Beats 1 - botched, lazy and uninspiring
James Cridland tries to listen to Apple Music's new global radio station, and is not impressed
I picked up the iPad, prodded around in what I thought was the Music app to no avail, asked Siri "How do I listen to Beats 1?" (it didn't know), and eventually turned to Twitter to ask what I needed to do: to see many other people in my Twitter stream doing similar.
"I am totally perplexed", said one person. Another "I was just Googling the same question." Later, one radio professional said "I've been trying to listen for over an hour, but I can't get in. So I won't bother."
It turned out that I needed an OS upgrade: one that was so new the iPad had yet to notify me there was one available. So I settled into the upgrade routine. At least Apple, unlike Android, lets you force-update a device.
As I sat, watching the device download and then install the new update, I listened to an illicit rebroadcast of the Beats 1 stream, and heard the station going live. The first three tracks: Spring King's City, Beck's Dreams and Jamie xx's Gosh.
I'm not a radio programmer, but I loathe radio DJs singing along to songs. I hate people who play jingles over the top of songs badly. (If you're going to do that, pre-produce your drops to beat-match and respect the music). Talking over the middle break, or badly talking over a song that ends, is really, really fucking annoying. There is a special place in hell for radio presenters who attempt to do any of these things. Zane Lowe will spend his entire afterlife there.
I'm not a radio programmer, but I found it curious that the first promo we heard was for Julie Adenuga promoting "her next show". Given that she hadn't been on the radio station, it should have been a promo made specially telling people to join her for "her first show".
I'm not a radio programmer, but a random promo for a hitherto unannounced programme that tells us that "people have been writing in" to ask for songs treats the audience as if we're gullible idiots, and a promo that doesn't actually explain that it's a) a radio programme, and b) when to listen appears a little strange.
I do, however, have some technical understanding, so was confused to hear looping audio, and the same segment of link about three times. It wasn't just me: everyone got that. Streaming audio is not complicated - we've been doing it for years. So how come Apple screwed it up?
I got the app up and running, and after some curious error messages, I was in. After running a music radio website for years, I'm aware what people want to know when listening to a radio station. The top thing is "what song did I just hear?" - and there's no way of swiping back through the song history to find out. Any time spent with radio professionals would have told Apple that.
The app displays a static cover image, and three horizontal dots hides a context menu with more options - to launch an artist station, to add the song to a playlist, and one presumes to play the album in full, though I don't subscribe to Apple Music. One music professional described these links as "astonishing". But since every radio station in TuneIn does similar (including buy links), and I was even doing "add this song to a playlist" on the Virgin Radio website in 2004, I found the astonishment astonishing. This is the bare minimum. I couldn't connect with artists in Connect; I couldn't tweet the artist; I couldn't see if they were playing live anywhere. Any time spent with radio professionals would have told Apple that.
The app doesn't display any station branding, nor any links to schedules, any way of interacting with the live programming, or anything else. Any time spent with radio professionals would have told Apple how useful that would have been.
The Apple Music app comes with a big link to genre radio stations, and - surprisingly - other stations too. In the US, they have ESPN, NPR and Radio Disney there. In the UK we get one: the BBC World Service, which is exactly the wrong radio station to highlight: it should be either Radio 1, Radio 2 or Radio 4, since the World Service is not aimed at a UK audience. Or, frankly, talkSPORT or Capital. Any time spent with radio professionals from each Apple Music territory could have told them this.
In all, then, I found it a distinctly underwhelming experience. Apple have launched a live, linear radio station - something you'll see in this presentation just doesn't work on mobile phones. They've done the bare minimum in terms of integration. The radio producers have been lazy with their production. Tuning in is unintuitive on iOS, and was impossible on OSX at launch. The launch was botched, confused, lazy, uninspiring and most of all, deeply ignorant.
But at least they've tried, right?
It might be worthwhile pointing out that I applaud Apple for trying to run a live radio station. I applaud its use of radio presenters, and even if I don't much care for the programming, I applaud that they're trying. Human curation is a good thing. We should see more of it.
Apple is a company who has innovated with so much of what it's done. It's pulled a lot of industries up to its level. Smartphones were dreadful before Apple came along. Laptops were great big ugly beasts. UX, in general, owes a great debt to Apple's work. Apple's stuff is normally consistently ahead of the game.
If Beats 1 was launched by any other company, I'd be pretty impressed at what it had achieved. I think I'm just disappointed that Apple has done such a mediocre job - for Apple - at this. Great expectations, and all that. That is the source of my disappointment.