Defying Conventions: Is Beats 1 Redefining Radio?
a year ago
‘Defying Conventions: Is Beats 1 Redefining Radio?’ was originally submitted as part of a University of Gloucestershire module. With the exception of two small typographical changes, this essay is posted exactly as it was submitted. Bibliography and Appendices have been redacted, although in-line references have been left in. If you need to chase up a reference or quote for your own work just contact me. I'll be happy to help!
Apple’s annual World Wide Developer Conference is a showcase of the company’s latest software and technology. Described by CEO Tim Cook as the ‘epicentre of change’, 2015 marked their ‘most global conference ever’ (Apple, 2015), a fitting stage to announce their new ‘worldwide’ and ‘always on’ internet radio station, Beats 1.
The announcement of Beats 1 came as a footnote to an addendum. The presentation mainly dealt with Apple’s latest technological offering, ‘Apple Music’ – a streaming service and social network combined, of which the radio station is merely a subsidiary – rather than with Beats 1 Radio directly. Nevertheless, speaker, record producer, and entrepreneur Jimmy Iovine painted it as a nod to the company’s history; the minds behind the iPod and media software iTunes were returning to the grassroots of music sharing: radio.
This essay will look at the early success and criticisms of Beats 1. It will do this by examining how the station defies established radio theory and is helping to evolve the medium both technologically and stylistically. It will contextualise these findings in the form of current industry practice, as well as what pressures the station may put on commercial and public service radio broadcasting in the United Kingdom. The essay aims to explore the timing and reasons behind the inception of the station and will raise questions behind its ideology. It will draw on a range of practitioner, academic and secondary sources as well as personal listening and theorisation in order to explore whether Apple’s Beats 1 is ‘redefining radio’.
From the offset, a couple of basic but important distinctions need to be made. As the Radio Advertising Bureau reflect in their 2014 report Audio Now (p.10), new forms of audio are continually emerging. The report highlights three main forms of consumer-level audio, with the latest — ‘on-demand’ — being less than ten years old:
- ‘Owned audio’: Here, the consumer owns the physical or digital audio format. This may include digital downloads, gathered legally or otherwise, or physical copies of the sound, such as CD, cassette or vinyl.
- ‘Live audio’: This is the oldest of the three forms. The report refers to it as ‘live radio’ but for the purposes of this essay we shall expand its definition to all audio consumed in real-time, as it is performed or transmitted.
- ‘On-demand’: The newest of the three and the most complex to define due to its multifaceted nature. This encapsulates audio where the consumer does not have the original file and listens in isolation. Examples cited in Audio Now include streaming services, podcasts and YouTube videos.
This notion of ‘owned audio’ can be entirely discounted when discussing Apple Music as a standalone product; the user never gets physical access to the music files, just the right to stream them in exchange for a monthly membership fee of £9.99. The second and third definitions – ‘live audio’ and ‘on-demand’ respectively – are vital when addressing Beats 1 and Apple Music’s other ‘radio’-esqué offerings, the definition of which has been somewhat corrupted by modern-day ‘on-demand’ music streaming services.
‘Radio’, as understood by the likes of Spotify, Deezer, Pandora, or similar, is intrinsically different from the traditional and well-established institution of radio broadcasting. This is not to say traditional radio is out-dated – far from it – but that ‘on-demand’ services have appropriated the name of the medium and have used it incorrectly.
There are multiple differences between the two, with the most notable being that the more traditional notion of radio broadcasting features human presence. Chignell (2009, p.33) explains people ‘add meaning’ and context, and also provide a sense of co-presence. This is the complete antithesis of so-called ‘radio stations’ on streaming services which strip broadcasting of its ‘essential element’ (Priestman, 2006, p.36): human-to-human contact. As Corderio (2011, p.499) highlights, there is a long line of radio theorists who contend ‘music playlists, without human interaction, should not be confused with radio’, and that radio can be easily defined as public, point-to-points broadcasting. Priestman describes the aforementioned, human-bare stations as ‘automated web “jukebox[es]”’ and for the purposes of this essay, these on-demand web-jukeboxes will be called exactly that.
iTunes Radio – the 2013 predecessor of Apple Music – was one such service. Allowing users to create ‘stations’ around a single artist or band, algorithms mixed content from one band with similar material by similar artists. As Baldwin (2013) reports, iTunes Radio let users ‘rate the songs (…) as they stream[ed]’, thereby learning individual preference in order to modify the output to better suit taste. While iTunes Radio was by no means a failure, algorithms, as Iovine himself admits, ‘can’t do it alone’ (Dredge, 2015). While movements in the realm of acoustic and computer science are moving in the right direction, machines currently fail to recognise mood, thus playing inappropriate or mismatched tracks sequentially, and cannot provide all important context.
Enter Apple Music. While the newer service still contains web-jukeboxes, Apple makes a clear point of distinguishing Beats 1 Radio from them. In the native Music application on iOS, a graphic inviting people to ‘Listen Now’ takes centre stage (appendix; a), occupying well over 50% of the screen space. Not only does this force automated-jukebox stations to exist several swipes away but it also separates Beats 1 from these lesser-refined services. The Beats 1 landing page on the Apple website makes a further point of highlighting this distinction by defining the true meaning of radio itself: ‘No matter where you are or when you tune in, you’ll hear the same great programming as every other listener’ (2015b). This reinforces a concept Chignell (2009, p.74) writes about, co-presence, a theory Scannell and Cardiff (1991) highlight, imagined community, and Marshal McLuhan’s Global Village, ‘one world connected by an electronic nervous system’ (Stewart, n.d.). Irrespective of scale, collective listening is precisely what radio is all about.
As a technology company, there are technological considerations to take in to account when defining what ‘radio’ means to Apple. As the smartphone market leader (Forbes, 2015), it is fitting of Apple to create a station that is marketed at, and primarily received on, mobile devices.
According to a 2015 report from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the digital music industry is worth $6.85 billion worldwide per annum (IFPI, p.6), with ‘music subscription services’ accounting for 22.75% of revenue. On the other hand, ‘radio is a massive $20 billion industry’ (Truong, 2015). At a time where physical format sales are declining (IFPI, 2015b), where the revenue share of music streaming is growing exponentially, and where radio is still ‘able to command the largest share of the listening ear’ (Lloyd, 2015, p.293), Apple wants in.
Moreover, there are some strong statistics to suggest mobile listening is quick becoming a force to be reckoned with. ‘31 minutes a day is the average amount of time spent listening to music on a phone’, Global (2015) claims, and ‘65% of “digital audio” streamers’ – both live audio and on-demand consumers – ‘listen with head[/ear]phones’. Undoubtedly, radio is an intimate and personal medium, esteemed by consumers (McLeish, 2016, pp.3 to 6). To further emphasise this, by interacting through earphones, listeners are choosing to place broadcasters in their ears, to make the broadcast a part of their body, a sacred trust and one only radio could garner. Global also claim ‘44% of 35-44 year-olds’ stream music over tablet devices. Logically, what with early adoption rates and increased technological competence in younger generations who have grown up with this hardware from an early age, this number will only be higher in the 15 to 24 and 25 to 34 demographics, precisely the age of consumer Apple is attempting to capture with Beats 1 Radio.
In the words of both Finer (2003, p.32) and Castelles (2003, p.17), the internet is the world’s first international radio frequency. Apple not only advertise Beats 1 as being ‘worldwide’, but as ‘a truly global listening experience’, letting audience members discover ‘what’s going on in the world of music’. While parts of this statement are correct – the station can be received in 100 countries around the world (Apple, 2015c), although that is only 51% of the planet – the overall sentiment could not be further from the truth.
At present, the BBC World Service is the world’s largest international broadcaster (House of Commons, 2010, ev.11) serving over 188 million people per week (BBC, 2009). Whilst the on-air content of each station cannot be compared – the BBC World Service is primarily a news and informational platform, while Beats 1 is purely a music station – there are, in terms of scale, many similarities. Evident from its marketing decisions and branding, Apple’s goal is for Beats 1 to adopt an audience of ‘World Service’ magnitude – ‘truly global’, ‘worldwide’. However, in the same way Beats 1 broadcasts from exclusively Western locations – New York City, London, and Los Angeles – yet claims it is a ‘global’ voice, the BBC World Service soldiers in a similar vein. The Operating Agreement of the World Service (BBC Trust, 2012, p.6) sets out English language services as their ‘core offer’ and designates 75% of overall output worldwide to English language programming each week. Even the name of the BBC World Service contains a jarring juxtaposition, seating ‘British’ and ‘World’ two words apart.
On the other hand, ‘beats’ – acoustically speaking – know no borders and are not unique to any specific genre of music. Here, Beats 1’s lack of cultural identity, as far as the name of the station and the simplistic graphical signifiers and branding it uses, allows the station to be transient in nature. However, as O’Malley (2015) reflects, this ‘ill-defined genre remit’ hasn’t come without criticism –
He goes on to state ‘if you make content so broad, it becomes meaningless’. Beats 1 contradicts Priestman’s (2006, p.233) argument that ‘web radio works best as a narrow-cast or niche medium’ and Nyre’s argument (2008, p.192) that music radio stations attempt ‘to attract niche audiences’.
Roy Martin, managing editor of Radio Today, claims Beats 1 threatens ‘specialist music stations such as 1Xtra, Kiss [and BBC Radio] 6 Music’ (2015). The breadth of music these stations play is replicated on Beats 1 without advertisements or pressures to fill remit goals. Contrasting Martin’s sentiment, BBC Radio 1’s controller Ben Cooper – who has lost two talents: Head of Music George Ergatoudis to Spotify (Lunden, 2015) and Lowe to Apple – claims ‘a rising tide lifts all boats’ (Griffiths, 2015). Martin continues, ‘the likes of Radio Plymouth, The Bee [Lancashire] and Clyde 1 [Glasgow]’ need not feel at risk, despite Beats 1 being billed as ‘the world’s local station’ (Quartz, 2015). Although Beats 1 can attempt to masquerade as local radio, when it comes to discussing truly local news and events, even at its closest level of inspection Beats 1 has to take a national view for fear of alienating other listeners. Locality is what makes radio work and Beats 1, with its syndicated, single, linear programming which never once breaks out in to local titbits, cannot possibly achieve the same effect on its desired scale.
The on-air content of Apple’s Beats 1 behaves as a BBC Radio 1Xtra and Radio 6 Music hybrid. The station is clearly attempting to promote ‘challenging, innovative’ (BBC Trust, 2012b, p.2) music, with a distinctive focus on ‘contemporary black music (…) rarely heard elsewhere’ (BBC Trust, 2015, pp.2 to 4), as the aforementioned BBC stations also reflect in their respective remits. Introducing challenging music comes with the need to reason track selection and explain why the creation deserves respect. BBC Radio 6 Music achieves this through interviews and technical discussions, many of which deconstruct musical theory, and through detailed back-announcements that may include the name of record labels, similar musicians, and artist influences. BBC Radio 1 Xtra achieves the same effect by discussing the artists’ potential influence in relation to black British culture. This form of education, required by remit, is evident in the plays-per-day of each station, with BBC Radio 6 Music totalling an average of 172 plays per day and 1Xtra averaging 159 (Last FM, 2016, 2016b). The breaks are filled with news, documentaries and interviews. This is a stark contrast to Beats 1, a station that plays an average of 300 songs per weekday, peaking to 600 on weekends due in part to ‘high-track-turnover DJ mix shows that play during prime party hours’ (Quartz, 2015).
The on-air schedule of Apple’s Beats 1 Radio is unlike any other station. Those familiar with radio will be aware of dayparting, ‘the practice of segmenting the broadcast schedule in to blocks (…) programmed for unique audience demographics and listeners’ daily habits’ (Piasek, 1998). Dayparting helps broadcasters provide more of that all-important context Chignell (2009, p.33) discusses. Nielsen Audio (2015, p.23), one of several U.S. audience rating services, divides a weekday into five such parts. Having slightly adjusted the times for an audience based in the United Kingdom, those dayparts are as follows:
- 0600 to 9000: Breakfast
- 0900 to 1600: Daytime
- 1600 to 1900: Evening Drive Time
- 1900 to 2300: Late Night
- 2300 to 0600: Overnight (colloquially known as the ‘graveyard slot’)
James Cridland believes (2015) ‘it makes no sense putting the money into a great breakfast show (…) because the timezones mean it’s always breakfast somewhere’. Beats 1 replays its three flagship programmes – Zane Lowe, Ebro Darden, and Julie Adenuga – on a twelve-hour loop, thus hitting both eastern and western-based audiences with all three shows in any given 24-hour period. The rest of the schedule is comprised of irregular and one-off programmes fronted by musicians from Elton John to HAIM, and organisations like Noisey and Pitchfork. This pre-recorded content, masquerading ‘as live’, is broadcast at times relevant to the market Apple is attempting to target. For example, St. Vincent’s programme is played at 3 a.m. GMT, 7 p.m. PST (American East-Coast) and 11 a.m. CST (Mainland China), evidently targeting listeners in the Americas and Asia rather than the United Kingdom.
Whilst this may seem a strange idea, it works. One of radio’s early strengths, the art of ephemeral broadcasting, is being eroded in the age of podcasting, ‘owned audio’ and ‘on-demand’. With this comes a pressure for more refined content – producers now must craft sound not only for initial impact, but also for replay value. Transmitting great content once then losing it to the ether is neither cost effective nor clever.
LBC – a commercial, London-based news and talk station – is one of the first in the United Kingdom to implement pay-for catch-up services. Subscription services on a rolling monthly basis cost £3.99 (AudioAgain, 2014). In comparison, Beats 1 offers the same catch-up method: pay to become an Apple Music member. ‘While it doesn’t quite provide the experience of listening to the show live, (…) every DJ will post a set playlist for their show a few hours after it ends’ (iMore, 2015). Most commercial radio stations are yet to offer on-demand catch-up services at all, but some, like Fun Kids – the UK’s only radio station aimed at under-12s – have in excess of 80 podcast channels (Think Fun Kids, n.d.). It is as-of-yet unclear whether the pay-for catch-up model works well enough to warrant the long-term investment required by commercial radio stations in order to develop distribution platforms. However, empowering the consumer through this medium provides another point-of-entry to the station and rewards active consumers with the opportunity to replay their favourite moments from past programmes, or to store the show for posterity.
Given the high profile musicians Beats 1 has access to and the respective fan-bases of those musicians, Apple’s move is clearly another call to subscribe. Once an interview or programme has been broadcast, the only way for dedicated fans to hear that content again – or catch-up, if they missed it first time around – is to pay. Apple know many fans have a fear of missing out, desperate to hear content from their favourite creators, therefore can reasonably assure themselves a select number of subscribers by providing exclusive content hidden behind paywalls.
Being owned by a multinational, technological giant has its advantages. While the equipment Beats 1 uses to broadcast is the same as any other digital radio station, the techniques are certainly groundbreaking. Beats 1 is available in two stream formats, 64 kbps and 256 kbps (Painter, 2015) AAC, superior to DAB’s MP2 streams which vary from 64 kbps – for stations including Absolute Radio, Amazing Radio and BBC Radio 5 Live – to 192 kbps – used exclusively by BBC Radio 3 (Laird, 2015). With concern to mobile devices, where the vast majority of stations stream second-by-second, Beats 1 utilises the new HLS streaming format. HLS is HTTP Live Streaming, a new communications protocol developed and implemented by Apple (2014). Designed to be adaptive, devices request stream information in packets of varying quality, and, if at any point diminished bandwidth or download speed causes stress to the stream, devices will request the next packet in a lower quality. This creates the effect of zero buffering, allowing for a smooth and more dynamic listening experience.
The highly customisable nature of mobile phones makes this next statistic hard to measure but assuming a couple of reasonable conditions – that a user has biometric Touch ID enabled and has not moved the Music application from the factory default setting in their iPhone’s docking bar – an ordinary mobile user can become a Beats 1 listener in only four taps. If Siri’s newer hands-free function – ‘Hey Siri’ – is enabled, a user can become a listener without even having to touch their device (appendix; b).
In stark contrast to popular radio streaming applications such as TuneIn or RadioPlayer – two of numerous for desktop and smartphone – Apple forces consumers to use their dedicated Music application in order to hear Beats 1. The reason behind this decision is simple: Apple is a lover of control; proven by the fact Beats 1 audio steams are encrypted. The keys to decrypt the audio streams lay within the Music application itself. When addressing Apple’s design decisions, the company has previously been accused of attempting to create a ‘totalitarian monoculture’ (Bissell, 2008), a statement that is hard to defend Apple against. Indeed, in order for a listener to switch from Apple’s Beats 1 to a potential rival – say, BBC Radio 1 or Capital FM – they would have to conduct at least eighteen further interactions with their device, first by launching a non-native iPhone application, then by having to search for the station before launching it, an overwhelming contrast in user-friendliness from the potential hands-free starting of Beats 1. Matt Deegan – radio practitioner and Creative Director of Folder Media – emphasised this, explaining the inception of Beats 1 is a move to ‘keep people in the Apple Music ecosystem’ (University of Gloucestershire, 2015).
On December 29th 2015 it was reported (RadioToday) Beats Electronics LLC., a division of Apple and the owners of the Beats brand, had put in a bid to internationally trademark the names of four potential new stations, Beats 2 through 5 and respective station logos ‘B2’ through ‘B5’. Whilst Apple has made their intention to expand its radio arm clear (Billboard, 2015), it is unknown whether the filings are just a protective measure to prevent others piggybacking the Beats Radio brand.
In the United Kingdom, the government-approved communications and competition regulator Ofcom, can step-in to ensure monopolies of broadcasting remain fair. If a station like Beats 1 wanted to broadcast on FM, AM, or even DAB, there’s a high likelihood that Apple – with their marketing budget in excess of $1 billion USD (United States Securities and Exchange Commission, 2012) and end-goal of creating several ‘Beats’-branded stations – would not be in receipt of an license. This is where broadcasting solely online has measurable advantages, namely in the lack of regulation. Under the sole condition Apple pays for the rights to stream music in the 100 countries Beats 1 is playable from, there are no further restrictions.
Although indecency regulations do not apply to its online streams, Apple still chooses to play non-explicit, clean, radio-edited versions of tracks 24/7. ‘[C]ensoring explicit language could be a matter of playing it safe rather than hoping the content flies everywhere it’s played,’ Kastrenakes (2015) believes, ‘it’s likely a way to stay in advertisers’ good graces — and it’s certainly possible that ads will show up on Beats 1 eventually, especially since it’s available for free’, he adds. Where a track has a particularly high number of expletives, presenters signpost the non-censored version as ‘now streaming on Apple Music’, a call to subscribe to the service for uncensored content ‘as the artist intended’.
As Priestman (2006, p.3) reminds us, ‘[r]adio was supposed to mean the end of newspapers [and] television was supposed to mean the end of radio’, but as is now evident, newer mediums change their predecessors but do not replace them. Criticism aside, Apple has made some logical additions to the visual and multimedia assets accompanying radio. Beats 1’s metadata – ‘data that provides information about other data’ (Merriam Webster, n.d.) such as what is playing on the station – is visualised on the iPhone lock-screen (appendix; c, d). If users are Apple Music subscribers they can ‘favourite’ tracks, add them to personal playlists for offline ‘on-demand’ streaming, and share the station via social media channels.
Moreover, the synergy Apple’s Beats 1 manages to achieve by embedding its content within the native Music application is unrivalled. Presenters regularly direct listeners to their ‘Connect’ pages – the social networking arm of Apple Music – to see content complimentary to on-air discussions. Apple’s monopolistic attitude over its content pays-off here, where the dynamo and fluidity of content publishing aids the sense of liveness.
While it is clear to see Apple have brought many innovations to the worlds of technology and of music – and is continuing to experiment, along with on-demand streaming services, with the power of radio – I am unconvinced Beats 1 poses a threat to traditional notions of radio broadcasting. I believe Apple has missed a trick by failing to make the station more revolutionary.
The stream is ‘live’ but its DJs are not, the station is ‘global’ but radio works best locally. It is entirely within Apple’s capabilities to syndicate international programming with local break-offs, in the same way Heart FM syndicates a national breakfast show with regional news and travel. Similarly, Apple could easily syndicate its presenters across several genres of station, unifying links but playing different tracks, thus narrowcasting to niche audiences while still maintaining an overall brand identity. Absolute Radio’s ‘Project Banana’, piloted during Christian O’Connell’s breakfast show, adopts this method, handing consumers the power to ‘choose the music to suit their tastes, while enjoying and interacting with the show’s hosts’ live (MediaWeek, 2014).
While the station certainly has had success in marketing itself as a ‘breakthrough’, in the words of James Cridland (2015) ‘I’m not sure it’ll set the world on fire’. Moreover, the move to launch a radio station has attracted many critics, one of which stated it was ‘a terribly exclusive vanity project’ (O’Malley, 2015), a statement I’m inclined to agree with. Matt Deegan is correct; Beats 1 is an advertising space for Apple Music, and contains measurable disadvantages for non-subscribers.
Nevertheless, Beats 1 does pose serious questions for Station Managers and Radio Futurologists alike, namely around sharing multimedia content, ideas of exclusivity and privilege, and scheduling for maximum impact. Where Beats 1 excels, such as in technological competence and innovation, it is my opinion more traditional stations fall far behind. Here, they really are ‘redefining radio’. In this digital age, stations need to strive for technological excellence and Beats 1 is a prime example. This is not shocking, as the biggest and most valuable technology company in the world owns Beats 1.
It is just a shame that, as far as content is concerned, where other stations excel, Beats 1 misses the boat. It comes across clumsy and mismatched, alienating and lazy, rather than the inclusive, ‘worldwide’, gritty and new-age aesthetic it needs to succeed.