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When Radio isn't Radio

The other week I received a press release from Apple about its new ‘iTunes Radio™’ in which the company claimed ‘When you tune into iTunes Radio… you’ll have access to stations inspired by the music you already listen to, featured stations curated by Apple and genre-focused stations that are personalised just for you.’ Maybe it was a bit late in the day, or maybe it was just because it was Apple, but I suddenly found myself annoyed with Apple for its temerity in using the word ‘radio’ to describe its new iTunes service—even if it did include a trademark symbol.

I was annoyed because Apple’s new service is NOT radio at all! What is radio? How’s this for a definition: ‘Radio is the wireless transmission of signals through free space by electromagnetic radiation of a frequency significantly below that of visible light, in the radio frequency range, from about 3 kHz to 300 GHz.’ Thanks Wikipedia. Yep, that’s a pretty good explanation…in fact that’s exactly what radio is. But is that how Apple delivers its iTunes Radio™ to customers? Nope.

But there’s another difference between real radio and Apple’s ‘radio’, which is that whereas every single person living in Australia can receive radio completely free of charge, there is a cost involved in receiving ‘iTunes Radio™’. Apple describes iTunes Radio as ‘free’ but it’s not really. Sure you don’t have to pay Apple, but you most certainly do have to pay your Internet Service Provider to deliver it to you. You also have to pay for the electricity you need for the devices that are essential to access the service. So not only is it not radio, it’s also not free. (And, just in case younger readers were wondering, you don’t need any electricity at all—even need a battery—in order to receive radio off-air… it can be done without any power at all, using a crystal set. (This is also one very significant reason we should keep the AM band operational in Australia. In a true national emergency, AM is the only low-tech method of mass communication over long distances.) And, as for the cost of buying a ‘crystal set’, well if you have a little electronics skill it’s possible to build one for absolutely nothing using scrap parts… and if you have no electronic skills at all you can easily build one from a kit for just $12.95. (Kit Number KV3540, available from Jaycar Electronics, no soldering required. You can buy one HERE)

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I suppose that since I am giving Apple a serve, I should do the same for the increasingly popular streaming service Rdio, because it uses the same ploy of subverting the word ‘radio’ to promote its streaming service which, like Apple’s, is also neither radio nor ‘free’, but at least Rdio drops the ‘a’ so it’s not actually using the word ‘radio’ to describe its service. But since I have mentioned streaming services, I should mention that the quality of what’s being streamed is already an issue and may become a bigger one in the future. The aforementioned Rdio says the quality of its streams depend on what it’s supplied by the record companies, but mostly it streams at 256k. Spotify says it streams at ‘up to 320k’, which doesn’t really mean anything at all, since it could stream at 64k and still meet that claim. (In practise, Spotify mostly does stream at 320k.) So who streams at a miserly 64k? Well, MOG for one has been caught doing so… though it doesn’t do so all the time, and just as well, since music streamed at 64k sounds awful. But it does prove that you really don’t know what you’re getting with streaming, and the very nature of the service means the goalposts are constantly moving. As to whether hi-res downloads are really ‘hi-res’… well that’s a sad tale for another day! # greg borrowman [gborrowman@nextmedia.com.au]