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Pandora revamps app to surface all the ways it's more than radio now

Pandora's mobile app adds a "For You" discovery feed and a new "modes" feature to tweak the kind of music stations play.

Pandora's app redesign reflects how much the service has changed from its roots as a radio-like offering. 
Angela Lang/CNET

Pandora redesigned its app Tuesday to better showcase how it's evolved beyond the radio-like streaming-music service it started out as more than a decade ago. The latest update adds more ways to tweak the kind of song Pandora plays next and introduces a main discovery feed that personalizes recommendations throughout the day, while it also highlights more formats like podcasts and SiriusXM content. 

As before, people who subscribe to Pandora's $10-a-month Premium tier can access all features and content. The new app also makes it easier for people who aren't Premium subscribers to access playlists and other exclusive content behind the paywall by surfacing the Premium Access option strategically, which lets you watch an ad to unlock a temporary Premium session. 

"We have always leaned toward the app being drop-dead simple. That's always been our top design principle, but we did that almost to a fault," said Chris Phillips, Pandora's chief product officer and head of technology at SiriusXM and Pandora, in an interview last week. "It was at the cost of people not knowing what we've got."

Pandora was one of the pioneers of music streaming, and that early track record shaped its identity for years. Its digital version of radio conformed to the rigid licensing rules and an adversarial music industry at the time. But streaming has become the main way that artists and record labels make money now, and that allowed newer competitors like Spotify and Apple Music to craft themselves from a different mold. 

Pandora has changed with the times, too, offering many of the features that rivals do. But its app design didn't let listeners easily harness Pandora's complexity, according to Phillips. This redesign is Pandora's most significant step yet to change that, he said. 

Among the biggest additions are "Modes" for tweaking how a station curates itself, and a "For You" discovery feed in its bottom navigation bar. 

Modes lets listeners define the style of recommendations in the station they're listening to, tweaking the queue of upcoming song. You can, for example, adjust the mode of the station to have "crowd favorites," or most-liked songs; tell it to focus on deep-cut hidden gems; or request a discovery mode that selects artists that aren't normally played on that station. You can also tell the station to stick to newly released material or limit itself to "artist only," keeping the songs inside the catalog of the artist that the station is based on. 

The new For You section is a personalized feed that updates throughout the based on your listening history, day of the week and time of day.

It's based on modules of recommendations, which can range from a single personalized "hero" recommendation with a big photo or piece of art, to simple graphic tiles that offer stations based on moods like "fall chill" or "rainy day" or activities like "wake-up" or "driving." Other modules that could show up in your feed include a selection of new-music stations, most popular artists and top stations, genre collections, personalized artist recommendations, decade-based lists, recommended podcasts and various Pandora exclusives, like its Pandora Stories format that mixes music tracks with behind-the-music commentary from artists and creators. 

These modules in For You will allow Pandora to be more nimble in how it personalizes a feed for an individual listener and keep its app fresh. Pandora can add new modules without having to released a full app update. The company said more than 35 different modules will roll out in the coming months, 

The core of Pandora's recommendations is the same, a mix of curation and algorithmic personalization backed by the now 100 billion "thumbs" -- the like/dislike votes Pandora listeners tap when listening to a song.

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