A ra­dio re­vival?

Ap­ple looks back to the oldies in its latest ven­ture

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - marc.fisher@wash­post.com Marc Fisher is a se­nior editor at TheWash­ing­ton 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 likeHot 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 NewYork 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.”

That­may 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.

WASHINGTON POST PHOTO IL­LUS­TRA­TION; BASED ON IS­TOCK IM­AGES

AP­PLE

From left, Julie Ade­nuga, Ebro Darden and Zane Lowe are disc jock­eys for Ap­ple’s new stream­ing ra­dio sta­tion, Beats 1.

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