The Future of Automated Radio
by Alex Cosper

Automated radio appears to be here to stay. It's the type of radio that has about as much human warmth as an app that can instantly tell you the current temperature in your area or the database that knows every recording ever made. Automated radio is still crafted by humans, usually one low-paid worker at a station now does voice work for a cluster of a half dozen stations. Sometimes one low-paid announcer even does voice work for dozens of stations across the country.

Radio automation systems have been around as far back as the 1960s, when a machine playing huge audio reels triggered the next machine to play the next reel. Automation began to go digital in the 90s when one system could execute a full day's or week's worth of audio programming. Even though it's possible to program an entire year's worth of music in a day, radio programmers of current music still make changes every week to keep playlists fresh.

At one time radio stations were programmed on a daily basis to meet changing audience demand. But these days playlists at corporate stations are commonly decided at the national VP level, according to industry insiders. In other words, it's no longer a program director that is in touch with local taste that decides the music on the radio. Since consolidation of the late nineties, the trend has been toward nationalized programming.

The idea that all the decision makers who shape the national charts can fit in a hotel room should be a wake up call to all those consumers who pride themselves on being hip for staying up to date with pop music. Not only are the charts rigged, the sound of pop culture has become contrived, almost as if it's been programmed by algorithms instead of randomness or chance.

The robotic state of commercial radio is just a symptom of how pop culture is on the path to dehumanization. It's up to the real eyes, ears and voices of music and culture to maintain a human presence in music. Even as technology continues to build its way toward automation and destruction of creative jobs, it's possible to use technology to enhance musical listening experiences.

One thing robots haven't taken complete control of yet is social media. While many of those unknown characters lining up to request your friendship on Facebook are just robots, there are still plenty of people on your friends list who are actually real people. It's important for people to share concerns about robotics invading pop culture.

By about 2005, a huge percentage of radio had become automated programming. No longer did you need an expert on the history of a music format to create radio programming. All you needed by that point was a decision maker on songs entering or exiting the system. At one time the Assistant Program Director took the list of new music and made sure each song was encoded as a digital file and was part of the system. Now you don't even need a person to do that job. Once a song is selected for airplay on a group of stations, the digital file can automatically be added to a music library that feeds several stations.

Apps now exist in the medical profession that can provide patients with a diagnosis for their symptoms. Robots are gradually replacing assembly line workers in manufacturing factories. Ask yourself, if a medical assistant can be replaced by a machine, why can't musicians and disc jockeys be replaced by machines? After all, from an artificial intelligence perspective, music is just math. Then again, from a human perspective, music is more than just math and includes emotion. Even so, Google recently unveiled its first song created by an algorithm from its Magenta software. Google has also been working on its Artists and Machine Intelligence program to help musical collaborators.

The idea that the musical experience can be taken over by machines is actually not new. The earliest forms of computers in the 1700s were music boxes that played melodies from pins plucking teeth on a revolving cylinder. But only in recent years have techies actually come up with solutions in which songs can be written by robots. While the potential for robotic music still seems laughable, there's still a window of opportunity for real musicians to remind people that there are still some things - like creating music - that humans can do a lot better than robots.

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