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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
November 1, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.

Pandora Online "Radio"

I've been listening to satellite radio for years. With a wide selection of stations, you can cross the country and never have to spin the dial searching for something to listen to. You have your favorite station right there, wherever you go.

I used to have XM radio on my computer, too, but too many people were ripping the tunes from the air, and so they discontinued it. That was fine -- I had MusicMatch software to play me the music that I wanted from the excellent selection of MP3s I've collected (all legally bought and paid for) on my computer.

As operating systems change, though, it's getting harder and harder to keep MusicMatch running smoothly. That's a shame, because MusicMatch is still the best software for editing the information that is stored along with MP3s. But years ago Yahoo bought MusicMatch and, instead of maintaining it, tried to replace it with their own second-rate piece-of-junk MP3 software.

That's why I never, never use Yahoo for anything. I loathe companies that buy a competitor who makes a product that's better and then kill it in order to promote their own miserable garbage. If you buy a company that makes a better product, keep making their product and drop your own!

But nobody's updating MusicMatch, and I can see the handwriting on the wall. So I'm experimenting with other players, and I've found some pretty good ones. I now use Nero for copying tracks from CDs onto my computer so I can transfer them to my MP3 player. And I'm trying out Foobar for playback. I still use MusicMatch for editing, though.

What Foobar is terrible at is randomizing. When I create a playlist, I rarely want to play the albums in order, for the simple reason that I've heard the albums again and again.

I have playlists with 5,000 tracks, but I also listen to music constantly, and after a few years you know all the tracks you have. It's not that they aren't still wonderful music. But I need variety and surprise in my listening.

You know, the kind of thing that comes from radio, where you can hear something you've never heard before, instead of always having to listen to what you already own and know intimately.

What I needed, without knowing it, was Pandora.

Pandora is radio for your computer -- only better. That's because I don't have to depend on some program manager to decide what I should hear. Even with all the choices on Sirius-XM, I often find myself listening to tracks that I desperately need to switch away from.

For instance, Rod Stewart -- can't stand to listen to his voice even for a second. Or whiny violins on a classical station; can't stand it when it sounds like tortured cats, which is what "virtuoso" violin often sounds like.

When a radio station is playing something you don't like, you have to switch to another station, which will not be the same genre of music that you selected.

But not with Pandora. If I don't like a particular track, I can press the thumbs-down button and poof, it's gone -- that very station moves on to the next track.

On Sirius-XM, I have several stations that are my favorites -- a couple of talk stations, but they have ads and so I'm always switching away; and about six music stations that I move through.

On Pandora, I have only two stations so far -- but I never have to switch away. Why? Because I designed them myself.

Once you've created your membership on Pandora, you can create your own station. I began by "seeding" a new station with one of my favorite singers, Carrie Rodriguez. Suddenly I had a station called "Carrie Rodriguez radio." Pandora immediately started playing, not just Carrie Rodriguez, but other singers that they judge to be similar.

Their judgment is pretty good. I immediately found myself discovering singers I'd never heard before, whose work I'd never have found on Sirius-XM because they don't get radio airplay.

But I didn't stop with Carrie Rodriguez. I added other singers to that station: Patti Scialfa, Joni Mitchell, Shawn Colvin, the Opera Babes, Simone, Jane Monheit, k.d. lang, Julee Cruise, Janis Joplin, Loreena McKennitt, the Puppini Sisters, Kiri Te Kanawa, Janis Ian.

If you know any of these singers, you'll realize how very eclectic this selection is -- and how rare it is to hear any of them on the radio, anywhere, ever. But now I hear them all the time, along with dozens and dozens of tunes by artists whose work I already know and love, and others that I never heard of at all, like Robin McKelle and Sophie Milman.

When a track comes on that I particularly love, I give it a thumbs-up, and that encourages Pandora to find more tunes of that type. But there's more. I can also choose to Buy or Share. Now, I'm no longer on Facebook, so I don't really have any way of sharing except by opening my radio stations on Pandora itself.

What I can do, though, is Buy: Press that button, and you can go to iTunes or Amazon and either download the album or (from Amazon) order a CD. So I now have Robin McKelle and Sophie Milman albums on my computer, so that I can listen to them even when I'm not connected to the internet.

I have since renamed my "Carrie Rodriguez" station to "Women of Depth and Grace," and I have shared it -- you can sign on to Pandora and listen to a station that is an ongoing collaboration between me and the Pandora algorithms. Their library, my taste.

Maybe there are only six other people in the universe who share my taste in music. No way could a commercial radio station afford to cater to us. But Pandora can and does.

Now, I can sometimes listen to vocalists while I write, but often I need to have wordless music, so there's nothing to draw my language-brain away from the story at hand.

So yes, I have novels where it's obvious I was listening to Bruce Springsteen or Bruce Cockburn while I was writing; most of the time, though, I listen to classical, new age, or film score selections.

But not just any classical. Bombastic music doesn't work; nor does overly-busy music. I already mentioned my loathing for whiny violins. So I created a station that exactly fits my needs when I'm writing.

I call it "The Writer's Trance" and I am sharing it, too. It started with Erik Satie, Aaron Copland, and Johann Sebastian Bach. Pandora immediately knew that I was looking for low-key classical music, with an emphasis on keyboards. I was able to add in a few romantics that I like (Dvorak, Grieg, Rachmaninov), and then Chopin to keep the emphasis on keyboards.

But I wasn't done. Had to put in Samuel Barber and Benjamin Britten, and Andres Segovia as a performer. But I also tossed in the film score from Lord of the Rings.

Here's the odd thing. I didn't have a single new age artist in the seed list. But Pandora realized that the kind of music that I preferred could include some new age pianists, including some whose music I already own.

New age piano music is often repetitive -- lots of rolling bass chords with the left hand. Melodically and harmonically it's usually quite thin. But as a break between more demanding music, it works just fine, and Pandora's algorithms knew that.

On both my stations, I occasionally have to kill a track. Probably because Janis Joplin was on my "Women of Depth and Grace" list, Pandora tried twice to make me listen to really annoying Rolling Stones songs. But I thumbs-downed both of them, and Pandora hasn't done that to me since.

Likewise on my "Writer's Trance" list -- there have been a few tracks that were annoying. I dumped them, and Pandora doesn't make those mistakes now. The software really is trainable.

Pandora is free -- but "free" means that you have to listen to commercials from time to time. This is no worse than ordinary radio, so why not?

But for me, the ads are murder: They break my concentration. So I paid the relatively low fee to get Pandora for a year, ad-free.

It's not just ads that don't exist, though -- it's announcers. When I'm driving along listening to Sirius-XM's classical stations, I don't mind at all when they talk about the songs -- I often learn interesting things.

But when I'm listening to an audiobook through my MP3 player and using satellite radio for background music, or when I'm conversing with someone, then that announcer-chatter is annoying.

Pandora never has the chatter. But they do offer all the cool information that a good announcer can bring to the table. It's all available as text.

You can see the album cover (usually), and a brief bio of the artist. You can click on a link to a much more extensive bio. When possible, they also display the song lyrics. No radio station can do that! And then there's a list of similar artists.

At this moment, my "Women of Depth and Grace" is playing a track by Djavan, a male Brazilian singer who happens to be one of my favorites ever. I suppose to maintain the purity of the "women" part of the station name, I should eliminate him, but I care less about the sex of the singer than about the type and quality of music, and Djavan absolutely fits the template.

So instead I gave him a thumbs-up. Sorry about that, if you choose to listen to my station. It may have a bit more Brazilian than you care for. After all, I speak Portuguese, and not many Americans do. The music is great, but it's better if you understand it.

But if you don't enjoy that one aspect of my station, you can make your own variation; you can seed it with all the same singers I used, except the Brazilians, and the result would be a station that you and I would both like.

And if you absolutely hate all the music I love, then you can make your own station that exactly suits your tastes! Nor are you obliged to share your station or stations with other people. I chose to, because there may be other writers who would find "The Writer's Trance" helpful. And I think my "Women of Depth and Grace" can introduce you to some wonderful singers you might never otherwise hear.

How do you find my stations? Go to http://www.Pandora.com and create a membership -- remember, it's free and stays free as long as you want. Then you can start creating your own station. Or you can go in search of others.

Chose the option "Music Feed." You get a screen that says "Follow your friends and discover new music." Choose "get started" and either use a Facebook link to find any of your friends who are sharing on Pandora -- or choose to "find people by name or email." Type in my name -- Orson Scott Card -- and my profile will come up.

On the left side, you'll see that I have a couple of stations. Actually, right now it says I have only one, but that's ok. When you click on my station, it'll show you both. And you can start listening.

But the truth is, I don't care whether anybody else likes my stations or not. It is truly personal radio. You're almost certainly going to like your own stations way better than anybody else's.

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