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Apple’s strangest WWDC announcement, and why it sort of makes sense

Apple unveiled its new music streaming service Apple Music at the company’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference. The subscription service includes a 24/7 radio station and a feature that connects artists to fans. (Video: Reuters)

Among the many things that Apple announced at its annual developers conference Monday was one that we really weren't expecting: the launch of a radio station.

The rest of Apple's much-anticipated music service is largely a matter of feature-matching what's already out there into a neat Apple package. That's not to say the service isn't interesting, but on-demand streaming, personalized "stations" to surface new music and even curated playlists are par for the course in the online music world. So is its $10 per month price tag. But "Beats 1" is different: a global radio station that features not only a constant stream of curated music, but also real, actual DJs. Apple has tapped three prominent names in radio -- Zane Lowe in Los Angeles, Ebro Darden in New York and Julie Adenuga in London -- to lead the station, which seems to have the genre distinction of "whatever we think is cool."

It's an novel idea, and one that Beats co-founder Jimmy Iovine said came straight from Nine Inch Nails frontman and Beats chief creative officer Trent Reznor. (So who are we to question that?) DJs are important, argued Eddy Cue, Apple's senior vice president of Internet software and services, and their expertise is absent in modern "online radio" stations. Stations from other services, Cue said, are really just playlists. Beats 1, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned radio station and one that Apple hopes will create a community around its service.

On his blog, music industry analyst Mark Mulligan said Beats 1 shows that Apple has a nuanced strategy for music.

"Placing radio centre stage is smart, as that’s how Apple will engage the early follower consumer, who will be Apple’s core target (other than winning back some existing Spotify users)," Mulligan wrote. "Remember, Apple’s core priority is delivering the best possible music experience to as many of its device owners as possible. A [$9.99] subscription service that works for 10% of them is much less interesting than a free radio service that works for 500 million of them." He also posited that Beats 2 and Beats 3 could follow, since it's really hard to make a radio station that actually accomplishes that goal.

Perhaps with its throwback format, Beats 1 can provide Apple with the faces (and voices) it needs to sell the reputation of accessible expertise that it apparently wants so badly to convey with its music service. It's a target demographic that has worked for it before. Apple's greatest strength, arguably, is in making the advanced and complicated easy enough for anyone to use. Beats 1 fits into that, Mulligan said. "Apple is using radio, real time broadcast and high profile DJs as a way of bringing context and meaning to internet radio for the Apple mainstream (which of course is slightly different from the broader mainstream)," he wrote.

Doing so edges Apple into the world of not only selling and organizing content, but also making it. And that's something the company hasn't really explored to date. Launching a radio station is a far cry from what some of its tech competitors have done in the video space -- Amazon and Netflix, for example, both have studios devoted to making original content for their video services -- but it does underscore the human touch to the service that Apple sees as its main differentiator.

And, at least in the music world, that concept doesn't come completely out of left field. Iovine spoke passionately on stage about wanting to treat music as a form of art rather than just another form of data. And it's certainly true that consumers faced with a catalog of millions of songs can face a certain choice paralysis. Meanwhile, artists have argued that the all-you-can-eat buffet of music commoditizes their work in a way that's damaging to the craft. That is likely what prompted Iovine to declare from the stage that technology and art can get along, and that Apple lives in the place where they overlap.

Which, as you may remember, was one of the main tenets of Steve Jobs's Apple. So while Beats 1 seems to be a little bit crazy, it does -- at least within Apple's internal logic -- make some sense.