On Pandora, Apple's iRadio and Hack Journalism

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I take what I do very seriously. I make a concerted effort to be among the best at it. And I am not even close to stopping. In fact, it's just the beginning. You'll be seeing a lot more of me in the coming months and years. Good Lord willing.

With that as a preface, I'm angry. At least as angry as I can get about a subject as meaningless in the grand scheme of life as Internet radio.

But, then again, music plays an important role for many of us. It has, quite literally, saved lives. It stirs emotions, provides space to reflect. We should take care when we discuss it. That's not happening -- rarely has -- with respect to Apple ( AAPL), Pandora ( P) and the related topics that have come before and alongside talk of iRadio.

Something I wrote the other day bears repeating:
I hear -- directly and indirectly -- from a considerable number of people that "good" journalism "died" a long time ago. I disagree. It's more about an epidemic we're dealing with: A shortage of good journalists.

I torture myself daily -- for countless hours -- considering the state of journalism as it butts up against new media. I have come to the conclusion that there's not a problem with journalism; there's simply something wrong with many who claim to practice it.

You need to do a lot more these days to capture a reader, listener or viewer's attention. Often that means writing provocative headlines or stating your opinion the way you might state it after a few beers. This change did not occur overnight; it's been in the works for decades. First it was talk radio, particularly the sports guys doing "guy talk." Then it was TheStreet's own Jim Cramer. Then it was Fox News and large swaths of cable television. Then it was fantastic operations such as Gawker, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and Business Insider.

Each of these individuals and entities -- in their own way -- blurs the lines between what it means to be a journalist, a reporter and an opinion maker. In fact, they rendered such terms anachronistic. We are all personalities. A dynamic word for dynamic times.

But just because you're a personality -- using more aggressive strategies to cut through -- you don't stop doing the work that made our predecessors great journalists, reporters and opinion makers. The names I listed understand what it takes to cut through, but also do consistent, thought-provoking, informative and interesting work.

Because I aim to be part of that elite class, I constantly consider and reconsider my approach. Recently, I made some changes. I refocused to cover only subjects and spaces I'm most passionate about and have the ability to learn inside and out (at least someday). So I tend to discuss a small handful of tech companies, startup/entrepreneurial-related themes, media and a bit of retail, particularly as it intersects with all or any of the above.

I can't possibly cover everything with the goal of being "consistent, thought-provoking, informative and interesting." So I focus. And I dig as deep as I can into the areas I know and love best.

I practice journalism so I can report back what I learn, form strong and compelling opinions and develop a personality that will hopefully resonate with enough people to keep me gainfully employed.

When you break it down like that, it's so simple. So obvious. I live by those words.

It nauseates me to see shocking headlines regurgitated time after time ( Apple's iRadio Will Crush Pandora) with zero real work put into the lame excuse for content that follows.

Some guy writing for the "beta" portion of Motley Fool's Web site (whatever that means) published one on Wednesday with that tired headline. Of course, he's not the only one, but he's the most recent and provides the best example of something so horribly bad.

It's one thing to think Apple will crush Pandora. You can construct a plausible argument for why Apple might crush Pandora. I don't think that will happen, but it's certainly possible.

However, the entire argument focused on this dude's reasoning that a.) Apple will present iRadio exactly the way Pandora presents its product and b.) Why would anybody in their right mind keep using the Pandora app when they can get "nearly identical functionality" from iRadio rolled up inside iTunes?

First, we don't know what Apple will do. Only Apple knows. We do not know if it will be similar to what Pandora does. We do not know if it will be part of iTunes or independent. It might be closer to what Spotify does -- an on-demand hybrid, distinct from Pandora. All speculation.

For grins, let's assume Apple takes a Pandora-like approach. It will be good. It will be widely used. But it absolutely will not be "nearly identical" to Pandora. That's simply not possible.

The person who spewed that article is not a journalist, reporter or personality. He bastardizes this craft so many work so hard at. And, as a result, he relays shallow and irrelevant pseudo-opinion void of intimate knowledge or research beyond a simple Google search. All the makings of somebody who is here today, gone tomorrow and does nothing to serve the reader. With the same baseless crap as the guy who came before him.

We have jobs to learn as much as can, to learn more than the average reader about the things we write about. Or at least that should be our job. That doesn't mean the conclusions we come to will always be correct. Things happen along the way. Stories change. Outcomes are not static. We're dealing with humans, computers and fluid situations. But, at the very least, present a somewhat informed thesis to support your opinion. Get the facts straight.

Consider what Pandora's Tim Westergren says in this conversation he had with me earlier this year. I have it cued up to the part where he talked about when ("many years prior to" 1999), why and how he conceived the Music Genome Project, the personalization engine that powers Pandora Internet Radio.

After a couple of minutes , skip to the 8:18 and then the 12:10 mark. Westergren provides more information about the MGP and how his company evolved.

Now he's not lying. He's telling a story. It's truth, namely the part about the MGP and Pandora's beginnings.

In 1999, Pandora wasn't Pandora. It wasn't radio. It became a business based on the MGP. As a result of his work as a composer, Westergren put together what would become a highly complex and proprietary human-designed and -fed algorithm that helps determine the musical preferences of a person and characteristics of a song based on listening history, user interaction and every last attribute of every song.

At the time, the idea was to license the MGP to other companies that could leverage the data it collects, organizes and analyzes.

It wasn't until outgoing Pandora CEO Joe Kennedy came along in 2004 that Pandora became Pandora and Westergren, led by Kennedy and along with his team, decided to go after and successfully disrupt broadcast radio.

With the Music Genome Project as "the foundation" (Westergren's words) for Pandora, the company now has nearly a decade's worth of listening data. Skips. Thumbs up. Thumbs down. That's valuable on so many fronts. And it makes Pandora an absolutely unique proposition from multiple standpoints. There's nothing "nearly identical" about Pandora and anything else on Internet radio, no matter the structure of the service and no matter who distributes it.

When you receive a message like this ...

I'm not saying you should discount it. There's value there. Practically all of the Internet radio players do an excellent job presenting music. Apple will be no different. They'll provide a different experience that will work into the mix nicely.

But we cannot forget about the importance of nuance and the quality of experience. Personalization and discovery -- this is Pandora's business. It has been, in one way, shape or form, for more than 13 years. That's what Pandora does. It should come as no surprise that Pandora has built a business that dominates Internet radio in terms of scale, ratings and listener loyalty.

Radio is not Apple's business. It's not doing whatever it ends up doing to crush anybody. It's entering the space to collect valuable data to complement what it already has in iTunes and to find a way to make up for a dry spell in hardware innovation.

Apple -- and everybody else in Internet radio for that matter -- does not and will not do what Pandora does with the MGP as a discovery engine. It does not and will not have teams of music experts -- working musicians and such -- listening to songs all day, every day, entering seven pages worth of data about every song. It's a process that takes 20 to 30 minutes per tune. I have seen it firsthand, looking over the shoulder of a music analyst at Pandora's Oakland headquarters.

Check out this serviceable Wikipedia summary of the Music Genome Project. Categorizing music on the basis of 150 to 500 "genes." It's trademarked. It's patented. A considerable chunk of the details are considered "trade secret."

Consumers choose Pandora because of the Music Genome Project. That's its major competitive advantage, differentiator and barrier to (successful) entry.

Nevertheless, this thing will play out however it plays out. But recognize something -- the hysteria we have seen for nearly a year with every crush Pandora or Pandora killer article comes from hacks, not journalists. People who have not done the work to understand the real story.

-- Written by Rocco Pendola in Santa Monica, Calif.

Rocco Pendola is TheStreet's Director of Social Media. Pendola's daily contributions to TheStreet frequently appear on CNBC and at various top online properties, such as Forbes.

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