The Best Radio Station on the Planet

I consume most of my music via Rancho Radio, my hand-curated, publicly available Spotify playlist. But sometimes I want to tune into to another source, and let it play while I’m working, or sitting on the back porch. Fortunately for me, the best radio station on the planet is just down Highway 290 a ways, in Austin.

Sun Radio, solar powered Americana.  From Austin.  In Texas.  USA.


Fortunately for you, you can listen to this fine music from anywhere, via the magic of the internets.  You can also play Sun Radio through your Sonos (search for Sun Radio via TuneIn, and look for the logo).

Radio Tries to Legislate Life Support for Its Dying Business Model

I haven’t listened to over the air radio in years.  Because of the ads.  And because I don’t have to.  There are about a million better ways to get the music you want, without the extra annoyances.  Like iPods, iPhones, Pandora, CD-Rs, XM radio, singing, beating two sticks together, farting.  Anything.

emptybag In fact, I wouldn’t listen to over the air radio if they tried to make me.  Which is exactly what the National Association of Broadcasters and the empty-bag holding, cat mourning RIAA want to try to do.  Every time I start to think the RIAA has finally begun to grasp the inevitable fact that it cannot stuff the digitally downloadable cat back into the bag, it does something even more desperate than suing dead grannies.

Like, say, trying to get Congress to require that all mobile devices contain FM radio receivers.  So we can have more music choices.  Riiight.  They’re trying to do me a favor.  How nice.

If this happens, I’ll renounce my US citizenship, burn all of my CDs and cut off my ears.  Seriously, has there ever been a worse idea?

We can’t just let this drop.  We have to humiliate the people who came up with this harebrained scheme as a warning to ensure that other people with similar thoughts keep their bright ideas to themselves.

Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association sums it up well:

The backroom scheme of the [National Association of Broadcasters] and RIAA to have Congress mandate broadcast radios in portable devices, including mobile phones, is the height of absurdity. Such a move is not in our national interest.  Rather than adapt to the digital marketplace, NAB and RIAA act like buggy-whip industries that refuse to innovate and seek to impose penalties on those that do.

These organizations need to realize that their business model is dying, and nothing is going to save it.  We need to tell them to either evolve or die.  And if they don’t want to evolve, to hurry up and die.

Is It Time to Put Sirius XM on Deathwatch?

One of my primary online pastimes is watching technology I like go through agonizing death spirals.  TIVO is still twitching a little, and I had hope that the not-so-forthcoming new DirecTV box was going to spur a comeback of Billsian, if not Biblical, proportions.  I’m in a wait and see mode, but not as hopeful as I’d like to be.

Another technology I have enjoyed is satellite radio.  I’ve been an XM subscriber for years, and the merger with Sirius gave me the improved Classic Vinyl station, and the far too Americana (I greatly prefer alt. country) Outlaw Country.  And I lost track of Bill Anderson‘s excellent talk show (which should be released on a CD boxed set).  But overall, I thought the merger was necessary and, at worst, a wash for listeners.

Yet the combined Sirius XM continues to lose subscribers.  My personal view is that they way overpaid for the Oprahs and Howards, which I have no interest in, and sports, which I have interest in, but not via radio.  As a result, they have to charge me more to subsidize those who care about that stuff.  But that may not be what’s really hurting Sirius/XM.

I think it might be iPhones and other almost as smart phones.  Here’s my theory.

First, I am convinced that the lion’s share of satellite radio listening is done in the car, a theory which has some support in the details regarding the subscriber loss.  I have logged maybe two hours of in the house satellite radio listening over the years.  Previously, the amount of daily time I spend in my car combined with my well documented aversion to ads made satellite radio worth the money, in both hardware and monthly costs.

But lately I find that I am getting the large majority of my music from Pandora and Slacker Radio.  The depth of programming options are simply greater there.  I have a deeply targeted alt. country station on each, as well as a blues mix that plays the sort of blues I like, without most of the stuff I don’t.  I like early ska and reggae- I have a station for that.  I like zydeco- yep, I have a station for that.  In sum, I can fine tune my preferences much, much better with Pandora and Slacker Radio than I can with Sirius XM.  In fact, I’m finding myself listening to my online options even more than I listen to songs on my music server at home- and I have a ton of music on there.

Plus, online stations allow me to access my music more easily and from more places.  When I’m at a computer, it’s easy to tune into one of my Pandora or Slacker Radio stations.  No additional hardware needed.  Both services have excellent iPhone apps (Sirius XM doesn’t have one).  Lately, when I’m in my car, I have found myself plugging my iPhone into the auxiliary input on my audio system and listening to Pandora or Slacker Radio while I’m driving.  Better mix, no ads.

On top of all that, it’s cheaper.  Why buy special hardware and pay through the nose for a satellite radio subscription – for each device, no less – when you could pay much less for a premium online radio subscription that you can take with you anywhere?  It sounds like a no-brainer, because I think it probably is.

For the moment, I have both.  But if I had to choose one or the other, I would quickly choose Pandora/Slacker Radio over Sirius XM.

And I suspect that trend will continue to work against satellite radio.

Why Slacker Radio May Become My Music App of Choice

After seeing and ignoring references to Slacker Radio for a long time, I recently came across a pretty positive review and decided to take a look.  While I am a long-time and loyal Pandora user, I’m a big believer in multiple consumer choices.  I’m glad I decided to take the Slacker Radio plunge.  I don’t know if it will supplant Pandora as my favorite online music source, but it might.  What was once a Pandora landslide is now too close to call.

Here’s Kent’s Vinyl, my classic rock station for you to sample while you enjoy this exciting post.  Or if you prefer, my alternative country station.

Here’s what I like about Slacker Radio.  First and foremost, I like the way you create and customize a station.  You start with a single song or artist.  Like any sane person, I started my classic rock station with the Allman Brothers.  Then I added the Grateful Dead.  I really like the list of allegedly similar artists (I say allegedly because you can’t get much father from the Dead than the Eagles (see image below)) that appears on the right hand side, where you can quickly select additional artists to seed your station.


I also like the lack of ads and the ability to skip as many songs as you want, which features are available with the paid “Plus” subscription ($4.00 a month, paid annually).  With that plan, you’re supposed to be able to access detailed artist information and song lyrics, but I couldn’t get the lyrics feature to work in Firefox.  It worked in Internet Explorer.

The thing that keeps me running back to Pandora is the music genome thing- where the application selects songs based on the tempo, tonality, arrangement, etc. of the songs you indicate you like.  There are a lot of songs I would like out there by bands I don’t know.  Pandora does a great job of exposing me to songs I really like by bands I know little or nothing about.  I don’t know if the Slacker Radio algorithm will do as well, but so far I have been pleased by the selection.  For example, the third song that played on my classic rock station was Sea of Joy by Blind Faith- a song I love.

I also like the ability to “fine tune” your station.  By selecting the appropriate level, you can tell the app how much you’re interested in songs from other artists, how many deep cuts you want to hear and, most importantly, if you want old songs, new songs or a combination.  Since 95% of my favorite classic rock songs were recorded prior to 1978, I chose older.  Some of my favorite bands have kept on truckin’ beyond my loyalty.


On the downside, Slacker Radio’s web design is not particularly intuitive, in a Photobucket sort of way.  I also noticed a lot of hangs when navigating between options in Firefox.  In fact, I found the navigation to be profoundly difficult, mostly due to page freezes, accompanied by the never-ending little spinning circle (you’ll know it when you see it).  Again, I didn’t have these problems in Internet Explorer, but I’m not going to change browsers for one music app.

The iPhone app is excellent.  I was able to listen to my stations over wi-fi and 3G with little lag.  In fact, I connected my iPhone to the auxiliary input on the audio system in my truck and listened to my station on the way home from work.


If they (or I) get this Firefox thing figured out, and if the algorithm works, Slacker Radio has a chance to supplant my beloved Pandora as my music app of choice.

Great Desktop XM Radio Player

The XM Sirius merger has rekindled my interest in listening to satellite radio over the internet.  5 of the 6 pre-sets in my truck are former Sirius stations: Outlaw Country (12), the Led Zeppelin Channel (39), 1st Wave (44), Classic Vinyl (46) and the Grateful Dead Channel (57).  Deep Tracks (40) is the only former XM channel to keep its place.

Until today, the main obstacle to listening to XM over the net was the burdensome login and navigation process at XM’s steaming site.  I want- no, I demand- a simple one or two touch process to get the music started.  The Pandora desktop application is the best example of this so far.  One click and I’m listening to my excellent Pandora station.

Pandora’s my baby, but sometimes I want to drill down into a specific genre or a mix other than the great alt. country genome I have mapped at Pandora.

Now, thanks to the free Lenware XM Radio Player Desktop Edition (here’s the developer’s site, for donations and support), I can easily crank up my XM stations and navigate to and between my favorite stations.

The first time you launch the player, it asks for your XM credentials.  After that, the player remembers your name and password.  I’ve been flicking back and forth between the Grateful Dead Channel and 1st Wave while typing this.

The Lenware player lets you easily navigate between genres via the tabs at the top, and within genres via the list in the main window.  You can add your favorite stations to the Favorites list with the click of a mouse.  The player is snappy, with almost no delay when changing stations.  You can see what’s playing on other channels as well, so you can song surf if you want.

This is a fine piece of software.  I highly recommend it.

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(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Fred, Love and HD Radio


Fred Wilson is fired up about HD Radio.  He applauds Sony’s entry into the HD Radio market with the soon to be available XDR-S3HD (an inspired name, for sure), a $200 table top HD radio.

I love music, and I particularly love high fidelity music.  Currently, I get my car music via XM Radio, and while I am generally pleased with the selection, I find the audio quality to be a notch or two above two tin cans and a string.  Anyone who says XM is CD quality hasn’t listened to many CDs.

On the other hand, there’s a very good reason why XM has grown so fast and why networks are looking for creative and technological ways to keep people from skipping ads.  People simply don’t like ads.  In this era when everyone is jumping on the ad revenue bandwagon, radio advertising has been on the decline.

People tolerate online ads because they are relatively easy to ignore.  Ads on the radio are impossible to ignore.

Sure, I’ve never heard HD radio.  And the experience might be so amazing that all those radio ads I haven’t missed in the years since I’ve listened to one second of over the air radio will be like, well, music to my ears.  But I’ve had HDTV for a few years, and I can tell you this – I’ve never once watched the ads.  I record the show and fast forward through every ad that doesn’t have cavemen.

I hope HD radio takes off, mostly because it will put competitive pressure on XM to sound better.  But a higher sound quality won’t be enough to lure me back to traditional radio.

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AOL Radio is Good

I hadn’t logged onto AOL in about 1000 years, but now that I’ve been sitting by my computer for about 60 straight hours waiting for Mike to answer my question, I’m pretty much down to the dregs of my internet destinations.

aolradioSo, I fired up AOL tonight while I waited for Mike to get finished drawing impossible sledding courses for Dave Winer (that is a cool game, by the way- especially when you realize that guy really is Dave).

I wandered over to AOL Radio and rooted around a bit.  AOL has some XM channels, which is redundant for me- since my car, my computer and my DirecTV already have it (I wish I could get Sirius free somewhere so I could listen to Channel 14- Classic Vinyl).

But I was surprised to find some stations on AOL Radio that I really liked.  Under the Rock channels there is a great psychedelic rock channel (Spirit’s New Dope in Town is playing right now), a southern rock channel, one with only rock covers, a Rolling Stones channel, and a one-hit wonders channel that is hit and miss, but worth a listen.

Under the Alternative channels there a pretty good 80s alternative channel.

Under Country, there is a good alternative country channel and an outlaw country channel that I liked.

I heard a few ads, but they seemed short and well spaced.

I don’t know if I’ll become a regular listener or not, but I might.  AOL Radio is definitely something to like about AOL at a time when AOL probably needs a little love.

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The Demise of Radio

In the New York times article about the plight of traditional radio, Richard Siklos sums up the problem in one sentence, while talking about a particular commuter who has tuned out over the air stations:

Mr. Glassman, who is 51, said he turned a deaf ear to radio primarily because of the advertising and because he finds the playlists of his favorite stations too mainstream and limited.

It’s a two-headed monster that is killing traditional radio.  The first is the limited playlist that appeals to a very limited demographic.  Back in the day, narrowly crafted stations weren’t an option and so people found the station that was closest to their taste and stuck with it.  Now, thanks to satellite radio and online services, there are an infinite number of programming choices.  What used to be good enough simply isn’t any longer.

The other, of course, is advertising.  I’ve talked about it plenty- people’s lives are hectic and stressful enough these days.  They will no longer tolerate someone screaming in their ear about how some car dealer will not be undersold, etc.  People want radio, which is primarily a car-based experience, to be a relaxing influence- not just another run at their wallet.

It’s funny though.  I talked the other night about listening to WOWO at night on my little transistor radio when I was a kid.  I bet I logged hundreds of hours listening as I fell asleep.  I don’t remember the ads.  I’m sure they were there.  Maybe they have gotten more intrusive.  Maybe now that I am part of the targeted demographic, I have lost the ability to tune them out.  Maybe technology like XM and TIVO have spoiled me. I just know that I can’t remember hearing the ads I can no longer tolerate on WOWO when I was a kid.

And I know that for a few bucks a month, I don’t have to tolerate them.  That, together with portable music players and CD-Rs full of MP3s, is what will eventually spell the end of traditional radio.

Right now, the majority of radio listeners (230 million to 11 million) still suffer through traditional radio.  That tells us two things.

One, that there are other negative forces at work against traditional radio, such as the loss of greater numbers of younger listeners.  My hunch is that many of the people who listen to traditional radio are casual listeners- who have the radio on because it is the only option in the car, but who are not committed listeners.  I also expect more and more people are gravitating towards talk and sports radio, which is generally local by defintion and probably less subject to listener erosion than music radio.

Two, what is a bad situation now for traditional radio is only going to get worse and more and more people gravitate to other music sources.

HD Radio will stem the bleeding, but it won’t stop the migration to ad-free pastures.  Radio stations can go online, but that doesn’t help the narrow playlist problem.

If there’s a way for traditional radio to regain momentum, I certainly can’t see it.

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Where It Ain’t in Music Discovery

I have to disagree with Fred Wilson about finding new music.

Pandora and are absolutely, positively and without a doubt the holy grail of music discovery. I have discovered more good, new music on those sites in the past month than I have in all of my years of blog reading.

It’s not about spoonfeeding- it’s about algorithms (be they mathematical or social) that help you find music you like, but have never heard. Whether that’s music on a 20 year old record or music freshly uploaded by the artist is immaterial.

I have traditionally favored Pandora slightly over, but with the new design and added features, has pulled even in the two horse race for dominance in music discovery. Here’s my page for anyone interested, and here’s Fred’s.

If you, like me, are an alternative country fan, you can add Twangville to the mix for a trifecta. If you like live classic rock, add one more site to the list: Vault Radio.

And I have to agree with Bob Lefsetz, particularly when he writes:

I’ve got XM. I’ve got Sirius. I’m not living in the world of terrestrial. I never want to hear another commercial AGAIN! I just want music. All the time.


“Remember how you used to rush home to play your favorite records? How you needed nobody else in the room to feel joy? How you played the same track for an hour straight?”

I remember the first time I heard Paul Kennerly’s ensemble record The Legend of Jesse James. I listened to Charlie Daniels sing Northfield: The Disaster over 100 times in a row over a week or so. Not one other song entered my ears that week. It was spiritual. And it’s still one of the best songs I have ever heard.

Now back to Fred.

He says that the place to mine for new music is the mp3 blogs. He gives no link to them, because they are distributed. It’s like those cats in that commercial. They’re out there somewhere, but getting them to one place is a chore.

Yes, there’s The Hype Machine, which I think is a pretty neat web site. But unless it wants to change its name to The Next RIAA Defendant, it is going to be limited in the scope of music it can include. Don’t get me wrong, I like The Hype Machine, but Pandora it is not.

Blogs are great, and some of them feature good new music. But, in general, blogs are where it ain’t as far as discovering new music without a lot of unnecessary effort. Heck, even podcasts are far better suited for that purpose. One of the reasons we do the RanchoCasts is to help people discover new music.

New music doesn’t mean music that was just made. It means music that is new to the listener. When I became a huge blues fan a decade or so ago, a new universe of new music suddenly became available to me- little of it made after 1980.

I’m all about unsigned bands and new music that hasn’t been manufactured by the star maker machinery behind the popular song, but let’s not get carried away.

There is an almost unlimited universe of new music waiting at Pandora and And it doesn’t take herding cats to find it.

Bring Out Yer Dead: The Last Days of Traditional Radio

Bring out yer dead.
Here’s one.
I’m not dead.
He says he’s not dead.
Yes he is.
I’m not.
Well, he will be soon, he’s very ill.
I’m getting better.
No you’re not, you’ll be stone dead in a moment.

-Monty Python and the Holy Grail

Podcasting News reports today that podcasting and MP3 players are stealing listeners from traditional over the air radio. Cited is a study by Bridge Ratings, which predicts that by 2010, traditional radio’s current 94% penetration will have sunk to 85%.

According to the study, 27% of people 12-24 attribute their reduced use of radio to MP3 use; 22% attributed it to tired radio programming; 3% attributed it to podcast listening.

Other than the podcasting number, which seems about 10 times too high, those numbers sound pretty logical to me. I wonder, however, why there wasn’t consideration of the migration to satellite radio. My guess is that satellite radio, which is largely ad-free, will be the biggest threat to traditional radio.

Fred Wilson thinks HD Radio may save the traditional radio format. Perhaps, but I still say the desire for no ads will trump the desire for higher audio quality.

I believe that what’s killing traditional radio, and particularly FM radio, is its dependence on ads as the major revenue source. You can get away with ads for sporting events and other exclusive programming, but not music. No way. Not anymore.

The world is too flat for traditional advertising to fly. This is true in every media, and it is especially true for music. The smart PR firms out there are huddled in conference rooms thinking up some revolutionary marketing strategy that we haven’t seen yet. Mark my words- in 5 years advertising will be a lot different than it is today and in 10 years it will be a completely different industry.

Entire companies have been launched in the name of ad-avoidance. There’s simply no way people are going to continue to listen to over the top car ads and other nonsense just to hear the same songs they can hear without ads via an MP3 player or satellite radio. I often burn a CD-R with MP3’s and listen to it for a few days in shuffle mode. As the CD and DVD recording technology becomes more widespread and as auto makers continue to put better technology in cars, this trend will continue.

So what does traditional radio do? It has one major revenue source- and it is the exact one that will not work long term.

Traditional radio is dead. The only question is what will take its place.

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