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Pandora is not radio

Posted on Friday, February 18th, 2011 at 9:56 pm. #

Radio electronica

“Radio”, in the English language, means three things. Here are the first two:

Radio = the transmission of signals by modulation of electromagnetic waves with frequencies below those of visible light.
Radio = a receiver (which can be battery-powered, mains-powered or self-powered) that allows you to listen to radio broadcasts.

And now, here’s the third:

Normally broadcast in a linear form, “radio” is a mixture of audio programmes which contain individual pieces of content, assembled in a way to sound attractive to a listener. A fundamental building-block of good “radio” is an element of news: whether formal news in the style of a bulletin, informal news that’s closer to a gossip with a friend, or news of interest to a particular community, like a newly released music track, or a new opinion, story, joke, or viewpoint. An element of curation and editorial is also required to produce great radio: whether carefully-researched music playlists or unusual wry observations.
“Radio” is a shared experience, one that has the capacity to surprise and engage, entertain and inform. Part of the enjoyment of radio is that others are listening to the same thing as you: but part of the enjoyment of the medium is that radio continually does something unexpected and uncontrolled. Full personalisation has no place in the world of radio, since it removes the uncontrollability and element of surprise: the very thing that makes radio successful and powerful.
“Radio” is a human communication medium.

Now, I quite liked Pandora when it was available here in the UK. I quite enjoy last.fm’s services, too.

But Pandora and last.fm fulfil almost none of the above criteria. A randomised list of songs specifically chosen for my tastes, with none of the human element that surrounds it, is not radio. A song that plays, then fades, then silence, then a new one that starts, regular as clockwork, is not radio. Something with a complete lack of news: about my community, about my country, about my family, about my music, is not radio. Something with no editorial curation other than a computer algorithm, and no unexpected left-field programme that makes you cry, is not radio. A list of noises produced by a computer program is not radio.

All of us involved in the radio industry know that radio is so much more than an iPod on shuffle. But we’re letting Pandora, last.fm, Slacker et al claim the word “radio” as a moniker for what they do. By doing this, they are doing radio a disservice, and damaging the ‘radio’ brand.

We should see them as competition for radio. But not radio. And if we care about radio, we should correct any journalist who calls these services ‘radio’. Because they are not radio.

Pandora is a music jukebox. A bloody good one. It is not radio. And we should not let Tim Westergren damage “radio” by trying to use our brand for his music jukebox.


Steve Paget
commenting at February 18th, 2011 at 10:06 pm

Are lazy overnight automated broadcasts radio? Give me Pandora over those, any day.

Jim Kerr
commenting at February 18th, 2011 at 10:09 pm

Well, Netflix isn’t television, but I watch it on the device where I watch television shows. When my friends call and ask what I’m doing when I’m watching a Netflix movie, I tell them “I’m watching TV.” In practical terms, Netflix pretty much is TV.

So this isn’t a question of how the dictionary defines a product or service, it’s how the consumers do. Right now, I daresay consumers describe Pandora as just, well, Pandora. But that will most likely merge with radio in general.

In short, I think this is a lost cause, James.

Fergus Pitt
commenting at February 19th, 2011 at 12:31 am


You’re thinking like Nokia (let there be no worse insult!).

When Nokia released their N series, they were all like “these aren’t phones, they’re tiny little personal compooters”. And that’s how they expected users to understand and talk about them.

By contrast, Apple released a device that was a bit crap at making phone calls, that most people used as a data device but talked to their market about it as a “phone”, because that was the mental model their users had for a personal comms device. They’ve now moved/evolved a significant part of the market’s understanding of what phones are.

Pandora is about music discovery, music listening and – to a small degree – community. We might argue that traditional radio does some of this better (or not), does more, and has different characteristics, but listeners don’t spend time thinking about what “radio” is, they just choose the best option for whatever they need- be it company/easy entertainment/information whatever.

To be relevant, the traditional radio industry needs to understand those needs, fill them, and make sure as many people as possible know they’re doing so.

Language changes. Deal.

(ya know I’m saying this all with heaps-o-love right?)

Tweets that mention Pandora is not radio - James Cridland -- Topsy.com
commenting at February 19th, 2011 at 11:29 am

[...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by James Cridland, Richard Leeming. Richard Leeming said: I agree with @jamescridland when he says "Pandora is not radio" http://james.cridland.net/blog/pandora-is-not-radio same applies to last.fm [...]

David Jennings
commenting at February 19th, 2011 at 1:22 pm

James, are you registered with We7.com? If so, you might have got an email last autumn, which no doubt would have had your blood near boiling point.

We are introducing a great new radio feature on the site. It’s going to be simple to use and will enable you to create personalised radio channels. You will be able to request the radio channel play any song you like at any time.

You can share your radio channels with your friends and add items such as news, sports and other entertainment.

The ideas we have so far are:-
a) Blended Radio
b) Radio+
c) Next Generation Radio
d) Internet Radio+
e) Personal Radio
f) Personal Radio+
g) Streaming Radio
h) Anything else?

I went for (b) on the basis that it was the one that comes close to communicating that what they’re offering is not radio.

Having said that, Fergus has a point…

john ford
commenting at February 19th, 2011 at 4:53 pm

Any meaningful, in fact any conversation or discussion has to begin with a definition of terms. Thank you for pointing out the obvious James, to those of us who have a hard time counting to potato. Despite the use, yes, Pandora is not radio. At lease someone out there is REALLY thinking about this stuff.


Giulia Baldi
commenting at February 19th, 2011 at 5:37 pm

I think we all agree that Pandora and Last.fm are not radios, if we only consider the concept of radio as emerged from the 30s.

But to be utterly precise, we need to acknowledge that, in the early history of this media, the prefix “radio-” meant just “wireless transmission” (from the latin verb radiate, where radius=ray) and the noun “broadcasting” came from an agricultural term, meaning “scattering seeds widely”.
Also, we need to remember that the first radios were dedicated to transmit military communications, and news and entertainment came only at a later stage.

And with this in mind, we can’t deny that the radios as we knew them should have never been called radios; or we need to accept that both Pandora and Last.fm, not to mention Mixcloud and the likes, can also be defined radios. We are just talking of different evolution of the same media.

Still, none will deny the value of curatorship and news, and the emotions of listening to traditional live radio broadcastings, if and when quality is the norm.

My conclusion could be that, as others contributors commented before me, since society evolves, and USUALLY language evolves, in this case the problem could be that the language hasn’t evolved enough.

Rusty Hodge
commenting at February 19th, 2011 at 8:01 pm

Pandora, Last.FM, Slacker are music services, specifically personalized music services. They do not broadcast. They do not give listeners a shared experience. That doesn’t mean they suck, they’re just used a different way.

Broadcast (or webcast) radio has a unique feature that all the listeners hear the same thing at the same time. This gives people something in common they can talk about. You can’t have the same kind of discussion with someone about what you heard on a personalized music service because you both heard something different.

The feature sets are different, and the nomenclature should be appropriate, lest those features sets get confused.

commenting at February 19th, 2011 at 8:20 pm


Here’s where I agree with the spirit of your post. Broadcast Radio, and our industry organizations — NAB, RAB, etc. — have done a dismal job of PR, which is exactly where Pandora excels. Radio rarely speaks with one voice, has spent virtually nothing on creating new listening devices (HD is a joke, at least in America) nor on specialized content for the new digital devices others have created (iPads, streamed programming) and years ago, abdicated the joy of new music discovery, and human warmth and entertainment in all dayparts outside of mornings. Broadcast radio continues to demand 35%-50% return on investment while Pandora would be wildly happy to post a 1% profit. So, we really have no one but our short-sighted selves to blame.

How “radio” is defined by listeners, or anyone else, isn’t really the issue.

The issue is, what is broadcast radio doing to accentuate its traditional strengths, take advantage of new digital opportunities, and increase the effectiveness of its marketing partnerships with clients?

And why, when broadcast radio is clearly still such a valuable and viable business are we not spending money to trumpet our story as loudly as Pandora hypes theirs?

Still, I love your blog and your voice. We need it.

Arun Narang
commenting at February 19th, 2011 at 11:03 pm

Hi James,

Thanks for initiating such an interesting topic.

I’d like to refer you and readers to your blog to an academic study I did in 2009 dealing with this very same topic i.e. to investigate the strategic uses of the claim ‘Radio’.

Below are excerpts which might add useful fodder to the discussion -

“In each location the medium is used differently, demonstrating not only that a global definition of the meanings and uses of radio cannot be assigned, but also that new evolutions of ‘radiogenic’ technologies should not be dismissed as being different from radio and therefore not a part of the remit of radio. (Jo Tacchi, 2001).

We as stakeholder in radio need to realize the need to reinvent, reconsider and maybe even reconfigure our understanding of radio (to present times?).

I am not suggesting ‘anything audio is radio’. If everything is radio, the fact that any particular phenomenon, in present case, personalized internet radio, could not be very interesting. But I think we perhaps need to move beyond the understanding that ‘radio is radio’ because a broadcaster or a listener says so.

I think radio at a perceptual level is a ‘stretch’, a ‘gap’, between audio and the audience. It should not matter what the mode of delivery, context, reach, format or location is. What remains central to this concept are two things, crafted audio being directed towards an audience or an audience seeking to consume crafted audio!

Indeed it is the Internet’s narrowcast characteristics that appear to bring us much closer to the dreams of those pioneers who heard in radio the possibility of increasing the sum of human understanding. Are we denying radio its evolution?”

A downloadable copy of the report in full can be found here http://goo.gl/i51Te

Please let me know what you think. Many thanks

Arun Narang

Fergus Pitt
commenting at February 20th, 2011 at 3:22 am

Your report looks very interesting. It’s been downloaded and put into my reading list.

James, I’m sure you’ll read my earlier comment as a robust but ultimately respectful. As John and Doug say, your blog is a great platform for discussing how radio is changing from Australia, to America, to India to the UK.

Alan Ralph
commenting at February 20th, 2011 at 10:46 am

I used to use Pandora, when it was available outside of the USA, and frequently use Last.fm’s recommendation stream to discover new music. Last.fm has the advantage here, as I’ve been using it since 2004, so it knows my tastes a lot better. Sometimes it will try too hard, resulting in the same track being played from different albums with no attempt to filter out the duplication.

I love Last.fm and have been a paid member for years now. That said, I still appreciate the time and effort that goes into SomaFM’s stations and playlist, and as a result I value that a lot more than Last.fm when it comes to putting my money where my mouth is – both as a supporter and as a music consumer. :) Actually, the two services can and do work together for me – SomaFM turns me on to new music, Last.fm shows me where to find it and also shows me other work by that artist. :)

Jeff Vidler
commenting at February 20th, 2011 at 4:21 pm

Great post, James… and totally consistent with what we’ve seen in our research at Vision Critical over the past couple of years. Pandora, last.fm and the ilk represent different ways of listening to music rather than different forms of radio. They are more likely to displace listening to mp3s and CDs and show little if any impact on listening to broadcast radio.

Maybe it’s time to re-define radio. Rather than settling for dead-end terms like “terrestrial radio,” maybe it’s time for “extra-terrestrial radio”… radio that delivers on the medium’s traditional strengths, only co-opting and adapting to multiple platforms.

Jim Kerr
commenting at February 20th, 2011 at 7:44 pm


If it isn’t Pandora and streaming radio, then what is the cause of the dramatic drop in listening we are seeing in FM in the USA, especially among teens? It can’t be CDs, because they’ve been around in widespread form since 1985. Is it MP3s? Something else?

I’m not sure I understand your statement, “different ways of listening to music rather than different forms of radio.” Radio is how a lot of people listen to music, end of story. They don’t care about DJs. They don’t care about weather on the tens. They just tune in for music. The explosive success of Jack FM is a great example of this: Personality via production elements and music, a wide variety of hit-based music. So if Pandora is a different way of listening to music and people listen to the radio for music, then how is that not going to eventually have an impact if it is a viable service?

This whole thread smacks of “I wish it were like this” rather than “this is how it is.” Perception is reality, and if you want to consider radio as only something that is broadcast over the airwaves, that’s fine, but that’s not how your listeners perceive it, as the study of Arun above outlines.

Rusty Hodge
commenting at February 20th, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Jim- Is background music, or music coming from a Jukebox “radio”? When you say “Radio is how a lot of people listen to music, end of story. They don’t care about DJs. They don’t care about weather on the tens. They just tune in for music” what you’re really saying is that they don’t want RADIO, they want a MUSIC SERVICE. Even if you disagree on the terms, there needs to be a way to describe the differences between customizable music services and one-to many broadcast services. Maybe you redefine it “narrowcasting” and “broadcasting”, maybe you redefine it “personalcasting” vs “groupcasting”. I think the point is that the services are very different and shouldn’t be lumped together.

Because there *are* people who do care about news, weather, DJs and listening to the same thing that other people are listening to, and they deserve to be able to use a name to refer to what they want to listen to – even if that name is something demeaning like “legacy radio”.

No one is arguing which kind of service is better. Just that they’re different and shouldn’t be lumped under the same term. (TV vs Cable vs On Demand is a good example).

Jim Kerr
commenting at February 20th, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Rusty, you can’t carry a jukebox with you. It’s not personal.

The point I’m making is that radio is in the process of losing hat you outline–”a way to describe the differences between customizable music services and one-to-many broadcast services.” They are both fast becoming described as just “radio” to listeners. My guess is that broadcast radio will be labeled a subset of radio, just like “network television” is a subset of “television” today. Perhaps we’ll have “personal radio” or “custom radio” and then “traditional radio” or “local radio” and “satellite radio” and perhaps even something we haven’t considered yet.

I am willing to admit that we are in a transitional period. If you were to ask someone who is listening to Pandora, “Hey, are you listening to the radio?” They would likely respond, “No, I’m listening to Pandora.” But those distinctions will fall away. Radio will be… personal audio consumption of talk and music or some similar definition. It won’t mean an FM broadcast. It just won’t.

The point being: James’ blog entry that Pandora is not radio is really nothing more than wishful thinking at this point. To your point, a more relevant blog post would be, “In a world of SiriusXM, Pandora, and on demand, what do we call traditional radio?”

Rusty Hodge
commenting at February 20th, 2011 at 8:27 pm

Jim- Point taken. Although an iPod is more of a jukebox than a radio. Early radios were huge and couldn’t be taken with you either. As you say, everything evolves.

I think Sat radio and Terrestrial share the same one to many broadcast model, and there is no technical reason that there couldn’t be the same amount of diversity on AM/FM that there is on Sirius XM; that’s just a business decision.

My point is that there need to be names for the different types of services, lumping them together is ultimately confusing to the audience. And the traditional radio world needs a name better than “traditional radio”. I could accept “broadcast radio” and “personal radio” perhaps.

You don’t call listening to an iPod radio do you?

David Jennings
commenting at February 20th, 2011 at 9:12 pm

James, Pure are (or have been) a client of yours, right? And you have (or had) a Pure Evoke Flow, right? I just noticed on mine that, when resolving the URL for an internet radio stream or a BBC ‘listen again’ programme, the Evoke Flow display says “tuning…” Of course, it’s not tuning, is it, because it’s not tuning into a particular frequency on the electromagnetic spectrum? (Though when the same device is used for DAB or FM broadcasts, “tuning…” is indeed the correct term.) So will you be advising Pure to change this bit of the user interface? ;-)

I’m being facetious, of course. But this example does show the challenges of using consistent and simple terminology, to maximise usability, in an era when (and I can’t remember the exact elegant way you have of phrasing this) we want to move away from being hung up on the delivery mechanisms…

Jeff Vidler
commenting at February 20th, 2011 at 9:32 pm

Jim/Rusty… “Broadcast radio” (including satellite) vs. “personal radio” is the right distinction, I think.

And so, to clarify my earlier point, Pandora etc. as personalized music/radio services appear to be displacing other types of personal music listening (CDs etc.) more than they are disrupting broadcast radio. In fact, the only audio alternative that is clearly displacing AM/FM broadcast radio looks to have been satellite radio (See slide 16 from our Radio Futures 2010 study http://tiny.cc/c1i4a).

Why then has AM/FM broadcast radio suffered such a precipitous decline in tuning, especially among teens? It’s not just satellite radio. More likely, it’s the whole range of new entertainment options that are competing for time (video games etc.)… not to mention broadcasters themselves who lack a vision of what role they can play in what is a dramatically transformed landscape. Which of course is why this discussion is something more than mere semantics.

James Cridland
commenting at February 20th, 2011 at 9:43 pm

@David – you’ve missed the point of the post. I don’t care how radio gets to you. “Broadcast radio” can just as easily be delivered via IP as via RF (satellite, DAB, HD, FM). These are still ‘radio’ – clearly seen as such.

This is a programming discussion.

What doesn’t qualify as “radio” is a personalised jukebox service such as Pandora.

If, as Jim Kerr says, people don’t care about anything other than the music, then “radio” deserves to die. If we can’t offer anything better than ten songs in a row, then Pandora will kill us.

Happily, “radio” is more than just a music jukebox service. That’s why it’s interesting, engaging, and exciting.

Which is why Pandora, passing itself off as radio, is bad for the industry. Because radio is more than badly-segued tracks in a random, computer-generated order. If done right, it’s much, much, more. (If done badly, as Steve says, it’s just the same, and – once more – deserves to die). If more people think that radio is “just music”, then radio’ll become completely irrelevant in the world of Pandora. And Pandora is helping this misconception by claiming it’s radio. It’s not radio.

Does that help?

David Jennings
commenting at February 20th, 2011 at 11:59 pm

James, well, only up to a point…

The joke about the “tuning” terminology was facetious, and I said so. And I also made exactly the same observation as you about not caring how it gets to listeners.

But the issue I was trying to get across – and evidently I didn’t spell it out sufficiently – is that there is a point, at the user interface, where all these things come together, and have to be kept simple for listeners, who don’t give a stuff for the nuances of what’s a programming issue and what’s a platform issue. Device suppliers increasingly want to give those listeners maximum options, including things like Pandora, We7 etc. My hunch is that they’ll tell you that listeners won’t swallow being presented with complexity that treats one music stream as radio and another as something else with a horrible name like “personalised interactive doodah”.

That’s why Pandora and We7 seek to appropriate the term ‘radio’ even though we all know it’s not radio.

And that’s why, though I completely understand why you’d like to seal this off as a programming discussion, you can’t. Not if you want to enlist the broader public beyond the media industries in your terminologies.

I think that’s what I and other “lost cause” comments here have been trying to get across.

James Cridland
commenting at February 21st, 2011 at 7:46 am

That’s why Pandora and We7 seek to appropriate the term ‘radio’ even though we all know it’s not radio

…and we, the radio industry, are letting them. This shows weak leadership for the radio industry – probably the only parochial, country-specific media industry left – and is deliberately muddying the name of radio for decades to come, thus damaging radio in the eyes of the public who, rightly, expect more than just songs chucked together with some kind of algorithm.

That’s the only point I’m making here. It’s only a “lost cause” because the radio industry don’t appear to care who uses “radio” as a descriptor; which is shameful.

John Tolson
commenting at February 21st, 2011 at 9:54 am

James – I’m glad you posted this blog entry. We hear a lot about how these music services are the ‘new radio’ and you’re absolutely spot on with your definition.

I would simply say that you can’t have a human relationship with a computer, radio has an enduring quality that can’t be replicated by Pandora etc.

Radio is the original social media but it’s also a very personal experience too. That doesn’t give us the excuse not to innovate and find new ways to engage with audiences. The radio industry needs to find a way to underline why this great medium remains relevant.

John Schneider
commenting at February 22nd, 2011 at 9:19 pm

You make a good point about the broadcasting industry risking the loss of its “brand identity”. Kleenix and Scotch Tape lost their brand protection because of common usage. Radio needs to also protect against others who would usurp its brand name.

Mike Phillips
commenting at March 16th, 2011 at 9:13 pm

How is Pandora going to compete against something like http://www.exploretunes.com ?

Alan Ralph
commenting at March 20th, 2011 at 4:09 pm

Mike Philips – I don’t think that a glorified YouTube scraper (which is what ExploreTunes appears to be) is ‘competing’ with Pandora – for one thing, Pandora’s music library is not going to be subject to takedown notices or muting at the request of copyright holders.

Ken Dardis
commenting at May 12th, 2011 at 1:17 pm


Trying to tell the public its definition of radio is futile(http://www.audiographics.com/agd/050911-1.htm).

In 2011, the public calls radio by various names: internet radio, SiriusXM, Last.FM, KISS FM, and Pandora.

I’ve come to believe that radio today is also anything that prevents a person from listening to what the radio industry considers “radio.

GMG’s new ‘splinter stations’ – a first review - James Cridland
commenting at July 13th, 2011 at 9:14 pm

[...] actually interactive jukebox services – as much ‘radio’ as Pandora is (it’s not). This is a genius move: since they’re using We7′s infrastructure, and music [...]

commenting at August 1st, 2011 at 8:43 am

This is a good discussion and good points brought up by everyone. There is one point being missed here though in my opinion. Pandora is NOT RADIO– THANKFULLY! Its high time that the corporate run mass media is beginning to feel the pressure from modern media forms.
All my life I feel I have been robbed the chance of exposure to new and exciting forms of music by the conglomerates that control radio programming. Its the exact reason why MTV had made such a huge splash and changed the industry so quickly – they had better, broader, newer and more exciting content.
Now Pandora is basically in everyone’s hands in forms of Smart Phones and apps. At my computer it serves as my main internet streaming service- but its SMART. It allows me to integrate social media, I could buy what I hear in one click. Plus there isnt a Radio Station in the US that would ever play 98% of what is on my pandora station. http://www.pandora.com/?sc=sh254043574852277803

This means so much to me that I write a blog about genre-specific heavymetal and Pandora is Major resource for me. So much so I am about to change my blog to feature songs I have discovered exclusively from my Pandora Player.

Terrestrial Radio could never do that for me!
But it can tell me traffic when I am driving…

Radio Everywhere: How Audio Survived the Digital Revolution | Sparksheet
commenting at March 6th, 2012 at 3:39 pm

[...] big part of radio’s enduring appeal. While some critics are quick to dismiss such services as “not radio,” saying they’re the “audio equivalent of solitary confinement” or glorified [...]

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