SHIFT: Internet radio — have they finally got it right?

While XM was fighting Sirius and iTunes was clobbering the record stores, another potentially huge change was afoot in the music-dissemination business. Internet radio has the ability to radically change how we access our favorite music, while increasing exposure to new music.

However, it never lived up to that potential. Net radio used to be remarkably similar to regular radio, giving you only what someone else devised, and it was infinitely more difficult to find what you wanted in the myriad of unrelated stations with no rhyme or reason to their organization. However, new streaming technologies are here that allow you to fine tune your radio-listening experience, so it is truly your radio. Big Radio had better pay attention. More on the promise of these services after the Continue jump.

Wi-Fi Hi-Fi
Among the emerging business models, three companies are offering some particularly tantalizing possibilities. Pandora.com uses impressive technology to search its database to play songs that sound similar to ones you've selected based on tonal qualities and vocal styles. Nice, but hard to break out of your mold. London-based Last.fm taps into user profiles similar to Amazon's "customers who bought this also bought these fine tunes…" Nice stuff, and a good way to find new faves. But my favorite is Slacker.com.

Listen online, mark and save your favorite songs, skip ones you don't like (with limitations), or just sit back and listen as Slacker's "DJs" create playlists based on genres. Don't like their taste? Create your own station that only plays the artists you want. By not limiting it to songs, you'll hear new releases from your favorite artists that you might not otherwise know about.

Don't want to be stuck to your computer? Portable Slacker radios are available so you can load it up with all your favorites. Getting my music 99 cents at a time just ended, perhaps permanently. And FM radio? If I never have to listen to a morning DJ ever again, I wouldn't complain (seriously, why can't they just play music? If I wanted banter in the morning, I would get a roommate).

Slackers Rule
The best aspect of these new services is that most are free, with ad revenue footing the bill. With Slacker, there's also the option of a premium account for $7.50 a month, giving you commercial-free, feature-packed services, including unlimited skips. (Hint: although basic users can only skip six songs per hour, if one comes up that you don’t want to hear, switch stations for a second, and when you come back to the first station, a new, different song is ready to go.) My favorite Slacker feature? A "coming up next" display with the next artist in the queue.

Slacker is designed to learn what you want, and doesn't take long to customize. In about 45 seconds, my own station was created, and my favorite artists were lined up ready to go. Basically, Slacker puts me in charge of my own station. I’m the DJ —, and I make the rules. Put this song in heavy rotation; never play that song. Ahh… control is a wonderful thing.

Airwaves, Schmairwaves
Taking on Clear Channel, iTunes, XM and Sirius isn't a small task. But, these little companies stand a decent chance of taking a big slice of the radio pie, if they play their cards right. While Sirius and XM are in the process of settling their battle, they might be losing the radio war. Does Internet radio have what’s needed to succeed? The new services offer things that the others just can't touch: customized playlists, the ability to tell it to never play certain songs, the ability to skip songs you don't like, and pretty decent sound quality (not CD quality by any means, but better than expected). Slacker even has portability, albeit with a specialized device. Is it enough? Check them out yourself, and let us know what you think.

Final Playlist
I wrote this article while listening to Slacker. I didn't have to get up to change a station, the volume control is right here on my PC, I could skip songs with just a click of the mouse, and I was already customizing my preferences for my own station. Peter Gabriel and Beethoven are both on my personally customized station. When I put an artist in my station, it suggested others that were similar, and click by click, I found new artists that I might have never thought to listen to. My iPod was upstairs, XM was across the room, and until this moment, I never gave them a second thought. Change is in the air.