Beats 1, Apple's Radio Station, Looks Like It's A Hit -- and Maybe a New Digital Direction

Victor Frankowski/Rex/REX USA
Zane Lowe at The Troxy in London on Nov. 22, 2014.

Apple will have a tough time selling people on the music subscription side of Apple Music, which has received mixed reviews and many user complaints about the iCloud storage service deleting and renaming song libraries. But it's having a far easier time getting them to listen to old-fashioned radio. Beats 1, the free radio station built into the Apple Music app, has turned out to be a surprise hit. 

The tech community has been heaping praise on Beats 1. Computerworld lauded the "surprising genius" of "an always-there global shared content experience."  The Next Web called it "exactly what radio should be." AdAge proposed using the word "visionary" for Beats 1. It's surprising that so much applause is showering a live, personality-driven online radio station that takes a page (maybe two) from SiriusXM's playbook and expands it globally.

Internet-savvy people have fallen head over heels for old-school monoculture. A week into this grand experiment, it looks like Apple could one day be a serious player in Internet radio.

Wall Street seems to have taken notice. Investors are likely to believe a strong Apple Music could affect other streaming services. Accordingly, shares of Pandora dropped 14.9 percent in the 19 trading days since being introduced during the WWDC keynote on June 9. Other than the announcement and launch of Apple Music, no event or events stand out as an obvious cause for this decline. 

But what do consumers think of Beats 1? On the day the station launched, Fortune noted that "Beats 1 radio is killing it on Twitter." Sentiment hasn't faded since that burst of excitement -- Twitter is still full of positive comments about Zane Lowe & Co.

To get a rough idea of the general opinion around Beats 1, Billboard examined 155 tweets dated July 6 with the #Beats1 hash tag and measured their content for positive, neutral or negative sentiment. Tweets without any opinion, such as an identification of a song heard, were not counted. The results were overwhelmingly positive. 

— 83.9 percent of the tweets expressed positive sentiment, usually about the host, a song or, most often, the station itself.

— 6.5 percent of the tweets expressed a neutral sentiment.

— 9.7 percent of the tweets expressed a negative sentiment.

Positive tweets contained many different types of opinions. They often offered general praise for Beats 1 using phrases like "love it" and "amazing work." A number of tweets showed happiness that Zane Lowe had returned to radio since leaving BBC for Apple. Many people expressed pleasure with the music and artists heard. There were some complements on the variety of Beats 1's programming, such as "very eclectic" and "discovering all types of new music." Many tweets expressed the belief that Apple had re-created radio.

Although Beats 1's scope original drew some guffaws in the press, the station's global nature made an impact on some listeners. There was proof people were listening outside of English-first countries. Billboard saw messages from Germany, France, Austria, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Colombia and Puerto Rico.

Negative sentiment often focused on the genre music heard ("way too much hip hop," "listening to @Beats 1 for about 2 hours now and not one rock n roll song") and Apple's decision to play clean versions of songs ("Really #Beats 1 you are playing edited versions of songs?"). A few comments expressed displeasure with song repetition ("Pease stop with the #freedom song"). Some people wrote they didn't like DJ-hosted radio ("#Beats 1 reminds me why I hate listening to (radio) & use @Pandora_radio instead").

This sample of listener feedback may not be representative of all Beats 1 listeners, but it does forward the idea that Apple's approach to an old format is connecting with listeners. Combined with the reaction of journalists, Beats 1's early popularity hints at deficiencies at competing streaming services. Personalization is great, but people still love listening live to a DJ. 

Incidentally, this Saturday is the ninth anniversary of the publishing of The Long Tail, Chris Anderson's landmark book that described an Internet-accessing population that no longer has a need for cultural gatekeepers like DJs and radio stations. The Long Tail was written in the wake of iTunes' rise and used streaming data from subscription service Rhapsody to show how access to a larger supply of titles results in more streams of niche music. In the years following, the popularity of Pandora further supported the book's thesis that gatekeepers are increasingly irrelevant. 

The reaction to Beats 1 suggests people appreciate, or miss, the communal listening experiences offered by traditional radio. Listening to personalized playlists, sharing songs and getting album recommendations have their rewards, and people will continue to want those features, but streaming services should venture beyond their original charters. After the rise of one-to-one streaming, it appears we've come full circle and returned to one-to-many broadcasting.

One tweet in particular sums up the mood: "Really like how in 2015, the cool new thing, by the world's number one corporation, is a radio station."