Deal-breakers

I love the radio, but I think that it’s something that’s really gone downhill, even from my parents’ day. DJs used to just play what they felt like playing (or what they were paid to play, natch) without really thinking about whether it was more properly rock or country or whatever. But more recently, radio stations only play Hard Rock or whatever their niche is. (I don’t know what the agency behind this is, whether it be licensing or focus grouping or advertising– any input would be appreciated) (Full disclosure: I don’t really know what ‘natch’ means, or how to properly use it)

This may be fine for whatever majority or plurality of the population just wants to listen to the same five oldies over and over, but the real losers are us serious musical omnivores.

Satellite radio really isn’t an answer to this. There are two competing theories here, broadcasting and niche marketing. Radio is pretty much balkanized; very few radio stations broadcast in any real sense of the word. At some level, though, broadcasting is deeply useful. I don’t want to think about every song on the radio while I’m driving; I want to drive. Delegating that decision makes your life easier, and better.

Finding a great radio station, finding a station that broadcasts to you, is a wonderful thing. I have a mental list of all of the radio stations I’ve really liked in my life, and sometimes, I’m like, ‘yeah, FM4 (out of Austria) is fucking great.’

When I listen to the radio, I listen to either the urban top 40 station (which is such a vilely PC term) or the straight top 40 station, and I’ll keep one of those on until I hit a deal-breaker, a song so actively bad that I’ll change the station. Dem Franchise Boyz, for example. I think a lot of people operate like this. Radio stations are trying to keep this from happening, because when you switch away you don’t get to hear their advertising and you cost them money. I think the deal-breaker factor may be a big reason that the balance of power in radio has shifted from broadcasting music to marketing to a specific niche.

Technologically, we’re at a level where we should be able to rectify this. Bandwidth is cheap, audio is relatively lightweight and audio compression has been around forever. It’s easy to imagine a radio with a deal-breaker button, where if that Nickelback song came on the radio, you could press a button and you’d never have to hear it again (ideally).

At the client level, this shouldn’t be too hard to implement. I could see a standalone client, or, were radio infrastructure to ever change, a client-server structure could make this sort of thing really powerful.

As a standalone thing, one way to implement it would be to make a radio with multiple audio inputs. You tune the radio to a primary and backup station. Behind the scenes, the backup input records and (maybe) compresses the most recent few songs from your backup station. When you press the deal-breaker button, your radio plays the backup song. When the backup song is finished, the radio switches back to your primary station, which brings us to a slight snag.

You want your radio to seamlessly play whole songs, I think. If the backup song is longer than the deal-breaker, you could record the new song on your primary station until you switch back. If the deal-breaker is horribly dragging on, you could play another backup song. There would be some lag after you switch back to the primary station, but I don’t that’d be a big deal. A little buffering never hurt anyone, and it’d only happen until you shut off the car or radio and reset the system.

This set-up would only allow you to switch away from whatever song you don’t want to listen to at the moment. A better idea, I think, would be to have a persistent song blacklist. (Also, I think a radio station probably wants you to keep listening to their content, not switching off to someone else at your leisure) At a server level, songs would have to be tagged. And a persistent blacklist would make for some problems, most obviously that you’re losing a certain amount of time, i.e. if you’re listening to top 40 and you just skip number 8 each time it comes up in the hour, you’re going to have less than an hour of music at the end of the hour. But once again, a little lag is no big problem. And then there’d have to be some way for the radio station to send the deal-breaker backup. One potentially easy way would be for the radio station to send a compressed backup song in some fashion.

This would be nice, because it allows radio infrastructure to remain largely in place. And that’s good because radio is neat.

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