Apple didn’t reinvent radio. It went back to the basics

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By Marc Fisher

[email protected]

July 6, 2015

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.

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