Seeking Radio Me

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It must be more than a year since I've listened to music radio out of choice. In the age of digital downloads, it seems such an obsolete medium. Who wants to be forced into a cookie-cutter genre (college rock or classic rock or oldies) and asked to love everything in it? On the other hand, it must also be at least a year since I've had the thrill of discovering a toe-tapping tune from an unknown artist completely by accident. This is what happens when you enter the world of Napster and MP3s. You tend to play it safe, downloading artists you know or songs you remember from childhood. It eventually gets stale.

What I needed was Radio Me: a station that knew my likes and dislikes so intimately, it could offer me new music that would hit my groove each time. This concept being something of a holy grail in the digital-music world, there has been an explosion of websites that offer music custom-made for you--among them radio.sonicnet.com (owned by mtv's online division), tuneto.com and mongomusic.com. But be warned: most can be wrong as often as they are right.

Radio.sonicnet starts out promisingly enough, with a list of about 50 subgenres. You're asked how much you like to listen to each on a scale of 0 to 5. I nixed rap and country, gave Top 40 a low priority and high marks to electronica, jazz, R. and B., classical and old-school rock. I named my station "Taylor Radio: Home of Tasteful Music." And what did Sonicnet choose for Taylor Radio's inaugural tune? Electric Youth, by that forgettable '80s pop singer Debbie Gibson. Ouch.

I was further dismayed when the Dixie Chicks and Busta Rhymes turned up on my playlist. Not that I've got anything against them, but what happened to no country and no rap? It turns out that Sonicnet has its own intrinsic ratings for each artist; all your initial choices do is move these ratings up or down a star. At least you can pan artists as they're playing, making sure they don't play again, or skip ahead if your ears are hurting. But I won't be handing out the Web address for Taylor Radio until I've done a lot more fine-tuning.

Tuneto takes the opposite approach: you start off by ranking a screen full of artists (Are the Police better than Madonna? Is Seal better than Supertramp?), and then you get matched to one of thousands of preset stations according to your preferences. You can do this five times in five different genres. It isn't exactly personal radio, because you're likely to be sharing each station with 10 or 20 other listeners, and you can't skip ahead or pause tracks. But here's the cool bit: your thumbs-up or thumbs-down vote on each artist here will affect the next day's playlist.

I found the best sound on Tuneto (near CD quality rather than FM radio on Sonicnet and AM radio on Mongomusic), because it stores songs on your PC rather than streaming them. But it also seemed to suffer from short (and thus repetitive) playlists. I love Bjork, but there are only so many times I can hear Violently Happy in half an hour.

Mongomusic has the most sophisticated approach to divining your tastes. Here you pick your favorite songs, and the site will play tunes that sound similar, regardless of artist or genre. It's a laborious process, but the potential rewards are tremendous. Give it an hour of your time, and you'll feel like Radio Me is on the air, free of cookie cutters and rankings. If they'd only fix the sound quality, its pitch would be perfect.

You can reach each site at the urls listed. Questions? E-mail Chris at cdt@well.com