This morning, on the daily hour-long moan-fest we call “commuting”, we engaged in our normal pattern of radio use – working our way across the entire spectrum several times, not finding anything particularly appealing, before at last settling on the least annoying option. Then, a minute and a half later once that one not-too-bad song had finished, repeating the whole cycle again.

I am given to understand that most people pick a preferred radio station and stick with it, tolerating the annoying bits while they wait for whatever they like listening to to come on. I, and the carpool, just don’t quite “get” that behaviour. For me, ten minutes of inane Scott Mills drivel, yet another yokel radio “guess the sound and win two tickets to the cinema!” competition, the hundredth fucking advert for Apple Fucking Conservatories – they’re intolerable obstacles in the way of possibly-decent music.

I approach this problem in the manner of what old people might term a “digital native” (a term which suggests to me that I should have a necklace of USB sticks and perhaps a battle cry that’s something to do with SuperPokes). The choice for me is not Radio 1 against Wessex FM, Radio Solent against Wave. It’s FM radio versus net radio.

And against that competition, the user experience of traditional radio stations is appalling.

Say, like I usually am, you are in the mood to listen to a particular kind of music that you don’t happen to have on you in any form. Here’s how some popular services compare:

  • Spotify will, for free, play you exactly the songs you request, with the occasional advert – so let’s call that about 95% “what you want”. By paying, you can remove the adverts and essentially, so long as your taste isn’t too obscure, get that to hit 100%.
  • Pandora will try to guess your exact taste over time, delving deeper than just high-level genres. With a few adverts and the occasional bad choice, you’re probably getting 90% enjoyment.
  • Last.fm will play you your “Recommended Radio” songs that are “similar to” an artist of your choosing, or songs with a certain user-contributed tag. No adverts, but a higher rate of playing songs you don’t like – call that 85% enjoyment, though of course as with Pandora you can always skip the ones you’re not in the mood for.
  • Local radio, by contrast, often dedicates around 10% of its time to adverts, 5% to news, and (conservatively) 20% to inane DJ drivel. This leaves 65% for music, and if you’re lucky, you might enjoy half of what they play. A miserable total of 32.5% enjoyment. And of course, if you’re particularly in the mood for say, metal or EBM, well… out of luck.

I’m sure it would be premature of me to declare the death of broadcast radio, just the same as I’m sure lots of people enjoy Scott Mills being a twat and the possibility to win virtually nothing by doing virtually nothing in some local radio competition.

But as a means to consume music? It’s a long way from being a service that gives its users what they want.