Apple's iTunes Radio is one of those things that is criminally underused by most Mac and iOS users, and its a shame: the service is really very good -- and with a tiny amount of effort, can be as, or more, enjoyable than even Pandora One or the other subscription streaming music services, not to mention cheaper. In this post, we're going to show you how to create, and then fine-tune, a custom station that features music you love and compatible new discoveries.
In order to use iTunes Radio, of course, you must be in the United States or Australia, as those are the only two countries where it is offered -- we've been repeatedly told the service will expand to other countries, but here it is March and no word as of yet. However, if you own a US-based iTunes account, you can in fact listen to iTunes Radio nearly anywhere on Earth, as several of our international staff and users have reported.
Internet Radio is offered as well
If you don't have or cannot obtain a US-based iTunes account, the program still offers a huge swatch of Internet-based radio broadcasters you can add to. Plus, of course, there are third-party Mac programs and iOS apps like Stitcher that offer streaming Internet radio for free (largely ad-supported), so there's no shortage of free music to listen to in every genre imaginable from all over the globe.
A tiny fraction of free Internet stations in iTunes
If you sign into your US-based iTunes account on your mobile device or Mac, however, you get the option to utilize iTunes Radio at no charge -- it is free with ads, or ad-free if you already own a US-based iTunes Match account (which costs $25 per year, far cheaper than the ad-free options on any of the subscription streaming services).
Some of the current presets in iTunes Radio
By default, iTunes Radio comes with a selection of "pre-set" stations, and the option to create your own. Too many people never get to that second bit, but that is where the real magic of iTunes Radio comes to the fore. With no disrespect intended for the pre-set selections, very few of them cater to my tastes (apart from NPR and the occasional album preview). So for me, at least, creating a custom station is where it's at. However, like all things of quality, getting your custom station just right requires a little effort.
A sample of custom-created stations
Creating a custom station
The process of creating a station couldn't be much easier: click on the plus sign next to My Stations, and a pop-up asks you to name an artist, a genre, or a song to get you started. Since iTunes has such an enormous library, chances are that anything you type at this point is going to come back with some suggestions. In my case, I've been wanting to create a "soft jazz" (not to be confused with the horrible "light jazz"!) station for a while, so I started mine with the great John Coltrane.
I then added some similar artists I already knew I liked -- such as Coleman Hawkins, Cannonball Adderley, Ken Nordine, Chet Baker and a few others to create a mix -- and let it start playing. First up, naturally, was a Coltrane song. This is where the effort I mentioned comes in. First, I set the slider on the station to the halfway point between "Hits" (the classics) and "Discovery" (deep album cuts and other related artists). I often lean more towards "Discovery" to find out about related artists, but for now "Variety" will do nicely.
Second, I clicked on the tiny album thumbnail in the iTunes "Now Playing" bar to change to the "mini player" -- this allows me to put the small window (which can be miniaturized to be even smaller) over on my second display, easily accessible but not in the way. As I listened, I would mouse over and click the album art to bring up controls and a "star" that let me tell the station that I wanted to hear more of this song -- or to never play that song again. Of course, iTunes Radio will also let you skip songs if they're good but not appropriate right now, or just listen and not "comment" on them at all if you like. You can also add more artists (or remove some), songs and so forth at any time.
Whenever I create a new station, I try to listen to it frequently over the course of the next week, and make an effort to "star" songs I like and banish the ones I don't. After a few days, I find that the station works very well, and no longer requires much effort -- it just plays new and old stuff I tend to like (though i will still take a moment to "star" new songs or artists that enter the mix and impress me). I have some that focus mostly on a single artist -- like David Bowie or English folk group Amazing Blondel -- that offer very few other artists, and some -- like this newly-created "Classic Jazz" station -- that offer a variety of artists who are similar, but by no means identical, in style. My tastes in music run wide, so I have several different "stations" set up to suit my mood or taste for a given day.
One of my favorite things about this is that periodically, iTunes will throw me a curveball of an artist I'm not familiar with that it thinks fits in -- Nicholas Payton, for example (as seen below), who's of a more recent vintage than many of the artists I added in, but does mix his lighter jazz with enough New Orleans flair to keep me interested. I haven't "rated" him yet; I'll wait to hear a few more songs, maybe check him out at the iTunes Store, before deciding if it fits in this station.
New artists blended into my choices
After him came Freddie Hubbard, an artist I didn't add but who I was aware of, and who fits in perfectly. A quick "Play more like this" vote, and his stuff will be added to the rotation. Of course, any song I hear that I feel I need to own can be purchased instantly, right from the mini-viewer or iTunes Radio page in iTunes itself. Apple makes it too easy ... but of course, that's the plan.
If you don't have iTunes Match, then periodically (about once or perhaps twice an hour, in my experience) you'll get a short ad after the end of a song. Depending on the type of music you're listening to, it can be disruptive, and if you have the full iTunes window open, it might be a video ad that takes up the entire screen (with the mini-viewer, it's generally just a still image of the company's logo). The solution to that, of course, is to sign up for iTunes Match -- not only does it give you a vastly larger (by virtue of streaming) iTunes library on your iOS devices than they could possibly hold, but you get the benefit of iTunes Radio ad-free.
Stations can also be created on iOS devices, but it is obviously easier to type in a bunch of artists or songs you want to include on a Mac or iPad with a keyboard than on an iPhone. You get a mix of stuff that might be in your own library, songs from the iTunes store, and fresh discoveries iTunes thinks you'll be interested in. For a cost ranging from completely free to a whopping $25 a year (the bulk of which actually goes back to the artist in the form of streaming license fees), this is one of the best ways to create a personalized station that lets you listen to, discover, and purchase great music influenced by your choices and tastes.
iTunes Radio on the iPhone
Apple has plans to revamp its Beats Music subscription service later this year, likely folding it in as a premium version of iTunes Radio -- but I hope they keep the current service around as a free option and an iTunes Match perk, as even the human-curated good stuff Beats Music puts together just can't match a "radio station" you built yourself. For now, iTunes Radio can be one of the best options for fussy music lovers, or those who feel that algorithm-controlled streaming sites just don't "get you" when it comes to figuring out what you want to hear.