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Back before the Internet, listening to the radio was a one-sided experience. Beyond the occasional call-in request, music radio was about listening to whatever the DJs decided to play whenever they decided to play it. But a new breed of online music services are giving listeners access to music content on demand, and most are for free. Can these services compete with traditional radio? They can, and then some.

The on-demand nature of the Internet — getting what I want when I want it — is what has gradually pulled me away from traditional media like print and radio, which I stopped listening to consistently back in the ’90s. As my focus for media consumption turned more toward the Internet, I looked for an online substitute for radio and found the jerky streams of early Internet radio broadcasts as just a bad version of the radio. It was hard to listen to before broadband, and the music was largely stuff I didn’t want to hear.

But now Internet radio is back in a different form; some don’t call it radio but rather “music discovery” or “social radio.” For me it has taken the place of the staticky old box. Traditional radio was always hit-or-miss for hearing music that I liked, but these services have made it so much easier, as they allow you to filter out what you don’t want to hear and discover new things you might not ever hear on the radio.

The most notable of social radio services is UK startup Last.FM which was recently acquired by CBS for $280 million. I joined Last.FM last year and was not completely satisfied, so I decided to see how other services stacked up. Here’s a roundup of some of the more interesting social radio sites.

Last.FM

Last.FM is the biggest and the baddest of the music discovery services. More than just a place to listen to songs, Last.FM is a virtual world of music.

Getting started is pretty easy: You download a plugin called “Scrobbler” which lets Last.FM track what you are listening to in iTunes. Based on your music, Last.FM starts to form a profile of your tastes. Visit the site and you begin to see recommendations on similar artists as well as other people who like the same music you are listening to. You can add them as friends, or “network” with them in a non-committal way by sending emails to them or adding a message to their “Shoutbox” (“Hey! I see you like Merle Haggard too! Cool!”).

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Last.FM’s listing of tracks

Because there’s so much to the service, your first visit to the site can be a bit overwhelming. As a user, you’re confronted with a ton of options: watch videos, get music recommended, see what what your friends are listening to, and much more. I appreciate the diversity of content on Last.FM but sometimes I just want to listen to music and not be bombarded with so many ways to have fun. But I shouldn’t complain, as this service is amazing when it comes to discovering new music. Last.FM’s technology matches up the music you listen to with artists it predicts you will like, and it’s almost never wrong.

If you’re into privacy — and let’s face it, if you are into social networking, it’s probably not a huge priority for you — then Last.FM is probably not for you. It’s like opening up your iPod to the world. I can’t count how many times I’ve been called out by friends and strangers about my ridiculous musical taste, which includes a healthy helping of ’70s AM radio hits and gangster rap. And everything you listen to on iTunes, no matter how embarrassing, gets “scrobbled” and broadcast to the Last.FM community. That includes podcasts, so if you are ashamed of being caught watching dirty standup comedy or ESPN while at work, you’ve been warned.

Another not-so-great thing about Last.FM is that you can’t listen to everything you want. I know that sounds like I’m asking for too much, but I don’t like how the service suggests music and then only lets me listen to 30 seconds of a song. If I want it, I’ll have to buy it.

Jango

I have to admit that after using Last.FM for a good two months last year, I abandoned the site and the online radio thing altogether. Part of it was social networking burnout, but mostly because it didn’t let me listen to whatever I wanted in its full form and that the experience depended largely on my iTunes music collection.

But I recently found a service that satisfies what was lacking for me in LastFM: Jango. Less feature-rich than Last.FM (I didn’t need all those features anyway), Jango is instant gratification from the moment you visit the site. You can start listening to songs in their entirety immediately, without even signing up. Not having to sign up hooked me into trying it out, and I’ve been using it daily ever since. You simply type in an artist, and a song starts playing.

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Jango’s personalized stations

A huge advantage of Jango is that you don’t have to own any music to get a great experience. If you don’t have iTunes, it doesn’t matter – the music is just there for the listening and with nothing to download. And since it’s all web-based, you can use it on any computer, not just your own.

The music matching system on Jango is okay, but it could use some work. For instance, it seems to think because I like Steely Dan and James Taylor, I’ll also like the Beach Boys. No. And while I am a frequent listener of Mary J. Blige, I want R. Kelly out of the mix. Unfortunately, even though I click on the sad face to tell Jango never to play the offending song again, “Trapped in the Closet” continues to haunt me.

The social networking part of the service is also my speed. Little to no interaction is what I tend to like, and while the system lets you get really specific about the kind of user you want to interact with based on music compatibility, age, gender, location, etc., the communication itself is limited to comments or passive “thank you” emails sent to other users automatically after you listen to their stations.

Pandora

Pandora is another service that gets my kudos for being super easy to get started with and available with no downloads. I went to the site, was prompted to type in the name of an artist that I like. I typed in “Estopa,” a Spanish group I love. A song plays immediately, and I’m told that the system has created a station for me based on Estopa’s traits: “similar male lead vocals, mixed acoustic and electronic instrumentation, flamenco influences…” The next song that came up was in fact a song by an artist from the same genre, Manu Chao, that l like a lot.

After that I was presented with Jumbo, a group I’d never heard of but ended up loving. That’s what music discovery is all about. If you like what the system is suggesting, you give it a thumbs up. If it bombed at predicting your tastes, a thumbs down will help get more accurate recommendations.

Unlike Jango, Pandora has a more international selection of music, which is an advantage for someone like me who enjoys stuff from all over. And it seems that the library is pretty complete, as it took me several tries of searching for international artists to finally stump it with one they didn’t have.

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Pandora interface

Another attractive thing for those who want music and not relationships is that Pandora isn’t pushing the social networking thing on you. In my trial of Pandora, I listened to hours and hours of music without seeing a single avatar or any other sign of other users (though the service does allow you to add “friends”). While some might find that a turnoff, I find it refreshing. I’ve got enough with the incessant Facebook updates.

I’d give Pandora a 5-star rating for Zen-like simplicity in usability and for letting me listen to entire songs if it weren’t for one annoying catch: You can’t skip more than a few songs. If the system matches you up with 5 or so songs you don’t feel like hearing and you attempt to skip over them, you’ll get a polite pop-up telling you that Pandora’s music license only allows you to skip a certain number of songs per hour. The only solution to the problem is to create a new station.

Best of the Rest

Many more music discovery services are popping up left and right. Using a combination of the ones I’ve reviewed or some of the following standout services might be right for you. I don’t like some of the ones below as much because they depend on user uploads to populate their catalog of songs, meaning — like on peer-to-peer sites — if someone else hasn’t uploaded it, you won’t be listening to it.

iLike
Very popular with the Facebook set, iLike is similar to Last.FM in that much of the experience is based on your iTunes music collection.

qloud
A service made for social networks, among them Facebook.

MyStrands
A desktop application which, once downloaded, provides a ton of features such as the ability to organize “music parties” and synchronize your iPod to the service.

Mog.com
Mog is like a music magazine, MySpace and Last.FM all rolled into one. Here reviews are important, and presented like articles, and the user’s profile plays a much bigger role in the experience.

My final verdict after trying all of these sites is that a combination of Jango and Pandora satisfies my online music needs. I’ve all but given up on Last.FM, and only use it to check up on what friends have been listening to.

The great thing about these services is that they’ve allowed me to leave behind my reluctance to embrace new music and discover artists I love without even really trying – something I missed about traditional radio. And I find it interesting that while radio and TV are often considered kissing cousins, TV is a bust online while radio seems to have reinvented itself. Or are we reinventing radio?

Perhaps the fact that these services don’t try to emulate traditional radio but expand on what makes it great — while taking out what we don’t need — is the real innovation. Unlike my TV, thanks to the Internet, I can live without a radio — for now. With the recent hubbub about skyrocketing web royalties, some question the viability of these services in the long term. Indeed, just this week Bloomberg News reported both Yahoo and AOL were considering closing shop on their online radio services. If that trend continues, I’d be very sad.

What do you think? Do you enjoy listening to music online or are you still addicted to traditional radio? What social music services do you use? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Jennifer Woodard Maderazo is the associate editor of PBS MediaShift. She is a San Francisco-based writer, blogger and marketer, who covers Latino marketing at Latin-Know and Latino cultural issues at VivirLatino.