The future of radio, the computer guys have been saying for a decade or so, is a music service so personalized that the listener becomes the program director.
But the first years of Internet radio have shown that listeners don't want merely to pick their own tunes. They want radio to do what it has always done: serve up our favorite songs and expose us to new ones.
Now MSN Radio, the new service Microsoft has launched to compete against iTunes and AOL Radio, has decided that if you can't beat radio, why not copy it wholesale?
Unlike the other big Internet radio services, MSN, which can be found at radio.msn.com, is striking out against local broadcast radio stations with a product billed as "Local Radio -- your town, your station." Sure enough, when you click on Washington, you get a list of 11 stations that look familiar: "WKYS 93.9 KISS FM, 97.1 WASH-FM, WMMJ MAJIC 102.3," and so on.
But click on any of those stations and what you get is not what you hear on the FM dial. Rather, it's an automated imitation of those local stations that MSN's computers create by collecting playlists from a division of the Nielsen ratings company that monitors music played on the radio.
In all, MSN's free service imitates 1,026 local stations -- all of them commercial, and almost all pop, country or R&B -- copying their selection of music and delivering it, as its promotions say, "with fewer ads, no DJ chatter and less repetition."
Listeners who go to the MSN version of their favorite station will find that the copy is by no means exact. A recent WKYS-FM playlist started with Snoop Dogg, Jadakiss, Juvenile, Ciara and Usher and Alicia Keys, but the MSN version of WKYS's list on the same day contained only one of those tunes, Jadakiss's "Why."
In some cases, the match is closer. When the top five on the playlist of WRQX (Mix 107.3) were Los Lonely Boys, Finger Eleven, Counting Crows and two numbers by Maroon 5, the MSN version of the station featured all but the Lonely Boys' "Heaven."
As you might imagine, some local radio stations hear the MSN sound as an incursion. Some grumble about trademark infringement, but Microsoft says its use of local stations' names is "simply a factual statement about the radio station."
Other radio executives aren't losing sleep over MSN Radio, arguing that what draws listeners to their stations is not just the music -- after all, anyone can download the songs -- but the personality and information on local radio.
"Internet radio has been around for years now and it hasn't really done much," said Jeff Wyatt, regional vice president for programming at Clear Channel, which owns eight stations in Washington. "I'm not saying we should ignore it, but radio -- terrestrial radio -- is a service that people value. There's a reason we penetrate 98 percent of the people in the market. Radio plays the hits, the disc jockeys are companions, and commercials are for businesses in your local community. Local radio reflects your city, your view of the world."
Will MSN's incursion on broadcast radio push local radio back toward offering more personality and local information? The pendulum is about to swing back in that direction.