When Spotify, the stream-any-song-you’d-like service, hit the United States last month, I immediately ponied up for a paid subscription at $10 a month. I can now stream almost anything to my mobile phone, and I haven’t turned on my radio since. But that decision puzzled a couple of people, who asked why I would spend the cash rather than just listening to Pandora, which can stream — albeit with less control over specific songs — for free.
The answer, in a word: playlists. I have been creating playlists based on the recommendation of friends as well as the songs that are in heavy rotation at my favorite radio station of all time, WPGU. And I’m getting exposed to all kinds of great, unexpected stuff. With Pandora, the computer-generated playlists, no matter how fine-tuned, don’t bring me anything truly new. Yes, I can set up a Foo Fighters channel, but I’ll never get Allison Krause there.
The night-and-day difference between a WPGU playlist and a Pandora playlist has everything to do with the human DJ spinning tracks. You can’t (yet) replace that sense of “cool” with an algorithm.
But it’s not just music. Late last year, a Facebook friend sent an urgent missive: toxic sludge was fouling the historic Danube River. My friend was aghast, and nearly as upset at the media for not covering the story. Except that the media were covering the story — it was the Facebook community that hadn’t noticed. My hometown paper, a small, Midwestern daily with few ties to Eastern Europe, put the story on the front page. An editor there clearly made a news judgment: while not something that was immediately relevant to her readership, it was important in an objective sense. Score another one for human editors.
I think back to the Danube story when I hear heavy breathing about how, in a Filter Bubble world, prioritization can best be done by algorithms or crowds. And while I don’t want to dismiss the power of those tools (see Aaron Strout’s excellent take on curation last week for an example), it’s clear there remains a role for news (and radio, for that matter) as designed by experts. We’re now nearly 6 months into the New York Times’ grand experiment with its paywall, and it’s a huge — and surprising — success. I can’t help but think that part of that success is the recognition of the value of real-live editors.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go check out what the kids say is hip over at WPGU.