Internet radio

After the death of iTunes, real internet radio is back on the macOS Music app

Back in June, I openly worried about the future state of Internet radio on the Mac with the arrival of macOS Catalina and the demise of iTunes. Although iTunes had its flaws, it still offered an easy way to tune in to stations from around the world without using a web browser, whether you found the station in its own directory or connected the streaming URL yourself. station.

I am happy to report that the situation is not as serious as I feared.

An early version of the Music app on macOS and iOS featured only a handful of carefully chosen stations outside of Beats 1 Radio and Apple-curated stations, the latter only available with a paid Apple Music subscription. However, the Music app now gives you access to a very comprehensive selection of terrestrial and pure-play internet stations in the US and around the world.

This is very good news, even though Music is not yet a full-fledged iTunes replacement. The first big difference is that the Music app doesn’t really let you roam the world of internet radio. Sure, there’s a “Radio” button in the menu, but what you get is mostly populated with Beats 1 and Apple Music stations, along with a handful of big public and commercial stations. Scroll down and you see a menu item, “Radio Stations”, which looks promising. But click it and you just get more Apple Music stations, plus a list of genres that – you guessed it – offer even more Apple Music stations.

The vagaries of research

So where are all the real internet radio? Seek, you must, young Jedi.

Indeed, I was able to find just about every station on my local Portland, Oregon radio dial. When I queried other Mac internet radio apps earlier this year, I found that stations owned by iHeart or Entercom were often missing. That’s because these two radio giants have started pulling their stations from rival apps. iHeart only wants you to hear its stations on iHeartRadio and Entercom only wants you to hear its stations through Radio.com.

The Music app solves this problem by connecting to the iHeartRadio, Radio.com, and TuneIn directories. At least in the US, when combined, these directories cover just about every broadcast station that has a live stream, as well as most Internet stations that want to be found. When you search for a specific station, the application displays the directory where the result came from.

But the research has serious limitations. When I searched for “college radio” it only returned about 40 results. Included were ESPN College Football and a few other results that indicate the search was only done on station names. If you were hoping to find your local college station but can’t remember the call letters, you’re probably out of luck.

The same was true when looking for jazz or heavy metal. It’s fine if the genre is in the station name, but otherwise you’ll only see a small percentage of stations that might otherwise qualify.

This is curious, because the three directories on which Music is based classify the stations by category or genre. The metadata is there, but Music doesn’t look for it. Combined with the inability to browse internet radio stations, this makes music a poor way to discover internet radio stations.

Still, if you know the call letter or name of a station and it’s in the iHeart Radio.com or TuneIn directory – very good luck – then the app is a good way to listen to the Internet radio without a browser. In fact, if that’s your use case, because it combines these three different directories, Music is your best bet for a desktop Internet radio app.

Triode – a promising iTunes replacement?

I was reminded to come back to this topic because I just learned of a new internet radio app for MacOS, iOS, and tvOS. MacStories rated this app positively, Triodecalling it, “a great addition to almost all of Apple’s platform lineup.”

I tried it out enthusiastically, but ran into the same limitations that plague other apps I’ve reviewed: no iHeart or Entercom stations. On the one hand, as a fan of large non-commercial stations and weird and eclectic internet radios, that’s not necessarily a huge restriction.

I was immediately impressed with Triode on startup, as it had a wonderful selection of really great indie terrestrial and internet stations, including San Francisco’s BFF.fm and SomaFM, Denver’s KUVO Jazz, New Jersey’s WFMU, The Current from Minnesota Public Radio and Radio Survivor affiliate XRAY.fm here in Portland. It’s wonderful to see these recommendations rather than a bunch of big cities, popular commercial and public stations.

When I searched for “college radio”, I got dozens and dozens of results – more than I had the patience to count. Ditto for metal, jazz and blues. Obviously, Triode looks for station descriptions, categories, and genres, not just names.

If you can’t find a station in the directory, you can add it to Triode if you know the stream URL. Now, that’s very iTunes-live behavior.

Still, I suspect the lack of major US commercial stations is a downside that will make it a niche app rather than a true competitor to Apple’s music app. Radio nerds who love independent stations and don’t want to pick through Apple’s subscription deals just to find their favorites are the target audience.

Although Triode is free, you can only save stations as favorites with a paid subscription for 99 cents per month, $9.99 per year, or $19.99 for a permanent plan. In comparison, this is a feature you get for free with TuneIn as long as you are willing to create a free account. In addition, you will have access to almost the same catalog of stations. A paid Triode subscription also provides high-resolution album art displayed for each track, a feature I don’t really like about its usefulness.

Consolidation is to blame

Now, Triode’s directory limits aren’t the app developer’s fault. The culprits are iHeartRadio and Entercom, two of the biggest radio companies in the US who also don’t want their stations found outside of their own app platforms.

Of course, you can still listen to these stations on your computer…for now. Ultimately, it’s consolidation that prevents independent radio apps from accessing these companies’ streams. Luckily, there are still thousands upon thousands of smaller, independent stations more than happy to be found and streamed through whatever app you’re using.

The situation parallels what we see in video streaming. Whereas just a few years ago you only needed to use one or two apps or subscription services – like Netflix and Hulu – to get a fairly wide variety of movies and shows, you now need six or seven.

I would hate to see other radio companies follow the lead of iHeart and Entercom and set up their own closed app platforms, requiring a listener to install five or six different apps just to hear all the stations on its local dial. That might be enough to drive people away from Internet radio.

Or maybe just lead them to their trusty terrestrial radio receiver, which already picks up all those stations.

If only their smartphones had a regular old radio inside….

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