This is the Modem World: Internet radio is inhuman

Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

DNP This is the Modem World Internet radio is inhuman

I gripped the handset, twirling the coiled wire around my wrist, listening for a ring tone. Instead, a busy signal triggered an autonomous twitch reaction in my teenage hand: hang up, wait for dial tone, hit redial, listen for ring tone. Again. Again.


"KROQ, you're caller number 23, what's your request?"

"'Party at Ground Zero,' Fishbone!" I half shouted.

"You got it," and she hung up.

I got my request in!

I was part of the musical hive mind!

I hung up and redialed. Busy tone. Again. Again.

Such was the life of my teenage self, growing up in Southern California. Sunday nights were dominated by homework and KROQ's Rock Block Weekends, in which we heard our most-requested alternative hits followed by Rodney on the Roq, the sensei of music discovery. Rodney was our leader, our prophet; he who went forth into the faraway lands of England and New York and Japan and returned to us with Blondie, The Ramones, The Sex Pistols and The Smiths.

We were lucky to have grown up with KROQ and a DJ like Rodney Bingenheimer. These days, radio is a bit of a mess. Terrestrial radio, in order to pay the bills, generally plays low-risk pop and hits that keep the less adventurous and older listeners listening. It's not the best place to discover new music.

Meanwhile, internet radio, while often wide open and free, is a crapshoot of great stuff interspersed with a lot of derivative dribble. Rhapsody and Pandora, at the top of the heap, are for the most part machines, not people. And while there are some wonderful playlist creators - my favorite being Blalock -- radio DJ personalities like Bingenheimer are rare. Gone are the trustworthy DJs that we came to know on weekend evenings, as quirky as they were. They were comforting, they took risks and they were human.

Some may argue that we're better off: We don't need no stinkin' DJ to tell us what to listen to. Nay, we'll find our own up-and-coming bands, thank you very much. In some cases, this works. Acts like Skrillex and Tame Impala owe a lot of their recent success to internet fans. Let the people speak, we say now. The number of listens and song downloads will determine who is good, not what the DJ spins.

But for every Skrillex there are thousands of talented bands that would love to have someone like Rodney on the Roq give them a chance on the big stage. Maybe no one would ever request it again. Maybe it would be a huge hit. But we'll never know. It seems pretty clear that the big radio stage is a thing of the past.

Just the other day, my good friend and Editor-in-chief of TUAW, Victor Agreda, asked me if I'd ever bought music that I first heard on a streaming service. Without hesitation I answered "no." I then tried to figure out why this was. I told him that I preferred to discover music differently, either by reading interviews with bands I liked (to see who influenced them) or by downloading playlists like Blalock's Indie Rock Playlist, which, for all intents and purposes, is really just a guy I trust creating a playlist of new music much like Rodney did in the '80s.

Maybe Apple's upcoming iTunes Radio will get me to take the plunge into internet radio. After all, it promises "Featured Stations [not sure why that's capitalized], stations inspired by the music [I] already listen to and more than 200 genre-focused stations." So, in short, more of the same, right?

I suppose I'm not thrilled with the fact that we're OK replacing the DJ with code. Sure, it works sometimes. Type in a band you like and Pandora will create a station that will probably introduce you to new music just like it. Sounds great.

But imagine if we replaced, say, chefs with machines. "We noticed you like cheeseburgers. Here, have a bacon cheeseburger." That's a fair assumption, but when I eat a cheeseburger, I want fries. Sometimes I want a salad instead. People are weird like that, and no machine can take me from The Vaccines to Neil Diamond.

Likewise, Rodney on the Roq used to go from The Smiths to Van Halen to The Germs. Unless the code has a lot of personality injected into it, I can't imagine a recommendation system doing the same. And even if it did, gone would still be Rodney's fun stories about how he got David Bowie a record deal.

Don't get me wrong: having vast collections of music available to listen to at any moment at my command is a good thing, and recommendations based on my - and my friends' - listening habits are even better. But I see the writing on the wall: we've lost the genius of the great DJ, the human who exposes us to new music, who takes us on a trip every Sunday night.

Would Pandora have introduced us to The Sex Pistols? I'm not so sure.

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.