What if Apple's Beats 1 turns out like BBC's Radio 1?

What if Apple’s Beats 1 turns out like BBC’s Radio 1?


DJ Zane Lowe is heading up Apple's Beats 1 live radio station. If it's anything like the BBC's Radio 1 -- where Lowe made his name -- it could be the great music discovery mechanism that digital music's been looking for.

Please, please, please let Apple’s Beats 1 radio station be good.

Of all the announcements at Monday’s WWDC keynote, that’s the one I personally am most excited about. When it launches June 30, Beats 1 will be a 24-hour global radio station run by three DJs from three different cities around the world.

I’m a music junkie. I listen to music radio all the time, especially Radio 1, the BBC’s flagship radio station in London. To be honest, a lot of it sucks, but a lot of it doesn’t. It allows me — an expat Limey living in California — to keep tabs on Britain’s awesome musical culture.

And that’s what I’m hoping for — that Apple’s billions will privately fund a radio station that’s like the BBC’s publicly funded Radio 1 — on a global scale.

Apple hinted at such ambitions in the launch video played during Monday’s keynote. Done right, it could be the great music discovery mechanism the entire music industry’s been looking for.

Beats 1 delivers 24/7 internet radio.
Apple’s new Beats 1 radio station will deliver 24/7 internet radio.
Photo: Apple

Apple already has iTunes Radio, which is a collection of curated genre playlists and some Pandora-like robot stations. It’s mostly meh.

Unlike iTunes Radio, Beats 1 promises to be a real, live radio station. It’ll be headed up by DJs Zane Lowe in Los Angeles, Ebro Darden in New York and Julie Adenuga in London.

Lowe is unknown outside the United Kingdom, but for 12 years, the native New Zealander was one of Britain’s biggest radio DJs. He built a reputation for championing new music, catapulting acts like Ed Sheeran, Adele and The Arctic Monkeys into the spotlight. Ebro Darden is also a big catch. He heads up one of the biggest hip-hop radio shows in the country: WQHT’s Hot 97 out of New York.

Beats 1 will broadcast live to more than 100 countries, mixing news, interviews and guest hosts with tons of music. It will, Apple says, highlight “the best of what’s going on in the world of music.”

It’s ironic in this age of boundless streaming music — where you can listen to anything at any time — that music discovery is so hard. It’s not easy to find great new music, although tons of it is being produced all the time.

Radio is horrible. It’s dominated by narrow radio industry playlists. Online streaming is just as bad. I’ve never had much luck with Pandora, Rdio, Spotify and the like. They are too predictable. They don’t play stuff that’s brand new or obscure. They sound soulless and robotic.

For me, the best music discovery mechanism has always been listening to the radio. I sit through a lot of garbage, but I often hear stuff I like.

One of the reasons the BBC is great is that it’s publicly funded. The British taxpayers pay the bills, so BBC 1 caters to listeners, not advertisers.

Sure, it’s not perfect, but this arrangement allows a measure of freedom. The late-night radio shows especially can be great, because the DJs play what’s new and exciting, rather than a playlist that’s been handed to them. Nothing beats a good live DJ — an expert who is bonkers about music and knows how to create a show on the radio.

What if Apple stepped into the role of the British taxpayer?

What if Apple funded a musical radio station that catered to its listeners rather than the music industry?

That’s what Zane Lowe hinted at in the launch video played during the keynote — that listeners would come first.

Of course, everyone says that, and it could easily go off the rails. This is the business model of SiriusXM satellite radio, and Sirius mostly sucks. Sirius has dozens of channels staffed by expert DJs who often play what they like. But Sirius is like cable TV — 500 channels of shit with the odd gem hidden away.

So I’m mostly excited about the promise. The potential that Apple could spend serious money to make Beats 1 like Radio 1. The fact that Apple recruited top-shelf talent like Zane Lowe is a good start, but then again, Howard Stern is just a paycheck away.

I’m hoping Apple will step up and be a rich and benevolent patron of the arts. I’m hoping Jony Ive is bending Tim Cook’s ear and pushing him to fund a great radio station that’s populated by great DJs and designed for listeners, not run by robots or soulless corporate playlists (Ive is a British music junkie too).

Please, please, please Apple — make Beats 1 like Radio 1. You’ll have at least one listener for life.


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