C Story

Rocki: A Chromecast for audio?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013 - 12:05pm

Just as Chromecast, a $35 HDMI plug-in dongle from Google, is a simple way to stream video to a television, a little device called Rocki does the same for audio to analog speakers by turning them into WiFi-enabled speakers. Engadget notes that Manhattan-based Rocki has surpassed it Kickstarter goal, and will release the little WiFi enabler in December.

WiFi speaker systems liberate online audio from computers and phones. As such, they can be viewed as home radio replacements. If a speaker is communicating with your audio apps, you can, for example, listen to your favorite NPR programs via TuneIn whenever you want, timeshifted from their broadcast schedule. The app becomes the radio dial, and the WiFi speaker becomes the receiver. 

WiFi speakers (and their siblings, Bluetooth speakers) represent a fairly robust consumer electronics category, bringing mobile audio back into the home. The problem, though, is price. WiFi speakers cost hundreds of dollars … each. The Sonos Play:1 is considered a budget entry to the field, at $200 per speaker. If only there were a way to make analog speakers WiFi-capable.

That is the Rocki angle. The device plugs into speakers via the RCA jack. It works with studio monitors and boomboxes. The simplicity and versatility is attractive. Just as Chromecast threatens Roku and Apple TV, which can seem cumbersome and needlessly expensive by comparison, Rocki could grab some share of the WiFi speaker market -- just in time for the holidays.

Soundrop moves fast; expands to Deezer

Tuesday, November 26, 2013 - 12:25pm

Group-listening app Soundrop announced an extension of its platform to Deezer, as a built-in app in the Paris-based music service. Soundrop has been associated with Spotify since 2011, operating within Spotify’s app ecosystem. It also works independently as a mobile app.

Soundrop’s distribution maneuver is timely in two ways. First, Turntable.fm announced last week that it is closing its music listening virtual rooms, which provide a similar experience to Soundrop’s shared listening function. Second, Deezer will expand to the potentially huge U.S. market sometime in 2014. Soundrop is now positioned as the reigning group-listening app in the two leading European music services, and will enjoy the same positioning in the U.S.

Turntable.fm slows to a stop

Monday, November 25, 2013 - 2:00pm

After about two years and over 400-million songs, Turntable.fm is surrendering to high costs and the challenges of monetizing streaming music. As noted in RAIN, Turntable.fm launched a live-concert listening feature earlier this year. In a note to users, the service announced that it would concentrate exclusively on the concert business, Turntable Live.

Moving from recordings to concerts allows turntable.fm to work directly with bands who seek greater exposure generally, and a geographically unrestricted audience for live shows. On the licensing side, direct deals with artists eliminates statutory royalty costs of playing recordings. 

Turntable.fm provides a virtual reality, avatar-based, group listening “room” environments. About a million rooms have been set up since the service launched in 2011.

The Echo Nest launches new ad-targeting product

Friday, November 22, 2013 - 8:25am

In a dramatic extension of its core data intelligence business, The Echo Nest has announced a music advertising product that gives ad networks, and music services, audience segmenting possibilities. The solution is called Music Audience Understanding. Keying off The Echo Nest's music context technology, the new platform uses sophisticated music preference knowledge to predict "high-value demographic and psychographic advertising segments," according to the press release.

The product launch is paired with a partnership announcement: TargetSpot, the largest digital audio ad network, will use the technology to more precisely match ads to user type, and gain insights about how an advertiser's target audience consumes music.

This interesting technology angle counters Pandora's recently-deployed audience segmentation, which is based on user registration details refined by music choices. The Echo Nest is a data-crunching enterprise at heart, providing a multi-faceted music recommendation brain to hundreds of listening platforms, with an API (Application Programming Interface) that enables unique product development.

The company's leadership in the field has given it outsize influence on how music services sound to millions of users. The new Music Audience Understanding product seeks to influence how advertisers address those users, and the user experience of hearing ads that potentially are more relevant and interesting to them.

From a high-altitude view of the listening landscape that includes AM/FM, these emerging audience segmentation and targeting solutions, paired with reporting of actionable results, seek to give Internet radio ventures a key competitive advantage over broadcast.

Broadcast + pureplay: A venerable radio brand goes both ways

Thursday, November 21, 2013 - 12:40pm

WQXR-FM in New York has been a pure classical-music station since starting in 1939. It’s harder to find classical music on the dial than it used to be, but after decades of decline the public radio sector is grabbing an opportunity to plug the gap. Arbitron (now Nielsen Audio) reported that in 2012, classical was the number-two public radio format, and a mix of news-plus-classical was third.

WQXR joined the migration movement from commercial to public in 2009 when former parent The New York Times sold the station to New York Public Radio (which also operates WNYC-FM).

That same year, WQXR started an experiment, launching an Internet-only offshoot called Q2 Music. The Q2 Music pureplay, which concentrates on less mainstream and more modern classical, averages over 82,000 stream sessions per month. RAIN spoke with Graham Parker, general manager of WQXR, about Q2 Music’s mission, programming, audience makeup, and affiliation with flagship WQXR and cousin WNYC.

RAIN: Congratulations on the station’s long-standing success, and more recently, Q2. Can you describe how Q2 developed?

GP: Q2 Music started as a fantastic way to offer a different music selection [from WQXR] that was more focused on contemporary music. At that time, it also played old music -- the tagline was “500 years of new music.” So it would play everything from Palestrina to John Cage. It was a broad range. Over the last three years we’ve gotten Q2 more focused, and grown the audience. Q2 Music is [now] exclusively focused on contemporary composers. It’s more like 100 years of new music, or even 50 years.

RAIN: How is Q2 Music connected with WQXR?

GP: We’ve worked carefully and deliberately to find the connections between WQXR and Q2, because the audience does so. There is quite an audience overlap. People will listen to WQXR, then drift over to Q2, or start with Q2 and realize that it’s attached to WQXR, and shift over there. There is a lot of brand interchange, so we work to be sure that it’s reflected in programming choices and promotion choices. It has become a 360 degree approach to programming, rather than two stations that have nothing to do with each other.

RAIN: You mentioned audience overlap. Do you measure that as streaming-only overlap?

GP: Streaming and uniques. We did a piece of research, where we did a WQXR survey with a Q2 piece tacked on. That’s where we discovered that people expressed an interest in both brands. We also discovered overlap with WNYC.

RAIN: Do you have a promotional arrangement with Soundcheck [a long-running new-music program on WNYC]?

GP: Sometimes. It is content specific. It is not ongoing. We pitch them ideas; they pitch us ideas. We try to find connections. We have an incredible audio archive [across WQXR and WNYC], so we can find those connections. For example, yesterday when [composer] John Taverner unfortunately died, we were able to quickly pull up an interview that [Soundcheck host] John Schaefer had done with John Taverner -- it was immediately on our website and on the air.

RAIN: You mentioned the music archive. The WQXR library must be immense.

GP: It is big! We add to it all the time. But we have to be careful what we add. We ask ourselves whether we need the nineteenth version of a piece. Q2 went through an important purge, deemphasizing and sometimes deleting a significant chunk of material that wasn’t making it into the playlist. That was part of our focusing effort in the last year in Q2 Music. We tried to be clearer about what the audio brand is for that station -- a clearer equation with our audience.

RAIN: What is the programming mandate for Q2 Music?

GP: The focus is living composers. We try to find music that is wonderful to listen to, challenges the ears, encourages you to discover things you don’t know. We put the discovery objective quite high up. We play challenging music but must balance that with our desire for people to keep listening.

We try to frame it up with hosts who can explain it and put the music into interesting context. For example, Phil Kline, who’s a well-respected composer, is one of most frequent hosts. The composers he plays might be friends of his, or he might be associated with the music in another way . He can tell a story about the music.

We also highlight dead composers when we feel there is a need to do so. For example, we have a marathon series. It started on the hundredth anniversary of [Stravinsky’s] “The Rite of Spring” in Paris. It was a 24-hour “Rite of Spring” marathon. We don’t play a lot of Stravinsky on Q2, but we thought this was a good experiment. It turned out amazingly -- we actually played the same piece over and over for 24 hours, and tripled our audience. We did some cool online content to go along with it. People love themes, and they love programming that ties into a calendar day that makes sense. We do it on both stations.

RAIN: How much of your audience crosses over from WQXR, and how much is new audience that comes to Q2 because they are already interested in the music?

GP: We see crossover, which helps membership dollars -- important to a public station. We work on promotional relationship also. For WQXR that might be Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall. For Q2 Music we work more closely with composer collectives, or smaller concert halls. Such external partnerships are important for driving new audiences to Q2 Music. We hope our audience growth comes both from communicating with existing listeners, and all the external work we’re doing.

RAIN: Is there any staff overlap between the two stations?

GP: We have two people directly and solely responsible for Q2 Music. One of them is on the senior staff, and attends WQXR meetings, too. It’s important for each station to know what both are doing. It helps when driving [audience] in and out of each other’s brand.

RAIN: What about WQXR’s approach to streaming? Extending into the online realm can be a challenge for any broadcast station. Can you share your strategy or success metrics?

GP: We’ve seen great success in the digital realm. We have without doubt the largest digital audience of any classical radio station. We are seeing a national and global audience. We think excellence is what sets us apart.

When I arrived I hired a new head of digital who came from VH1. The big strategy is that we want the biggest audience possible for our brands. We don’t think of it as just radio -- we are a classical music media company, which includes, audio, video, writing, editorial, social, feedback loops, live concerts, the whole thing.

Jukeboxing the news? H2 Radio prepares for launch

Wednesday, November 20, 2013 - 10:50am

The attraction of on-demand music services like Rhapsody, Spotify, and Rdio, and their chief feature for paying subscribers, is their jukebox capability. You might use them as alternatives to lean-back radio, but when you want to lean in, you can listen to a single track. Most users do a combination, establishing preferences or playlists and letting the service feed them personalized music.

Doing the same thing for news is both the challenge and opportunity for H2 Radio (HearHere Radio), which is developing a mobile playlist approach to Internet news radio. The company's promise: "You'll never hear news the same way again."

RAIN spoke with CEO John McLeod about the upcoming H2 mobile app, which will be released to Apple’s mobile platform in about two weeks. He described how it works, the proposition for advertisers, and the 2014 distribution roadmap.

RAIN: What exactly is the H2 Radio app?

JM: It is personalized, interactive news that puts you, the listener, in control of your news. [In the app] there is a simple setup where you decide what categories you’re interested in. You can put in keywords, like a sports team. We take stories that are produced by us, or produced by others, and push them into a dynamically generated playlist. You can listen to the story or skip it, pause or rewind it. If there are related stories around the topic, we link those related stories for reading.

We function like a radio station with recording booths and audio producers. But instead of pushing stories on the air, we link them with a lot of metadata that allows us to deliver a personalized experience. When you turn on the app, it starts playing news as if it’s top of the hour.

RAIN: How much original content will there be, vs. curated content?

JM: Our goal is to produce hours of original content, a blend of national and world news. The heaviest concentration of news content will be local. We include other content such as NPR programs or podcasts. But the core is our own produced news. We tag everything to user categories.

RAIN: What platforms will H2 News be on?

JM: We’re launching on iOS first. We will be developing other smartphone versions next year. We will also be integrating with car operating systems. Our ultimate goal is the car. RAIN: What about geographic coverage? We’re launching here in Chicago, plus national and world coverage. Our goal in 2014 is to roll out to other cities -- Dallas, maybe Boston, D.C. , L.A., San Francisco.

RAIN: Will H2 Radio be ad-supported?

JM: Yes it will. Predominantly audio ads. There will be interactive audio with corresponding banners or coupons so you can action the ad while listening. We can do advertising commerce without taking someone away from the core experience. We’ll also have sponsored ads.

Because all the content is tagged to data, we’re able to do some interesting matching of advertising to categories, and also to location. There’s a whole GIS (Geographic Information Systems) platform running in our content management system. We’re able to match ads to content categories, and also to location.

One example [of geographic matching] is with traffic reports in Chicago [which will be in the app at launch]. When you hear traffic [on broadcast radio], the report may or may not be where you are. This is particularly troublesome in places like L.A., where I used to live. A traffic report could be about the South Bay, and you could be in Ventura County -- it’s all in the same broadcast radius. And you can’t rewind to hear anything again. In our service, we’ll be able to pull the location of the device. If I’m on the North Shore of Chicago, I’m going to get a North Shore traffic report.

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