How to Train Your Pandora Radio Stations Better

Pandora is one of the oldest and most popular streaming radio services, but if you’re a long-time user, you might notice a certain sameness in some of your custom stations. The Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down rating system tends to repeat the same 100 or so songs after a while, something I’ve certainly observed on some of the “evolving” stations I’ve been curating for years.

If you’d like to freshen up your reliable old Pandora stations, or start fresh with a new one, there are a few techniques you can use to more precisely manage the kind of music you hear from it.

Use Your Thumbs Carefully

It’s easy to take the venerable Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down system at face value: I like this song, I don’t like this song, at least in the context of a specific station. But for the purposes of actually managing your music, It’s more useful to think about the way Pandora’s algorithm actually takes your feedback into consideration when presenting new music. To put it simply:

  • Thumbs Up: create more variety
  • Thumbs Down: create less variety

This might seem obvious to some, but to others, it’s very different than what they may think is happening behind the scenes.

Take my personal country station, for example: if I hit Thumbs Up on a classic Willie Nelson track like “On the Road Again,” it tells Pandora that I want more country music with male artists, relatively slow tempos, and a focus on acoustic guitar, steel guitar, and harmonica. That Thumbs Up isn’t particularly useful on this station, which is already full of artists like Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Pride, and Hank Snow. Telling Pandora that I like this music isn’t telling it anything particularly useful: there’s no “more variety” that can come from something so similar to other music on the station.

Now, let’s imagine that “Gravedigger,” also a song sung by Willie Nelson, comes on the same station. Though Nelson sings the song, it’s a cover of a song by Dave Matthews, with more complex key changes and a mare modern electric guitar/bass/trap set instrumental setup. Giving this song a Thumbs Up will expand the musical variety of this station considerably, giving me other music similar to Dave Matthews, even if it doesn’t necessarily fit the other country-specific variables of the rest of the station. Giving it a Thumbs Down will cut off that expansion and tell Pandora to focus the station on those conventional country themes already established.

Knowing this, be a little more intentional with those Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down ratings. Give the big, recognizable songs of a particular genre a Thumbs Up if you’re hoping for a more focused station with less variety, but save them for lesser-known and more diverse artists if you’re hoping for a bigger and more interesting group of core songs.

Re-Curate Your Station History

On both the web and mobile apps, you can access the complete history of Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down song recommendations. (Click the station name on the web, and tap the “…” menu on the Stations list on the mobile app.) With your newly-acquired perspective on the Thumbs rating above, go through your station and delete the Thumbs Up or Thumbs Down ratings for any songs you want. Remember: conventional songs at the center of your desired genre will give your station less variety, with more fringe artists and songs adding more variety.

On the same page, you can add some more songs to the “Station Created From” list. These are the songs you put in to create the station—imagine them as “Super Thumbs Up.” No matter what your thumb history on the songs that come into the radio station, it will continue to play at least some music with elements shared from these foundation songs. Knowing this, you can add more “Created From” songs to get more variety and delete some of the originals to create a more narrow focus.

Keep in mind, while using the Thumbs rating system often is generally encouraged for song curation during regular listening, you shouldn’t load up on too many “Created From” songs. Since even quite similar songs have different technical tags in the Pandora curation system. Having dozens or hundreds of songs in the “Created From” list will make your station incredibly broad, and it will be difficult to “steer” the music towards any particular genre or theme.

Avoid the Shuffle Station

Pandora’s “Shuffle” feature lets you play music from all of your stations at once, with the option to exclude some stations (like seasonal music). This is a fine option if you just want some quick music, but keep in mind that the Thumbs Up and Thumbs Down ratings you give in Shuffle don’t carry over to your more specific stations. If you’re actively working on tuning those stations for a particular genre or sound, listening and rating on Shuffle won’t help.

Michael Crider has been covering technology on the web since 2011. His interests include folk music, football, science fiction, and salsa verde, in no particular order. He wrote a novel called Good Intentions: A Supervillain Story, and it's available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter if you want.