You have more options for streaming interactive radio than you might realize. Here’s what Slacker has to offer: a specific song or artist request function, and the ability to cache stations and replay them offline. What it’s missing: a playlist algorithm that digs deep enough to provide you with an educational (in terms of exposing you to new things) listening experience.
First, the good. Unlike other interactive radio sites, Slacker allows you to request that specific songs be inserted into a mix after the mix has already been built, simultaneously tailoring the mix to your stated interests. That is, you can plug a Notorious BIG song into a Beatles playlist, and it’s likely that “In My Life” will play through with somewhat of a backbeat as a result.
The other distinctive feature Slacker offers is its ability to cache stations and replay them when you’re offline if you’re a Radio Plus member (there are two subscription packages). But be forewarned that caching a station requires 1MB of device memory per song, and usually involves about 100 songs, so you’re going to need some extra space on your smartphone to make it happen.
If you have (or make) room for those, it’s a great feature. Slacker manages its cached stations dynamically, so listening to a station makes that station grow.
The problem is what you’ll find on those stations. Slacker claims to have over eight million songs, but there’s very little discovery going on. Opening a White Denim station turned out a six song medley of Arctic Monkeys, the Black Keys, White Denim, Phoenix, White Rabbits, and Spoon — not exactly a stunningly adventurous tracklist. Likewise, a search for Spoon yielded The Raconteurs, Franz Ferdinand, Band of Horses, Modest Mouse, and the Decemberists — awfully mainstream stuff.
Slacker does offer a Fine Tuning feature that provides some insight into how it formats stations, however. You can change the level of popularity you’re looking for in an artist (this ranges from “Fringe” to “Hits”) and toggle the era from which the song originated (“Classic” to “Current”). The problem here is that the effects of these decisions seem more or less negligible. On the Spoon Station, I tried to go “Fringe” but was met with The Flaming Lips, which is still a band that I’ve heard of. Later, I moved the era switch from “Auto” to “Classic,” and Built to Spill came on — and they’re still making music together!
Station Creation Options
Slacker’s Station Page is dominated by folders on phone and browser alike. It doesn’t look great, but it does lay all your options right out in front of you. The phone’s folder lineup requires scrolling, so you may not realize all that you have, initially.
On the mobile app, you can create a new, personalized station by clicking on “Search” at the top of the Stations page. At that point you’re given the option to search by Artist or Song. If you want to search by genre, scroll down on the Stations page until you find the parent genre. Like Pandora, each parent genre has a number of specific options to choose from once you click through.
The only specific difference to note with the mobile app is that there’s no way to request songs onto an already-running station. Otherwise, you get the same features as with the web version.
Navigation on Slacker’s mobile app can get confusing, so tread carefully. When you’re inside the player (that is, when you have your array of playing options open and the album art on your screen), it’s unclear at first what you can tap, and what’s on the screen strictly for design.
The player screen offers six options: play, skip (up to six times with the basic subscription, or unlimited with Radio Plus, as with the competition), favorite, ban, stations page, and edit the current station. On the last, you can remove the station from your list of favorites, handle the fine tuning mentioned above, edit ratings for each specific song, share the station with friends (see below), or cache the station (premium version only).
Slacker’s player on a web browser is proportionally pretty small, taking up about half of the page. Its design reminded me of the old Winamp interface, with elementary looking folders lining the left and either the album art or your selection of favorites, custom stations, or recently played stations filling up the right side. The web player isn’t designed to lead you back from one place to another very well, and there a lot of options and buttons to click on, so expect to get lost a few times.
Slacker’s mobile app experiences a few of the same setbacks. It’s just not made with the idea of jumping from place to place in mind, so there’s very little linear pattern. Think about how you use your iPod on an iPhone: you know how to get back from every page. With Slacker, you don’t.
You can share stations via email, text message, and Twitter on your mobile, or email and Twitter on your web browser. It’s unclear why Slacker wouldn’t integrate Facebook sharing, but those are the breaks.
Email integrates directly into your smartphone’s mail client, but texting is more difficult: You have to close out of Slacker, open your text messaging program, open up a new message and paste a copied post into the message. With Twitter, station sharing is streamlined so long as you’ve set up your account in the settings.
On the web, you can share by clicking on the arrow to the right of the radio station’s name. From there you can copy the station’s URL link or click through to share via Twitter.
Do You Get What You’re Looking For?
If you’re out to discover new bands or listen to music that you haven’t heard before, Slacker is not for you. If, however, you just want to hear music that you’re familiar with, as we all do from time to time, and as some prefer to do all of the time, give Slacker a whirl. The concise playlists will work in your favor if you don’t want to be caught off guard without any surprises.
Aside from its recommendation service, Slacker didn’t generate many headaches. It could offer a cleaner and more linear listening experience, but getting music to play is easy enough, and the program runs without any hiccups.
You can listen to Slacker Radio for free on a Basic account, or through Radio Plus, which costs $5 a month, $15 for three months, or $48 for a year (a slight discount).
Radio Plus gives you a number of listening options that aren’t available through the Basic account, including no ads, unlimited skips, station caching, unlimited song requests, and the ability to integrate on-the-hour ABC news updates into any station.