Radio Chaos

It is always an odd experience to try Apple Music’s Radio service. 

How it went this time: I go to the Radio main page and start browsing. There are several options, they seem all very nice. In the section “Every Show, on Demand” the first option is “80’s Radio with Huey Lewis”. I click on it.

The following page has some art with a Huey Lewis photo, a text description, the most recent 8 episodes and then a section “You Might Also Like” with another 4 shows. Finally, there is a “Listen Live” section recommending the live station Apple Music Hits.

The description:  “Huey Lewis and his band The News dominated radio in the 1980s, sending 12 singles into the top 10, including “The Power of Love”, “The Heart of Rock and Roll” and “Hip to Be Square”. Here, on his own show, ’80s Radio With Huey Lewis, the legendary musician shares music, stories and one-of-a-kind insight into one of the most important decades in rock ‘n’ roll.”

Ok then.

I choose the latest episode, 36. The cropped subtitle: “Huey highlights hits from the ‘80s that feature the…” Intrigued about who or what is being featured, I click on title/subtitle to find out more.

There is a problem. Typically, in Apple Music, clicking on the title or almost any area of the icon of an album or playlist brings you to a descriptive page of its contents. There are two exceptions. The bottom left corner of the icon show a PLAY NOW button when the mouse is hovering (and can be clicked). The bottom right corner of the icon, if clicked, shows a OPTIONS menu with a list of additional actions (add to library, share etc.)

Basically, clicking on the title of a playlist or album, or clicking on almost any point of their icons, besides the bottom left and the bottom right, results in loading another page.

Radio stations behave differently. Their icons and titles look just the same as albums and playlists, but there is no another page to be loaded. The right corner OPTIONS click works the same, but any other click on the icon or title means PLAY NOW and starts playing the station.

This a long way to explain that my click on the title does not bring me to a page describing the episode as I expected (of which I hadn’t even able to read the entire subtitle!). Instead it starts playing the episode right away, what it is to be a 60 minutes sequence of songs featuring “the saxophone”.

This is annoying because I already was in the middle of a very nice listening session and had no intention of interrupting it to listen a few seconds of Huey’s voice quickly followed by “I Want a New Drug”. I was listening something calmer, maybe the middle of Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting”.

Unfortunately, there is no “undo” function to bring me back to that exact song at that exact point. Nor to the start of the song. Not even to that particular playlist (which was a smart playlist of all songs in my library with play count equal to zero, sorted by length and starting from the shortest).

The last play action I had done on the app was right inside the main view of my “Unplayed” smart list. There is not an option to return to this contextually relevant ‘page’.

Even worse: while I was listen “Cloudbusting” from “Unplayed”, the “playing next” function was working fine: clicking on an upper right button on the app would bring a floating sidebar on the right showing a list of all upcoming songs, all from the same playlist, in the proper order. (The sidebar can either show playing next or “history”, with the previously played songs)

Unfortunately, when I started accidentally playing the radio episode, the “playing next” sidebar stopped working. There is no way to see what’s coming next, neither in the multi-song episode, nor after its completion. And, by the  way, the rest of upcoming “Unplayed” songs were swiftly and irretrievably erased from “playing next” too. Really drastic.

By the way, when any radio episode ended, the App would started playing it again, from the beginning. Even if there was a following episode available.

The typical controls when playing songs “Previous”, “Next”, Repeat” and “Shuffle” are not available in Radio mode. Only play/pause. The only way to move back and forward is by clicking on the progress bar above the song title.

When the episode plays a song, it is clearly identified on the app, and it is possible to “add to library”, “like” etc. But apparently the only way to find out the list of songs featured in the episode is by listening to it in its entirety. No access to a song list or any notes about the episode or related links.

Another problem I found is pausing the episode and trying to resume it at the same point. That was actually possible if I switched episodes within the same page, but it stopped working if I navigated to another page and then resumed the episode. Restarting the app would also erase the “save point”. It also did not sync across devices. 

I have more questions:

When did Episode 36 first aired? There is no way to know. 

Did the previous episodes used to arrive in regularly scheduled intervals?  Also no way to know.

Are future episodes expected to arrive? In a particular schedule? Eventually? No information as well.

Also, if ever this show gets a new episode, is not possible to “follow” it and get a notification when it arrives.

All of this is a bit puzzling. 

In Apple’s rhetoric, its Radio service has been a key factor of differentiation for Apple Music since its launch in 2015. That was reiterated as recently as August 2020, when its main station changed its name from “Beats 1” to “Apple Music 1” and two new live stations were launched, “Country” and “Hits”.

In that opportunity, Apple called the former Beats 1 “one of the most-listened-to radio stations in the world”. From the release:

For the past five years, if ever there was a meaningful moment in music culture, Beats 1 was there bringing human curation to the forefront and drawing in listeners with exclusive shows from some of the most innovative, respected, and beloved people in music,” said Oliver Schusser, vice president of Apple Music, Beats, and International Content. “Now, Apple Music radio provides an unparalleled global platform for artists across all genres to talk about, create, and share music with their fans, and this is just the beginning. We will continue to invest in live radio and create opportunities for listeners around the world to connect with the music they love.”

All this shows, guest hosts, artist interviews, original content and so on likely represent a meaningful expenditure.

Radio gets a very prominent placement in the Apple Music app. There are five buttons on the main bottom bar in iPhone. Besides “Listen Now” and “Browse” to left, and  “Library” and “Search” to right, “Radio” is right in the middle.

All of this raises a few questions:

Why the basic user experience of using Radio can be so frustrating? At such a basic level?

Or by their internal criteria the software is performing adequately?

Are these kind of issues a concern for Apple? What prevents them from acting? 

Or real world demand for the shows is so low that fixing them is far from a priority?

Will the issues ever be addressed? How long may this take? 

Is the overall approach by Apple on how to develop Apple Music software features ever going to change?

The issues with Radio functionality provide a stark contrast with Spotify. Apple’s rival offers no live radio nor a roster of global DJs, but is comparable podcast functionality (including its growing and improving Song + Talk format) address all these kind of issues (sync, follow, queue, play next episode etc.) quite effectively. Playing an Apple Music Station makes me miss using Spotify!

(By the way, speaking of podcasts, the recent, momentarily tragic update to Apple Podcasts on iOS 14.5 may have raised more than a few more questions on its own.)

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