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Radical.FM (Android) review: Free music that comes at a cost

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Radical.FM (iOS|Android) is a music-streaming radio service with a twist. The app is completely free to use, and it doesn't have any ads. It's a direct competitor to Pandora, but takes a different approach.

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6.0

Radical.FM (Android)

Pricing Not Available

The Good

Radical.FM offers completely free streaming music with zero ads.

The Bad

The app is often unresponsive and has a confusing design. Searching for songs to add to your stations is a tedious process.

The Bottom Line

Radical.FM fits the bill when you just want to jam out with some music, but its limited features won't please most music fans.

With Radical.FM, you create streaming stations based on genres of music, and the app pulls from its library of 25 million songs to fill out your station. That's different from Pandora, which asks you to name a song, album, artist, or genre, and then creates a station of songs with similar styles to the music you selected, using the Music Genome Project. I personally prefer Pandora's approach, because I feel that it better taps into what specific styles of music I want to hear, based on a combination of music composition and lyrical themes.

Radical.FM tunes the radio to your musical tastes

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Because the app is free, there are some limitations. You can't play any song on demand, but you can search for individual tracks and add them to your stations. New releases aren't always available. And, overall, the app doesn't feel polished. Still, if you can overlook the design flaws and minimal features, Radical.FM hits the spot when you just want to listen to music that's just a bit more personalized than regular radio.

Pay (or don't) to play

As I mentioned earlier, Radical.FM's most unique feature is that the service is completely free to use, and it doesn't have any ads. Unlike Pandora's free tier, you won't see or hear any advertisements, and you can use the full app without paying a monthly subscription.

The company gets by on donations from its listeners, which helps pay for the music licenses Radical.FM needs to play music. The more people donate, the better the app could feasibly become, with design updates and an improved experience. Yet, given that the app isn't that great to begin with, it's a tough sell to get people to fork over their money.

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Radical.FM is a free -- and ad-free -- Internet radio. Josh Miller/CNET

You can donate as much (or little) as you want, either on a monthly basis, or make a one-time donation. Radical.FM does this because it says that everyone should be able to listen to music, whether they can afford a subscription or not.

What's really great about this approach, is that, at least in my testing, the app doesn't bombard you with requests for donations. If you want to donate, you just swipe right to reveal the app's main menu and tap the banner that shows your name.

Design and setup

Forget the sleek look of Spotify, the bright colors in Beats Music, or even the elegant design of Pandora; Radical.FM's aesthetic is plain and frankly a bit boring. With such a simple design, you'd think the app would be easy to use, but it's not as intuitive as it could be.

There's a left-side menu that helps you navigate the app. You stations are at the top, followed by lists, and settings. You can swipe left and right through the app to open that menu, show the now-playing screen, and open up the search menu, which I'll touch on later. I urge you to swipe through the app, instead of tapping the tiny, hard-to-hit buttons that also reveal the same screens. Even then, you might need to swipe several times for the app to do what you want.

To use Radical.FM, you need to sign up for an account using your email. You can also opt to sign up with Facebook, but that didn't work for me on the two Android phones I was using for testing. Radical.FM says that's a known issue its working to fix.

You're the DJ

After you create an account, you can start building your first station, which is a simple process. You pick from a list of 21 genres, including Pop, Classic Rock, and Bluegrass. Each of those have at least two to three subgenres, so you can get more specific about your music preferences. You can include as many genres as you like in your station.

Unfortunately, the genres feel limited and a bit outdated. Today, apps like Pandora and Spotify have creative, nuanced genres such as "Power Pop" and "Feel Good Indie Rock," so the more basic choices like Jazz, Hard Rock, and Motown feel a bit lackluster. What's more, because the genres aren't very specific, you might not always get the music you want in your stations.

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To create a new station, you first pick a few genres of music you want to hear. You can tweak your station later by choosing how much of each genre plays. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Radical.FM tries to combat that by letting you fine-tune the genres you pick for your station -- more on that in a bit. After you create your new station and give it a name, it'll start playing automatically. You'll see a now-playing screen, which shows the current song's full album art and playback controls below that.

Aside from the typical play/pause and skip buttons, there's a "Like" button, which adds the current song to a custom list and tells Radical.FM to play that song on that station more often. There are also two buttons that can either block the current song or the artist, so one or the other never appears again in your station. You can unblock songs at anytime from the settings menu.

Next, there's a button that says "Tune station." Tap that, and you'll see the list of genres in your station, with sliders above each one. You can move the sliders to tell Radical.FM to play more or less of a particular genre. There's also an option to add new genres.

Below all of the controls, at the very bottom of the screen, you can see the artist, song title, and RadicalFM genre in tiny print that scrolls across the screen too quickly. The way that information is displayed makes it difficult to see what song is playing, and you can't always figure out the song from the album art, which takes up a significant part of the screen.

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The now-playing screen (left) has controls to like or block songs. You can also tap the album from a recently played song to like the song or view artist information (right). Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

As a song finishes, its album art shows up as a small thumbnail at the top of the screen. The app creates a row of four thumbnails, for the last four songs in the station. You can tap any of those thumbnails to like or unlike the song, or block the song or artist. You'll see the artist name and song name at the top of the screen for reference.

One crucial missing feature in the app is a set of playback controls for the lockscreen or the notification drawer. Those controls have become standard for music-streaming apps so you can pause and play songs, or skip them without opening the app. Without them, the Radical.FM is behind the times.

Customizing your music

If your custom station just isn't playing what you want, you can manually add songs. From the now-playing screen, swipe left to open the search screen. From there, search by song title or artist to find what you're looking for. I didn't have any trouble finding music I wanted, except when I looked for brand-new music.

When you find the track you want, tap the song, and then tap "Done" to add it. Then, repeat that process for every song you want to add. When you add songs to a station, it creates a new List in the app, which just keeps tracks of the songs you've added. You can find those lists in the left-side menu, and if you open one, the app will immediately start playing 30-second previews of each song in that list.

Radical.FM says it has a "24 hour Song Request Guarantee," which means if you request a new song to be added to the app, it'll be there within one day to ensure that Radical has the most comprehensive library available anywhere. You'll need to go to Radical.FM's website to request a song.

Final thoughts

There's no escaping that Radical.FM isn't quite at the level of Pandora or Spotify. The app's design is confusing and at times glitchy, and you just don't get much control over how you play the music you like.

Still, despite its flaws, Radical.FM lives up to the promise of free, ad-free radio streaming. If you just want to quickly listen to music that's more tailored to your tastes than the regular radio, the app will suit you fine. Just don't expect any of the polish you'll find in popular Internet radio apps Pandora , Slacker Radio , and iHeartRadio .

radicalfm-4234-001.jpg
6.0

Radical.FM (Android)

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Setup 7Features 6.5Interface 5Performance 5