Even Rolling Stone Doesn't Understand Pandora

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- I love Rolling Stone. So much so that I stepped out, defending the magazine after it put the Boston Marathon bomber on its cover. But the magazine made, within the context of the situation, an egregious error in Friday's "7 Things You Should Know About Beats Music."

In January, Jimmy Iovine and Dr. Dre-founded Beats Electronics fires up its (most likely very worthy) subscription music service.

I have already claimed my name:

I'm not sure if the Rolling Stone miscue requires a full-blown retraction or if the original article simply should have included the context it lacks. Maybe both. Either way, lack of context has become a hallmark of journalism 2.0.

And that's not OK.

I wish I could gloss over the error with it is what it is, but I can't. Because it's not an it is what it is proposition.

Point #7 in the Rolling Stone piece says:

Beats-style curation means "real people recommending your songs, not some kind of Pandora-like Internet robot . . . Essentially, somebody would go through all the things that go through the scientific algorithm curation and call 'bulshit (sic) ,'" says a source familiar (sic) with the service ...

That's just wrong as it pertains to Pandora. It paints a pathetically inaccurate picture. You can't exonerate Rolling Stone because a "source" said it; the writer should be the one calling "bull shit," as it were.

The RS author, Steve Knopper, should have looked at my treatment of how Pandora's (P) Music Genome Project (MGP) actually works. If he did, he would have stumbled on a link to the even better At Pandora, Every Listener Is A Test Subject from Fast Company.

These articles explain exactly what the MGP entails, providing a clear and accurate view of how Pandora treats personalized radio. Personalized radio. Not playlists.

With incomplete, if not false and misleading information, Rolling Stone does nothing other than spread the meme that Pandora is little more than an "Internet robot."

As Beats knows, without science there's no way you can serve tens of millions listeners at the level Pandora does and Beats hopes to.

But, what's worse is this notion that scientific curation is somehow a bad thing. The opposite holds true.

Even if you make a case against the role of the algorithm, as TheStreet's Carlton Wilkinson very ably has, it's a necessity. Again, you can't do grand-scale Internet radio without science. Good science. And lots of it. It's simply not possible.

Some considerations pursuant to that ...

Algorithms did not create Pandora's MGP. People did. People, informed by algorithms, continue to evolve and improve the MGP.

I worked at radio stations for 15 years. And, even when we weren't playing music from a computer with a touchscreen, there was about zero human/DJ involvement in selecting songs, except at the smallest of stations and a few exemplary exceptions (e.g., the old Indie 103.1 in Los Angeles). The music director spit out a playlist every couple days. The DJ, like a trained monkey, followed it.

For goodness sake, I remember the thrill of daylight savings time when the program director actually let me select music for the station, with few restrictions, for an entire hour.

All of this to say, there's more human involvement (way more) at Pandora, doing personalized radio, via the MGP, than there ever was or currently is at broadcast radio stations.

Pandora doesn't do playlists like Songza does (which is fantastic) and Beats will, reportedly, do (which will likely be just as fantastic in its own way). It does personalized radio. That distinction probably didn't even make the cutting room floor of the Rolling Stone piece in question. But you can't make even the slightest comparison between services without highlighting these nuances.

No matter how Beats ends up serving Internet radio, it will likely look -- from an algorithm versus human standpoint -- more like Pandora's arrangement than Rolling Stones' source presents it.

At Pandora, data scientists painstakingly cull what the MGP does across the board. That's the beauty of the MGP's scientific elements -- it can take large swaths of data and make sense of it, so humans can dig in and create the excellent personalized experiences responsible for Pandora's ability to fend off every threat from Apple's (AAPL) iTunes Radio to the now unknown.

The humans at Pandora want to know -- and work incredibly hard to figure out -- the taste difference between the presumably millions of users who create, say, The Beatles radio. Who gets best served with solo George Harrison after a classic such as "Eight Days a Week?" Who would much prefer something by the Byrds or the seemingly elective Oasis or Radiohead?

I don't intend any of this to imply that I am anti-Beats Music. Just the opposite. I'm a believer in the power, worth and viability of multiple Internet radio stations, just as I am multiple television and radio networks as well as stations. We require and should welcome the diversity.

But there's a tendency to always inappropriately pit one against the other. As is often the case with dichotomy, one end of the either/or gets recklessly mischaracterized.

It's not that Rolling Stone directs a hate campaign against Pandora. Not at all. In fact, it did say:

In the end, Beats may not be any different than any of the others. Remember, for all the hype surrounding iTunes Radio earlier this year, it's essentially Pandora Part Two ...

It's just that RS falls victim to journalism 2.0's reliance on thin "list articles." They're designed to be quick to assemble and publish with the express goal of generating page views from the headline. There's no time for context; as such, the reader receives misinformation and the subject matter suffers from an abject mistreatment.

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

Rocco Pendola is a columnist for TheStreet. Pendola makes frequent appearances on national television networks such as CNN and CNBC as well as TheStreet TV. Whenever possible, Pendola uses hockey, Springsteen or Southern California references in his work. He lives in Santa Monica.

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