In 2015, providers of audio showed that they were serious about being in the radio business. Apple Music relaunched with Beats 1, Internet radio’s most publicized attempt at providing the broadcast radio experience. Pandora made a deal to stream “Serial.” Then on Dec. 14, it announced Thumbprint Radio—a station that would build in variety by combining disparate types of music that were thumbed-up at some point by the user on various playlists.
Conceptually, Thumbprint Radio follows a few weeks after iHeart Radio’s similar MyFavorites channel. But the impetus has existed in the personalized radio space for a while. Three years ago, I moderated a RAIN Summit session on the subject where panelists described their gold standard—the same sort of coherent variety that broadcast formats like Top 40 have achieved through years of experience.
It’s a worthy aspiration. Most recommendation engines have always been a little claustrophobic for me—type in “Mickey,” get “Love Shack”” next. My music collection on shuffle gets me variety, but not hits, and no real focus. Regular readers know that I’m always looking for an online (or on-air) format that’s mainstream top 40, but a little faster and a little hipper.
I’ve taken Thumbprint through several test drives now. So far, it’s a lot like any customized Pandora station that you tend very carefully. No matter how much input you provide, the genome seems to steer you toward more of the thing you most recently thumbed up. The first time, Pandora took me from teen-punk-pop 3OH!3 to classic country John Conlee. But when I thumbed up the second song, it went on a classic country tear of several songs, until I thumbed one down several songs later.
My second Thumbprint session started with the ‘60s oldie “The Shoop Shoop Song” by Betty Everett, then went into “Talk of the Town,” the 1980 U.K. hit by the Pretenders. That was a great start. But everything it played me was either a hip oldie or early new wave. Then it played the David Bowie cover of the Easybeats’ “Friday On My Mind,” which was essentially both.
Finally, I went back to a number of my previous stations and thumbed a number of songs up and down to try to better influence the predictions. This time was not without stretchiness either, but was the best so far.
Britney Spears, “Circus”
Nicki Minaj, “Moment For Life” (thumbed it down)
Tegan & Sara, “Closer”
Michael Buble, “Feelin’ Good”
John Mayer, “Daughter” (thumbed down)
Bill Withers, “Ain’t No Sunshine” (thumbed down)
Waphole, “I Want You” (obscure ‘60s psyche-rock-pop that I apparently thumbed up years ago)
Queen & David Bowie, “Under Pressure”
Meters, “(Doodle Loop) The World Is A Little Bit Under The Weather” (‘70s New Orleans funk)
Pretenders, “Brass In Pocket (I’m Special)”
James Brown, “Eyesight” (1978 single)
Lady Gaga, “Telephone”
Nelly Furtado, “I’m Like A Bird”
All this may prove to you is that I have particularly eccentric musical tastes. And some of those long-ago thumbs-up weren’t necessarily my musical preference anyway, they were part of some previous science experiment/monitoring exercise. Compounding this, Thumbprint Radio has a long memory, throwing in songs that I had thumbed-up as far back as 2008. Radio programmers know that there’s value in recency and pruning as you go. Britney Spears’ “Circus” sounded OK after a few years; the Sugababes LP cut from the same playlist did not.
For all those reasons, it’s hard to come up with the perfect “Sean-FM” format. Thumprint Radio isn’t that, yet. But it didn’t play many songs I didn’t enjoy either. It probably doesn’t have to be perfect for every user. The novelty and concept alone will carry it, not unlike Pandora’s skip button. Even when users hear pretty much the same hits they would on a broadcast station, the skip button makes the station feel more customized. That’s why iHeart now offers MyFavorites even though it has hundreds of broadcast stations offering a variety that probably comes within 85-90% of your own ideal mix.
If anybody wonders why I’d devote 700 words to Pandora in a publication aimed at broadcasters, the first answer is that Pandora is actually an FM owner now. The less cheeky answer is that watching the development of online radio reinforces how much expertise broadcasters already have that their rivals envy. But it’s also so that somebody is chronicling the erosion of broadcasters’ own advantage—unless they find ways to expand as their competitors are.