iTunes radio screenshot

The hours spent in front of my computer are generally more enjoyable and productive with good work music playing. For this reason, I have a pair of inexpensive but decent little computer speakers sitting on my desk.

Thanks to iTunes, I also have the best music collection in the world — and you probably do too. My iTunes playlist contains only the best songs in a wide variety of music genres, and it can play hours upon hours of great music for any mood.

Yet there’s still a major flaw with such a music playlist — it will never surprise me, because I already know and like every song. There is a critical ratio in any music mix: Enough favorite songs to feel comfortable with, plus the right amount of unfamiliar but interesting tunes to keep the playlist from sounding stale.

Years ago, broadcast radio was the channel through which most music reached us. My friends and I would listen to Chicago’s radio stations, and within the steady stream of our favorite music, the DJs would alert us to new releases.

Today, radio is mostly a ruined wasteland. Commercial stations are clogged with lengthy advertising blocks and playlists so narrow they make even new music sound instantly old.

Some of the choices available online are even worse. I was a big Bruce Springsteen fan as a young adult, but I cannot imagine how anyone could listen to the nonstop Springsteen on for more than three songs. The same goes for Beatles despite my lifelong love of The Beatles.

The challenge is to find online music channels with a wider variety — and with the right blend of familiar to unfamiliar music. I would love to find a station I can turn on and leave on all day while I work, instead of having to switch every 15 minutes when the music becomes unbearable. Ideally, this station would have an MP3 stream that I can play through iTunes, rather than a klutzy popup player in my browser.

Online radio

More and more, it seems that listener-supported radio is the only radio worth listening to. Music-wise, a few of these public radio stations offer online service that approaches what I’m looking for.

  • WUWM2 — This HD sister station to Milwaukee NPR member WUWM features a high-quality, sophisticated mix that leans toward alternative country and alternative rock. It’s a hearty stew, but it could stand a few more classic hits and uptempo numbers because the acoustic covers and brooding singer-songwriters can become depressing with extended listening.
  • Radio K — The college radio station of the University of Minnesota, Radio K is heavy on new alternative rock, with the odd Nancy Sinatra number thrown in now and then. Still, it’s fairly listenable as college radio stations go, and the student DJs care a great deal about the music.
  • 88Nine Radio Milwaukee — Live streaming radio, strong on musical variety although amateurish on presentation, 88Nine sounds like a student station that’s graduated into the “real world” and is trying to make a living. The playlist ranges from 70s R&B to Sufjan Stevens and is mostly positive and easygoing. What usually drives me away is the occasional peculiar news/information piece.
  • KCRW Eclectic24 — A 24/7 spinoff from KCRW’s weekday music show Morning Becomes Eclectic, Eclectic24 features a very eccentric music playlist with virtually none of the familiar hits of the 70s, 80s, or 90s. It’s weird, exciting, and enjoyable for a while — but eventually the vast, uncharted waters become disorienting, and I need to swim back to safety.
  • Radio Heartland — This is the HD channel of Minnesota Public Radio, and in addition to commercial-free music, it offers several music-oriented public radio shows like Mountain Stage, A Prairie Home Companion, Thistle and Shamrock, and the wonderful American Routes. The playlist in effect the rest of the time is pretty darned good. Like WUWM2, it’s heavy on the acoustic Americana, singer/songwriter types. I would prefer some more rock and even a little pop to sweeten the granola.
  • RTÉ 2fm — 2FM is live radio, the pop music channel of Ireland’s national radio service. It’s very similar to the kind of pop station I liked as a kid: Pop DJs, callers with requests, trivia, commercials, news, and hit music all pulsing forward through the workday. Except, of course, it’s the Irish workday. Also, there’s no MP3 stream, so you have to use the Web popup player, but at least it’s not too cluttered with Flash gizmos.

Internet radio

  • Pandora Internet Radio — Brilliant in theory but clunky in practice, Pandora uses the Music Genome Project to grade hundreds of different attributes of songs, then find additional songs that match the ones you already like. On the positive side, Pandora does best accomodate the wide variety of music I enjoy — Lightnin’ Hopkins to Pretenders, Earl Hines to Johnny Cash. Pandora is also where I discovered the most songs that I ended up buying (mostly due to long hours trying to get it to learn my tastes). But Pandora’s drawbacks include a lousy Web interface, poor audio quality, limited listening hours without paying, and having to wander the same worn musical paths over and over to find something new.
  • Radio Paradise –This automated, commercial-free listener-supported Internet radio station operated out of Paradise, California by Bill Goldsmith and his wife Rebecca Goldsmith has grown into a very impressive service over its 10 years. The playlist mixes music old and new — mostly rock for grownups, but with a jazz or classical number thrown in now and then. The website includes info and comment pages for every song in their library, plus listener forums, and even a Listener Review Channel to test songs which may or may not deserve inclusion in the main rotation. Where they lose me at times is with excursions into long, geeky, trance-inducing tracks. Clearly the listeners must be more techies than truckers, but I’m still trying to work here, not ponder Stonehenge.

Is there an online music station you enjoy regularly while you work? Please post it in the comments and I’ll try to give it a listen.