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5 apps for the radio lover

Radio just isn't the way it used to be. It's not that "this ain't your father's radio." This isn't even the radio you knew five years ago. A loosening of media ownership rules (via the 1996 Telecommunications Act) has transformed what was once a local medium into more of a national one, one that put playing more "safe" mainstream material repeatedly in place of diverse content. And while Internet streaming has opened our ears to specific tastes that align with our listening palettes, it didn't align with our increasingly mobile lifestyles. The advent of the App store, however, has created an ecosystem of apps that stream audio content while also aligning with our mobile lifestyles, and I'll highlight a few of my essentials.

WunderRadio [iTunes link] - $6.99
Let's start with WunderRadio (first reviewed on TUAW here). At its $6.99 price tag, it's the priciest of the bunch, but the polish and finish of the app makes it worth its price. While WunderRadio may be lacking in features (such as lack of support for iTunes purchases, tagging songs and displaying lyrics) compared to other apps in the class, it more than makes up for it with the its performance in the features that matter most. The app is responsive at starting and switching streams. And if the station streams in a supported format, WunderRadio provides for a seamless switch to background streaming should you desire, as well as the option to browse within the app's browser. In addition, while other streaming apps allow you to bookmark individual stations, WunderRadio allows you to bookmark entire directories and subdirectories of stations. For example, you can bookmark the entire "Alt. Rock" category, or all of "Los Angeles" if you'd just like to browse stations within that locale.

Content is king, and WunderRadio's hooks into streaming services delivers a smorgasbord of stations across the taste and geographic spectrum to you: RadioTime, Sirius and XM Radio, Police Scanners and Tuned.mobi are among some of the services it supports. But one vital piece missing from this equation is support for Clear Channel stations, which I wasn't able to find in the station listing.

iheart radio - [iTunes link]
And that's where iheart radio fills in the gap. Like or hate Clear Channel, it's the largest owner of full-power AM, FM, and shortwave radio stations. And you'll often find its stations broadcasting the voices of popular personalities like Rush Limbaugh, Dr. Laura, Leo Laporte and Jim Rome (my personal favorite), because Clear Channel also owns Premiere Radio Networks, who syndicates these programs.

iheart radio supports tagging, and tapping on the tag button initiates the option to purchase the track within the iTunes store app. In addition, the app supports displaying lyrics, as well as featuring a "shake to shuffle" feature that uses the iPhone's accelerometer to randomize stations.

But iheart radio lacks two important features, both of which are present on WunderRadio: background listening and support for non-Clear Channel stations. While the lack of these two features are likely issues of business and revenue (the potential of missed ad revenues with users not seeing ads while background streaming outside the app, and potentially losing listeners who might listen to competing non-Clear Channel stations), they are nonetheless material features.

If your favorite radio personality or station happens to be owned by Clear Channel, iheart radio is the app for you.

ooTunes [iTunes link] - $4.99
ooTunes fills the void between WunderRadio and iheart radio. Where WunderRadio lacks lyrics, tagging and purchasing songs and Clear Channel station support (at least in the areas I checked), ooTunes provides those features. In addition, like WunderRadio, ooTunes provides access to a host of stations across the genre and geographic spectrum. And ooTunes, like WunderRadio, has support for background streaming and in-app web browsing, both lacking on iheart radio.

ooTunes also adds two features lacking on both WunderRadio and iheart radio. One is a feature that displays a list of "similar" songs to what's playing, and the other is access and streaming of one's iTunes library via the ooTunes desktop app -- available for $19.99 and compatible with Mac OS X, Windows and Linux.

While ooTunes is feature rich, some may find its execution of these features needing some polish. In some areas, the app at times felt "heavy" and less responsive than its counterparts. For example, using a 3G connection, it took ooTunes 20 seconds to fully buffer and play a station streaming at 32 Kbps on my iPhone 3G; this same station loaded in 10 seconds using Wunder Radio. At times, this became frustrating. This aside, ooTunes provides an appeal to those who desire a feature rich audio streaming app.

ESPN Radio [iTunes link] - $2.99
Don't WunderRadio and ooTunes already provide access to ESPN Radio affiliates? Yes, they both do. But the ESPN Radio app isn't just an audio streaming app. That's because, in addition to providing access to the streams of ESPN Radio affiliates, there's background streaming support and on-demand access to the audio version SportsCenter (updated every 20 minutes) as well as PodCenter, a directory of ESPN podcasts that include the very Bill Simmons.

While you're listening to your desired ESPN Radio show, you can also read the latest happenings around the sports world via the ticker, which is conveniently placed at the bottom of the screen.

Although audio streaming of ESPN Radio shows is, for the most part, accessible on both iPhone apps as well as via a desktop/notebook computer browser, sometimes it's not possible to stream live college football games -- due to rights issues. For example, while I was able to listen to the Ohio State-USC football game on my local ESPN Radio affiliate using my car radio, I wasn't able to on either WunderRadio and ooTunes. The ESPN Radio app solves this problem by providing streams of selected college football games.

As the ESPN Radio app is ESPN- and sports-centric, it obviously only has ESPN Radio content. So if sports don't float your boat, this isn't the app for you. But for the sports fan, it's a listening paradise.

Radio revolution: Pandora, Last.fm and Slacker
So throwing Pandora [iTunes link], Last.fm [iTunes link] and Slacker Radio [iTunes link] into the mix really adds up to seven apps. Yes, but because they're essentially part of the same genre and ecosystem of streaming audio stations, I figured I'd group them as one. The promise of each of them is to get in tune with your listening likes and dislikes via user interaction, and play more of what you like. Although the end goal of each service is similar, how they arrive at their conclusions is different. Each has their relative strengths and weaknesses, and whether or not you like these respective services will likely depend on how well their algorithm corresponds to your listening tastes. While Slacker may not be as well-known as Pandora and Last.fm, I've found its musical selection aligns well with my listening palette. Nonetheless, each of the three are good in their own right. And each is free, so download away.

As can be seen, each audio streaming app has its relative strengths and weaknesses. While radio audiences have become more fragmented, the iPhone provides them with more accessibility to their format or formats of choice. And just as a one-size-fits-all radio station doesn't exist, neither does a one-size-fits-all audio streaming app.

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