Here in early March 1998, we now have the first launch of a system designed to
provide customized audio programming over the Internet. The company is
Imagine Radio Inc.
Imagine Radio has several of the characteristics described in
A Modest Proposal: Audio Programming From Online Music
Catalogs, though falls far short of the ultimate vision presented there.
Nevertheless it is an exciting beginning, just as Firefly's collaborative
filtering is a promising suggestion of what might eventually become possible
in the realm of content recommendation tools.
The key innovations of Imagine Radio lie in the personalization of the music
selection process. Users may choose from 16 channels of music content, with
around 80 selections per channel (these channels are programmed by human
experts according to a genre-based model). The company provides a custom player
based on RealPlayer 5.0 streaming audio format, to capture a series of selections
within the channel according to a quasi-random algorithm. This algorithm can be further
influenced by a user's ratings of a currently-playing selection, which changes
the propensity for that track to be replayed in the future. Background information
on the artists, etc. are also available for the tracks played.
Given this setup, we have the first genuine step toward actual customized programming
of audio on an individual basis, and Music Unbound applauds the motivation behind it.
Nevertheless, there are still some serious drawbacks connected to this system that
prevent it from being the complete accomplishment of such a mission.
Randomized selection is constrained to channels that are defined by human
Though it is true that within the 16 channels there is a range of personalization
that is offered, the definition of those channels is not accessible, but
rather is directed by experts whose concepts of these genres is not open to user
input. This is perhaps the most serious drawback, since it severely limits the actual
range of personalization allowed the user, given that these genres are not absolutes
etched in stone, but rather cultural artifacts defined by traditions and accidents
of fate rather than by truly content-based considerations.
These experts are all chosen from the existing music industry, and thus are
inevitably likely to follow existing industry programming habits. Although in
concept the personalization capabilities of Imagine Radio are exciting, the
real-life manifestation of these expert choices may largely work against that
impulse, giving users hardly more than an illusion of customization.
If instead a variety of selection sets were offered on a more custom basis, such as
via collaborative filtering or other methods, this would have a much wider range of
However, one might well forgive the company for limiting these selection sets in this
way for now; the server power required to expand beyond this is quite extensive, and
probably not feasible given today's available technology. This setup is designed so
that over 1200 different selections might be streaming all at once, which is a hefty
river of bandwidth in today's world. As a proof of concept, this is probably the
limit to what one might reasonably attempt. It may fall far short of the several
hundred thousand albums worth of content available from a catalog, but a first step
is a first step. There is a long way to go, but you can't take a second step before
you take the first one.
Integration with purchasing capabilities are not yet in place
Word is that the company is exploring partnerships with music retailers to cover
that last piece of the puzzle, though perhaps first in the guise of links into
music catalog sites, rather than integration into the audio service itself. One step
at a time.
The business model for this service is based purely on advertising revenue, both
from audio ads interspersed occasionally between the music selections and from
visual banners that will appear on the player itself, onscreen. These ads can be
targeted according to user preferences, and thus may eventually be coordinated well
enough to user interests to become viewed as useful information (or at least not
aggravating noise or interruptions).
However, the early stages of the age of subscriptions may well be upon us, and that
extra revenue stream may well be able to eventually provide a much broader range of
selectable material and methods to select it.
Though this first version is constrained by today's available platforms (including
servers, network bandwidth, users' machines and selection choices), it shows a glimmer
of hope that true custom selection and custom-casting of music audio might have a real
future in the online world.
-- Dan Krimm, 3/98