On a dial of infinite choice, it shouldn’t be hard to find: the mainstream top 40 station that plays the hits, but plays them just a little bit sooner. On the broadcast dial, KMVQ (Now 99.7) San Francisco comes the closest to filling that brief. Then there’s SiriusXM’s Hits 1 and, beyond that, a growing number of online channels specializing in new pop songs but without much of a radio programming motor behind them.

After three weeks, broadcasters are aware of what iTunes Radio is not, and darned relieved about it. Once you create a few transformative experiences, people expect that every time—not just another series of streams that differ  from the AOL Radio of a decade ago primarily by their location. Radio people were happy to write iTunes Radio off, although a few did so with a chilling asterisk: “But my kids seem to like it.”

As noted at the outset, the gold-based stations on iTunes Radio often have that “just another bunch of songs” feeling. But after a few weeks, I’m still finding one definite utility in two of its mainstream top 40 channels, Pure Pop Hits and Pepsi Pulse Pop, both of which receive prominent placement. Those channels are consistently hit-driven but just a little more aggressive than their major-market counterparts. Most of the pure-play top 40 formats I encounter actually lag slightly behind in most cases—there’s not much that’s new and tasty, and the stiffs hang around longer.

Unlike the gold-based channels, neither Pure Pop Hits nor Pepsi Pulse Pop have sliders that allow you to adjust the variety—its “slightly faster than radio” setting is the default. Being in the industry, one doesn’t get to discover many songs first on radio. On its first day, iTunes Radio was where I first heard Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse,” but also where I heard Zedd’s “Stay the Night” before I even knew it was out. Last week, I listened again and finally heard Perry’s “Walking on Air,” which is the No. 6 seller on iTunes but getting only 11 monitored spins at radio. 

Perry’s prominence on iTunes Radio is, of course, the result of a marketing partnership, and there’s not a lot of boldness required in playing a new Katy Perry song early. Then again, mainstream top 40 radio let “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” sit on an album for a year before playing it, and not messing up the label game plan was the typical explanation. Take note, programmers, apparently labels don’t mind.

Yes, of course this should be more than just “hits faster.” The Pepsi channel isn’t particularly different from its counterpart and isn’t particularly experiential. ITunes is the radio entity that can best match Clear Channel on the concert front, but the plugs for the iTunes festival have come across as throwaways. And while Apple has the wherewithal to challenge radio’s companionship and production advantages, there’s no one to remind you that you heard it here first.

Then again, there’s also no one trying to drive you to a website to see what Lindsay, Britney and Miley did. There’s no one asking you to like iTunes Radio on Facebook and not telling you why you would want to do that. And there are four ads an hour. “Hits a little sooner” strikes me as a valid franchise. There’s still an opportunity to do it right, and still some excitement here that anyone is doing it at all.  

Here's iTunes Radio's Pure Pop on Oct. 2:

Katy Perry, “Walking on Air”

New Politics, “Harlem”

Maroon 5, “Love Somebody”

Paramore, “Still Into You”

Ellie Goulding, “Burn”

Icona Pop, “I Love It”

Demi Lovato, “Made in the USA”

Travie McCoy featuring Jason Mraz, “Rough Waters”

Ariana Grande featuring Big Sean, “Right There”

Fall Out Boy, “Alone Together”

Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams, “Get Lucky”

Phillip Phillips, “Gone, Gone, Gone”

Passenger, “Let Her Go”

Calvin Harris featuring Ellie Goulding, “I Need Your Love” 

And here's Pepsi Pulse Pop, monitored at roughly the same time: 

Jason Derulo, “The Other Side”

Selena Gomez, “Come and Get It”

Travie McCoy featuring Jason Mraz, “Rough Waters”

Maroon 5, “Payphone”

Lorde, “Royals”

Atlas Genius, “Trojans”

Ariana Grande featuring Big Sean, “Right There”

Calvin Harris featuring Ayah Marar, “Thinking About You”

Justin Timberlake, “T.K.O.”

Icona Pop, “All Night”

Capital Cities, “Safe and Sound”

Krewella, “Live for the Night”

 

Britney Spears, “Work B**ch!”