In January of 2012, as GoRadio was gearing up for the launch of our first set of stream stations, I had some thoughts I shared with the team in the following memo (with only slight rewrites to keep it relevant):

The biggest digital music device ever was the iPod, and the most popular feature on it was the shuffle setting.

That’s because people want to be surprised.

Surprise surprise surprisePeople don’t always want to spend their time building playlists. Some do, but most don’t. Speaking for myself, almost all of the time, my iPhone is set on shuffle when I’m using it to play music, even though most of my career has been spent building playlists and deciding the order of a specific set of songs.

Even on Pandora, which was built on the gimmick of building your own playlists, many people are using the pre-built “radio” setting. They just don’t have the time. But I think it goes deeper than just not having the time… I think that people have a deep, instinctive need for the element of surprise in some corner of their lives. Even Pandora users who love building their own customized “radio stations” still enjoy the element of surprise by continually adding qualifications to the list to maximize the joy of not knowing which song is coming next, even though they’ve told it what their favorites are.

Musically, if we as programmers and brand managers make “surprise” our calling card – a uniqueness not offered by terrestrial radio (nor can they offer it to the extent streams and online music services can) – this can be the way we carve a niche for ourselves. Not just with the stuff on the audio stream, but with web content as well.

The joy of not knowing what song is coming next, the joy of not knowing what new thing you’ll learn today, that can be our magic… our streamcraft that will set us apart.

“Don’t tell me what you got me! I want to be surprised!”

“I’m not going to tell you where we’re going, it’ll be a surprise!”

“Close your eyes! It’s gonna be a big surprise!”

Magic. The magic of surprise. The joy of surprise. And I think if we focus on that joy for the rest — the imaging, the features, the web content — we can make and we can be something wonderful, something with which people will connect, something with which people will form an emotional bond, a loyalty to the brand.

But a word of warning: While surprise is a magical thing to draw people in, there are good surprises and bad surprises. A surprise beating isn’t as joyful as a surprise birthday party. But this is where our expertise in applying the things we’ve learned as radio and music programmers comes into play – walking that balance beam between a joyful, magical surprise versus the kind of surprise that’s infected with the lifelessness of the random for randomness’ sake.

It’s the fine art of applying just the right amount of control, and balancing it with the freedom of giving it up.

But that’s where the magic is. That’s where the joy is. Find it. Mine it. Stockpile it. And no matter how much of it you store, don’t stop looking for more of it.