The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday February 8th

What gets lost in Pandora’s shuffle

You are driving down the highway, late at night. The only thing working is the radio, and the station choices are both static and sparse: to discover a song you connect with is serendipity. But then, cheesy and rakish, it comes on: the perfect song.

This is nice. But magical radio entropy is, in a universe of personalized choices, rare.

In 2000, the Internet radio station Pandora was created. The decade since then has seen the birth of a vast marketplace of Internet stations like Grooveshark and Spotify.

They’ve trimmed personal music taste down to a science, with algorithms that select the next song based on the music’s internal structure. If I’m in the mood to listen to Frank Ocean and I type his name in, chances are that I will encounter some very Frank Ocean-ish tunes.

Within this constellation of listening choices comes UNC’s own radio station: WXYC 89.3, a free-form radio station that’s been around ever since it went live in 1977 by playing Joni Mitchell’s “You Turn Me On I’m a Radio.”

Free-form radio means a lot of things, but essentially, it rests on the definition that there is no definition: no genre, no exact science to the playlist, save what the particular disc jockey chooses.

There are caveats, as I’ve discovered during my brief tenure as a DJ for WXYC: an implicit mission of the station is to engage the listener in marginal music, which is why there are albums on rotation that each DJ selects from.

“People can be latent in receiving music,” station manager Karina Soni said. “If it doesn’t come to them, people often won’t seek it.”

It’s that familiar paradox: Faced with so many options, we end up choosing fewer. With the millennium’s easy-access music machines comes a price tag.

Isn’t something lost in all this? There has to be something in us that tilts toward what we don’t know, not what we already know.

In an age of instant gratification, something as abstract as free-form radio is radical, even political.

There is no uniform for it, no queue of pop stars — and, within the unmanicured experience of music comes the chance for happy accidents, for songs we didn’t know we loved.

Indeep’s 1982 song, “Last Night A DJ Saved My Life,” becomes a much more romantic metaphor when the DJ is not a computer following a rubric and we didn’t already have the song pulled up on Grooveshark.

This is why the unplanned soundtrack can be so thrilling — the scan button in your car, the nebulous grocery-shopping playlists. Sometimes, our taste buds just need to be subverted.

Personalization is convenient, but it risks spoiling the joy of the hunt.

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