Online radio service Last.fm has always seemed to occupy an awkward middle ground between on-demand streaming music services that let you pick and play any song--like free services Imeem and Grooveshark, and Rhapsody, which charges for its service--and the radio-to-your-taste service pioneered by Pandora. (Disclaimer: Last.fm is owned by CBS, which is the parent company of CNET News.)
In my opinion, this is partly because of some flaws with the service itself. The radio service has a lot of powerful features for serious music fans who are willing to do a little work, as CNET's Donald Bell recently explained, but it doesn't work very well as an on-demand service. How do you add songs to a now-playing queue? Why hasn't Last.fm secured on-demand rights for huge artists like Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin?
But there's also a bit of a branding gap. Compared with the organic buzz I hear about Pandora and Rhapsody, for instance, Last.fm hardly comes up. Now it looks like CBS is trying to address that issue. In an effort to increase brand awareness, CBS Radio will devote four broadcast HD Radio stations to Last.fm. The playlist will be drawn from listeners' favorites--Last.fm does such a fantastic job of tracking usage, I've referred to it for non-scientific measurements of artist popularity--as well as live performances in Last.fm's New York studio. The stations will make the cutover on October 5, and include KITS-FM (105.3 HD3) in San Francisco, WWFS-FM (102.7 HD2) in New York, KCBS-FM (93.1 HD2) in Los Angeles, and WXRT-FM (93.1 HD3) in Chicago. All four stations will play the same playlist.
HD Radio itself is still in a niche phase. Although it's available in more than 90 percent of major U.S. markets, the receivers are still fairly rare. That might change tomorrow with the launch of the Zune HD, the first MP3 player with a built-in HD Radio receiver. If nothing else, it shows that HD Radio technology is getting small enough and cheap enough to begin building it into a variety of consumer electronics devices--imagine when it starts becoming a feature in smartphones, for instance.