Pandora’s limitations make me nostalgic

Before the interwebs came along, my “hometown” station of choice was WAAF (Worcester/Boston). There was a much stronger local signal from 102.1 (WAQY). However, as I remember, the phrase most commonly associated with WAQY was: “AQY sucks!”

I have fond memories of “AAF” from the years before I moved west. Supposedly, the station went a bit downhill in the late 90s. But in its prime WAAF provided a great platform to hear our music.

Fast forward to 2012, and Pandora One — a subscription-based offshoot of the Music Genome Project — has become my go-to radio.

What’s Pandora, you ask? Here’s a quick primer….

Every day, I boot up the Mac and browse a list of custom stations the company calls “Radios.” Each Radio plays selections by a title artist I specify, but the majority of songs come from other artists added to the mix by Pandora’s “trained team of musicologists.”

As a user, I have the opportunity to give each tune a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down — or skip the song entirely. There is no fast-forwarding or rewinding. And there are no deejays and no advertisements.

Behind the scenes, Pandora combines all my thumbs-up/-down data (and hopefully other notable details, such as how quickly I “like” or “dislike” a tune) with their own proprietary analytics to create custom playlists for each individual station.

Sounds great, right? In theory, yes. In practice, all this clever technology makes me yearn for a real human being in the deejay role.

Pandora often ends up cycling through the same station-specific 40-50 songs over and over … and over … and over. How many times can you endure Jack White singing “We’re Going to be Friends” in an 8-hour period? Pandora is going to find out. Then they’re going to test you again tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that.

I guess I was secretly hoping that the Music Genome Project would be more intelligent. But Pandora faces the same challenge that has plagued terrestrial radio…. Repetition.

Song repetition is kryptonite to the listening experience.

Despite this, Pandora really is a wonderful service. Their methodology and analytics may not be perfect, and music licensing fees undoubtedly limit the diversity of playlists. That said, the drawbacks don’t outweigh the happiness I feel when I log in each morning and crank up new, crystal-clear radio stations at will.

After 2+ years on Pandora One, I’ve cultivated some pretty good stations.  Here are some of my favorites, along with brief descriptions of how each has “matured” over the past two years through Pandora’s analytics and licensing limitations:

  • The Doobie Brothers Radio
    Created because Michael McDonald sings like an angel. Is now an aural flashback to my orthodontist’s waiting room.
  • Michael McDonald Radio
    Created because Pandora was skimping on the Michael McDonald -era Doobie Bros. Is now overflowing with male/female duets that harken back to long rides in Mom’s ’74 Cutlass Supreme.
  • They Might Be Giants Radio
    Created because I love TMBG. Is now one of my favorites — mainly because it features lots of Cake and frequent Weird Al Yankovic polka-pop medleys.
  • Jamiroquai Radio
    Created so I could listen to Michael Jackson grooves without Michael Jackson.  Is now basically Michael Jackson’s Greatest Hits, along with some old Daft Punk thrown in to soothe my disappointment with the Music Genome Project.
  • John Mayer Radio
    Created because I’m a huge fan of John Mayer. Is now one of the last remaining “pure” stations in my list, with lots of JM in-studio and live every time I dial it up.
  • Outlaw Country Radio
    Created as an experiment to find modern “outlaw country” artists.  Is now a sad reminder that Pandora considers Jerry Reed the standard-bearer of “outlaw country.”
  • Bela Fleck & Edgar Meyer Radio
    Created to bask in the glory of classical-bluegrass fusion goodness.  Is now a reliable way to find under-the-radar jazz artists like Avishai Cohen.
  • Groove Armada Radio
    Created for those “mission impossible” days when I’m working on tight deadlines.  Is now an essential arrow in the quiver of productivity.
  • Michel Camilo Radio
    Created to pay tribute to (and enjoy) this incredible latin-jazz pianist.  Is now the undisputed hippest station among my Pandora Radios, churning out Tito Puente standards and adventurous tunes by Anthony Wonsey.
  • Modest Mouse Radio
    Created to explore the wave of early 90s alternative neo-punk pop. Is now a hopeless battle between Franz Ferdinand and The Strokes.

Are you a fan of Pandora? What are your favorite stations — especially for those long stints at the computer?

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