Fast Forward: Web Radio Hits the Road

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By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, May 31, 2009

It took a long drive over a holiday weekend -- a setting that should have played to all of radio's traditional strengths-- to show how much trouble commercial FM stations may have in store.

The soundtrack for the trip along Interstates 66 and 81 to the Shenandoah Valley town of Woodstock, Va., came not from FM, an XM or Sirius satellite broadcast or such recorded alternatives as CD or iPod.

Instead, our musical selection came from an Internet-connected smartphone that streamed Web radio to the nearest speakers through a cheap tape-deck adapter.

And it cost nothing extra on top of the phone's regular service plan.

For people at a desk, Web radio has long offered a terrific upgrade over the playlist-choked monotony of most FM stations. But a few things had to happen before people could order up Web radio to go.

First, wireless carriers had to offer data services fast enough for a digital stream of music -- then relax the absurd restrictions they first imposed on this access, which in some cases explicitly banned Web radio. Then phone developers had to make it easy for users to tune in, either through browsers on phones or programs provided through such simple software catalogues as Apple's App Store.

All those developments only came together over the last 12 months: At one popular site, Pandora (http://pandora.com), the share of listeners tuning in on a mobile device has gone from 1 percent a year ago to 23 percent. Because this change hasn't been heralded by a splashy product launch, many phone users may not realize how easily they can liberate Web radio from their computers.

I've spent much of the past two weeks trying out two of the best-known options in this category, Oakland-based Pandora and San Diego-based Slacker (http://slacker.com).

Both run through their own extra software, easily installed on iPhones and newer BlackBerrys. They also allow a choice between free versions with ads (Pandora's consisted of silent banners, while Slacker occasionally inserted a brief, audible ad between songs) and premium, ad-free options ($36 a year for Pandora, $47.88 a year for Slacker).

These two services, however, differ in how you define your stations. In Pandora, you pick a song or artist you like, and then the service cues up songs that fit, as determined by its music database. To refine its selections, you can tap thumbs-up, thumbs-down or "skip" buttons (the last only works 12 times a day in the free version).

Slacker can also cook up a station based on a favorite song or band, or you can just pick one of 128 preset stations, then customize it by approving, disapproving or skipping songs. It will also show the artist of the next song in its queue, but not its title.

In practice, Slacker was more enjoyable to listen to, and not just because Pandora could only do mono sound on a Verizon Wireless BlackBerry I used for much of this test. Slacker, with 2 million or so songs in its catalogue compared with Pandora's 600,000, offered more variety -- a good thing behind the wheel, where I had to ignore these customization options to focus on the road.


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© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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