Marc Fisher is a senior editor at The Washington Post and the author of “Something in the Air: Radio, Rock and the Revolution That Shaped a Generation.”
The innovators who brought you the iMac, iPhone and iPad don’t usually look backward. But with one of their signature services, iTunes, weakening against competition from streaming music providers, Apple this past week finally responded — not with any technological breakthrough but with a radio station modeled on half-century-old successes, complete with hyperkinetic DJs, relentless self-promotion and a listener request line.
Beats 1, the new streaming station, is the centerpiece of Apple Music, the company’s overdue admission that buying and downloading songs is a fading phenomenon. The $9.99-a-month service matches competitors with personalized recommendations and a massive catalogue; the difference-maker is what Apple calls “radio like you’ve never imagined.” But Beats 1 actually sounds like the BBC’s Radio 1 in London, circa any time in the past 20 years. Or like Hot 97, the legendary hip-hop station in New York. Basically, like radio you don’t need to imagine, because it’s already on the air.
For Apple, seizing on a medium whose death has been predicted since Americans first adopted television might seem like an odd choice in 2015 (or 2005, for that matter). Silicon Valley worships the notion that digital culture empowers consumers. It liberates us from the old arbiters of artistic value and gives us the power of choice. Today, listeners can call up virtually any song, at any time, wherever they are. That innovation was sold as the antidote to radio.
Yet the futurists in Cupertino have turned to history, and rather than reinventing the medium, they’ve rediscovered what saved radio six decades ago. With Beats 1, they are betting that curation can still trump choice. It’s the same bet the inventors of Top 40 radio made to save their stations from the hegemony of TV in the early 1950s: that what people really want isn’t necessarily the latest, coolest technology — they want a smart, entertaining personality sitting in a studio to tell them what they’ll like and to play it for them, again and again and again.
‘Is Radio Doomed?” Life magazine asked in 1949. Johnny Carson, Jack Benny, the Lone Ranger and Superman would all make the move from radio to TV, and the assumption everywhere was that television would do to radio what radio had done to sheet music, home pianos and vaudeville halls.
Around the same time, in Omaha, a young man named Todd Storz was struggling to hold onto the dwindling audience at the radio station his wealthy father had staked him to. The father owned the local brewery, and Storz beer succeeded not because it tasted best but because it was local. It had an emotional bond with Omahans. Storz decided that although radio would never again be appointment entertainment, now that the soap operas and sitcoms had moved to TV, radio could actually play an even more emotionally powerful role in people’s lives, just like his dad’s beer did: It could be the musical accompaniment to daily life, to getting ready for work, commuting, falling asleep.
Storz’s light bulb moment came as he watched waitresses at his favorite diner plunking nickels into the jukebox to play the same song over and over. Far from preferring a steady diet of new music, people craved familiarity, Storz concluded. If he hired DJs who knew and sounded like the place where they lived, and if those DJs played people’s favorite songs constantly, Storz believed that listeners would be hooked. The result was Top 40 radio, which — unlike Apple’s move this past week — really did reinvent the medium, morphing it into something that hardly competed with TV at all. It would dominate ratings for a quarter of a century.
That classic Top 40 swagger, as perfected by stations of the Beatles era such as WABC in New York and WLS in Chicago and KHJ in Los Angeles, is the vibe underpinning Beats 1: big, cocky, like it’s the only game in town. “In certain ways, it’s a 1964 presentation,” says Sean Ross, vice president of music and programming at Edison Research, which consults for radio and music companies. It’s a deliberate throwback to the monoculture of old radio, before audience fragmentation and well before on-demand streaming services.
For a global product, Beats 1 is trying to sound proudly local. The hosts who came from British radio, such as Zane Lowe and Julie Adenuga, are high-energy, Top 40-style jocks who talk over songs, surround music with “stingers” (quick promos for the station) and lace their patter with local references — how many listeners in the 100 countries the DJs say they’re reaching will recognize Adenuga’s allusions to Brighton and Camden Town? When longtime New York DJ Ebro Darden’s show starts, the music shifts abruptly from Adenuga’s club mix to a tour of two decades of the hip-hop landscape, from Jay Z to Eminem to Lauryn Hill (with a fleeting taste of Frank Sinatra mixed in). Darden offers a feature called Borough Check, playing artists from each of New York’s five boroughs.
Apple’s DJs guide listeners like early FM jocks did, as gurus of new sounds: to introduce a new soul singer, 25-year-old Leon Bridges, Darden plays first Marvin Gaye and then Otis Redding, seductively tracing the artist’s musical heritage. (It’s not all about the DJs’ choices; Beats 1 jocks issue frequent reminders that the songs they’re pushing are available for purchase on iTunes.)
And Beats 1 is relentlessly self-referential, another page stolen from the salad days of Top 40. There are classic throwbacks all over the station, which even does twin spins, a ’60s Top 40 DJ stunt in which a big hit was repeated back to back.
But if Beats 1’s style is retro, its music is passionately of the moment. There’s a clear emphasis on breaking new acts, at times to the point of obscurity. Ross says he was startled that Beats 1 went a solid couple of hours without playing anything American audiences would recognize. Then it veered back to the classic Top 40 approach, and along came Taylor Swift and Pharrell Williams. The station played Williams’s new single, “Freedom,” which launched on Apple Music, at least once an hour through much of its first days.
Whatever mix Beats 1 eventually settles on — when Sirius and XM launched their satellite radio services 14 years ago, they swiftly moved from a focus on esoteric tastes to an emphasis on hits — what it can’t capture is the impulse that was always at the core of broadcast radio: local content for local listeners. Will the cachet of listening to shows that feel like they were made for London or New York replace the sense of belonging that the best radio has always created?
“A global super-station is really exciting,” says Tommy McFly, host of the morning show on 94.7 Fresh FM in Washington. “But people come to radio because they want that local feel. We sound like Washington. We talk about what’s happening here, and our music reflects where we are — our music is hand-picked, and we look at tweets and local downloads and ticket sales at the 9:30 Club.”
That may not matter, though, to a generation that increasingly chooses from a cultural menu designed for the entire nation (or planet). Thanks to the borderless reach of digital media, local tastes and content have become less important in shopping, news, food — and music, too.
“For me, radio was hanging out in my backyard in Pennsylvania, listening to my favorite DJ and learning music from him,” says McFly, who is 29. “Younger people’s definition of radio is changing, and what it will include, we don’t know yet.”
We don’t even know whether the audience Apple seeks is willing to listen to announcers at all. When I’m driving with my kids — a college sophomore and a graduate student — the second a DJ comes on the radio, they’re eager to switch to music. The effect of the past decade of digital music has been to diminish tolerance for anything that’s not what we want, when we want it.
But what I like about Beats 1 is that the DJ-to-music ratio is quite high; someone is actively guiding, teaching, entertaining, creating community. That’s always been radio’s allure. If Apple’s Beats 1 gamble pays off, it won’t be because the company has reinvented anything for the iPhone era. It’ll be because the appeal and format the medium perfected back when the baby boomers were teenagers still work, even all these decades later.