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Apple Music's Beats 1 Is Like Radio Before It Sucked

Apple's radio station recalls an older era, when listeners all tuned in to the same program.


Zane Lowe’s debut on Apple’s Beats 1 radio reminded me of what has been missing from my iTunes music collection: Personality.

The former BBC Radio 1 DJ played to my anticipation, spending a long radio minute talking about how he selected the first song to be played on Beats 1 — a release from the rock band Spring King from Manchester, England, that’s little known beyond its fan base but whose track “City” has gradually built momentum. The sort of thing, Lowe said, that’s needed to kick this whole thing off.

“Just like that! To 100 countries right now, broadcasting on Apple Music,” said Lowe, his voice bristling with a kinetic energy. “To the early adopters. To those hungry for music. From town to town, city to city, into the unknown we go.”

I felt swept up into a global music party, as Lowe ticked off the location of listeners tuning in from London, Antwerp, Seattle, Munich, Helsinki, Barcelona, Denmark, Miami. The music selections were as diverse as the geography, as Lowe played tracks from Gallant, a soul singer from Los Angeles, followed by Slaves, a punk band from Kent, Jack Garratt, a British pop singer, and an exclusive first broadcast of Pharrell Williams’ new single, “Freedom.”

Listening to the inaugural broadcast of Apple’s livestreamed radio, I felt part of some larger, shared music experience. Judging from the conversation on Twitter, I wasn’t alone, as the music cognoscenti remarked on the song selection and delivery, and picked up on the subtext of Lowe’s “We Salute You” tribute to AC/DC, whose catalog has not been available on streaming services until now.

“Respect for the holdout, though,” he said, with a slight hint of competitive taunt.

This notion that music has the power to create community isn’t new — witness the proliferation of music festivals. But it has been decades since radio offered the urgency of a concert or an event.

It hasn’t always been that way. As a kid, I would listen every Sunday to Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” show and discuss the week’s top songs with my friends — long before I glimpsed a copy of Billboard magazine. We would arrive at school, having started our day listening to Greg McShea’s joke-filled morning show on WTLB.

Nationally, The Beatles attracted a television audience of 73 million with the group’s American debut in 1964 on the “Ed Sullivan Show.” The event was a musical touchstone for a generation, reaching more than a third of the U.S. population of nearly 200 million.

Consolidation altered the radio landscape — and began my long period of alienation. Conglomerates like Clear Channel (now iHeart Media) amassed multiple stations in cities across the country and began programming to narrow segments of listeners to capture a greater overall audience share. Playlists shrank. Predictability crept in.

I escaped the blandness of radio with CDs and, later, an iPod jerry-rigged to play through my car’s stereo. My epic Los Angeles commute drove me to subscribe to satellite radio to cope with the tedium of spending 15 hours a week behind the wheel. I’d tag tracks with Shazam to fill playlists, which, together with Pandora, kept me entertained on morning runs.

Surrounded by music, I had no idea how isolated I’d become.

Zane Lowe and the rest of the DJs on Beats 1 reminded me of how my musical tastes had narrowed and how much I missed the voice of a passionate music connoisseur recommending a new song. That’s what Nine Inch Nails frontman and Beats co-founder Trent Reznor had in mind when he advocated for creating a live global radio offering as part of the rebooted Apple Music app.

“In today’s streaming, all-access world, sometimes it feels nice to know that there are other people out there and feel like you’re tuned into something that communally other people are listening to,” Reznor told Rolling Stone. With Beats 1, he said, he is trying to approximate “when radio was good — which maybe it never was — but in my mind, there was a time when it seemed better than it currently is.”

Veteran music program director Matty Karas, who is curator of the online site MusicRedef, wonders whether listeners will accept Apple’s decision to abandon radio’s traditional local focus in favor of offering the same programming, at the same time, in New York, Nashville, Paris, Japan, Nigeria and elsewhere around the globe. Indeed, Re/code sister site the Verge complained about a live global radio station repeating its broadcasts.

It’s also an open question whether audiences will accept Beats 1’s break with programming orthodoxy in playing an eclectic mix of genres on the same station, spanning indie rock, New York hip-hop and grime tracks from London.

One thing is clear, at least for me: Radio is overdue for this kind of revival.

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