only two news/talk radio stations you can listen to.

Fans of talk radio might find this disappointing, but if you’re into the music stations—the sky is the limit. Like with iTunes Radio, you can also create a custom radio station from any song, album, or artist. Press the heart button on your favorite songs from Radio to give Apple Music a better sense for your taste and fine-tune the selection going forward. In addition to being able to view Radio songs on the iTunes Store, you can now add them to your Apple Music collection to play anytime on-demand.

Non-Apple Music subscribers will still be able to access Radio (both Beats 1 and the featured stations) via iTunes and the new Apple Music iOS app. However there will be audio ads (“Beats 1 is made possible by American Express”) and limited skipping, as with Pandora and Songza.

The two iTunes Radio components that seem to be missing (or are not as prominent) in Radio are the Guest DJs and album premieres. Both Kylie Minogue and Diplo had a iTunes Radio Guest DJ stint where they played their favorite songs in between short spoken interludes where they shared their commentary. As for album premieres, artists like Calvin Harris gave iTunes Radio listeners access to stream his latest album in its entirety days before it went on sale on iTunes. However, both of these features—celeb DJs and exclusives—have sort of been rolled into the Beats 1 formula.

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