Radio Search Engine, “a new way to interact with radio”

Friday, November 8, 2013 - 11:50am

Serial entrepreneur Michael Robertson conceives of his latest project, Radio Search Engine, as a Google for real-time music searches on radio. RAIN tested the new site, still in beta development mode, and spoke with Robertson about what it is, how it works, and where it’s going.

Most of the development of Radio Search Engine appears to be technical, not cosmetic. The single-page website is unbranded, with rudimentary design. The site's main assets are under the hood.

The basic experience of Radio Search Engine is this: you type in a song, artist, show title, or music genre. The site displays a list of radio stations which, at that moment, are playing what you asked for. Click on one to hear it. Unlike a subscription music service like Spotify or Rhapsody, where you ask for a song and get a static file of the song that you can play, in Radio Search Engine you get a stream-in-progress from a webcast.

Does it work? Yes, and the site is great fun to play with. Its success as a discovery tool is based on an immense real-time database of songs and stations.

“It’s a tremendously big undertaking,” Robertson told RAIN. “Indexing the entire world of radio is not a trivial thing. The last time I checked, we had 200-million records of songs. We store what radio stations play over time, so we have a historical record. We use that record. If you search for a song that isn’t playing anywhere right now, you get a list of stations that recently played it, or that might play it in the future.”

We found that to be true, and crucial to the core experience of radio station discovery. During testing, we found several stations (FM and pureplay) that were new to us, and that we wanted to keep track of. Robertson himself told us that he keeps a Post-it note on his desk with a list of stations that he jotted down. He noted that a bookmarking feature might be in development.

The site encourages browsing as much as searching. If you ask for an artist, not a song, the search results contain a good deal of variety, and we found ourselves station-hopping. Each time you click a result, the entire result list reorganizes around your choice. You might notice that those sequential result lists widen like concentric circles around the original request, becoming more adventurous.

We asked Michael Robertson whether Radio Search Engine is built for music discovery, or station discovery.

“I can see both. For me, I think of it as a radio experience, but with a lot more user control. It’s what I call ‘near-demand.’ Not quite ‘on-demand’ -- we don’t have every song at your fingertips like Spotify. But you can get what you like. If you want to hear Genesis, you’ll probably find six or eight songs to choose from.”

Site testing bore that out, but the real value was discovering six or eight radio stations that we might want to return to. As a listening platform, Radio Search Engine is affected by the fact that you’re usually entering a radio webcast in mid-stream. When searching for a song, you might not hear the whole thing. But Robertson told us about technology under the hood which minimizes the partial-song issue.

“When you click on a song, I’m going to do my best to give you the beginning of the song. We do many interesting things behind the scenes. When you search for a popular song, like Katy Perry’s ‘Roar,’ Radio Search Engine gives you a whole page of ‘Roar’ songs [playing on radio stations at that moment]. What many people don’t realize is that we put the fresher ones at the top. But it gets trickier than that. When you click on one of the station results, the site might actually play the song on a different station because it’s fresher. The site checks all the stations every three-to-five seconds. With very popular songs, you can sometimes get five seconds of the DJ talking before the song starts.”

When using Radio Search Engine, it’s natural to compare it to TuneIn and iHeartRadio, which aggregate radio stations. Robertson characterized those services as directories, and compared his site to Google’s emergence as a real-time, long-tail search engine. His intent is to give people a new way of interacting with radio, and notes that “radio hasn’t really changed much.” We would point to HD Radio and satellite radio as significant branches from core radio technology, but we get his point.

For us, we’ll stick to the subscription music services for on-demand music playback. But we’ll continue using Radio Search Engine for its beguiling station discovery and the fun of digital-age dial surfing. We look forward to new features as they are added.

Stitcher earns bragging rights

Friday, October 18, 2013 - 10:25am

Specialization has benefits, for consumers and business. Stitcher, a listening app dedicated to podcasts and talk radio shows, announced that its mobile app has been downloaded over 12-million times, and its catalog now contains over 20,000 shows.

Other platforms include a focus on talk, including TuneIn, iHeartRadio (which has been building up its Talk section recently) and Apple’s podcast app for iOS. Stitcher’s dedication to the category is paying off in usage metrics, and also provides a more refined in-app experience for anyone for whom talk is as important as music (or more important).

The Stitcher app encourages music-style customization -- favoriting, playlisting, sharing, and a back-end intelligence that learns the user’s taste over time. The result is a high level of discovery in the talk realm, and a rewarding level of control.

Stitcher’s press release quotes an executive at Libsyn, an unaffiliated podcast hosting platform: ““From our metrics, Stitcher appears to be the largest platform for listening on Android and second largest on iOS behind only Apple." On the revenue side, Stitcher’s ad earnings have grown 75 percent year-over-year.

ReadWriteWeb: Podcasts have not changed radio the way blogs have changed print

Monday, August 13, 2012 - 1:50pm

Podcasts"Far from changing the radio landscape, podcasting has been commandeered by the radio industry." So argues Richard MacManus in a post for ReadWriteWeb (here).

He points out that the majority of top podcasts are from radio companies like NPR or ESPN, while even podcasting superstars like Leo Laporte have not "changed the radio landscape... Unlike blogs, podcasts by indie voices have not gone on to seriously challenge the mainstream media incumbents."

But, MacManus continues in a follow-up post (here), "maybe it doesn't need to... podcasts can complement mainstream media."

Google axes its mobile podcast app weeks after Apple debuts its own for iOS

Wednesday, August 8, 2012 - 1:30pm

Google ListenGoogle Listen -- a podcast directory and playback app for Android devices available since late 2009 -- has been axed.

The news comes just weeks after Apple launched its own stand-alone podcast app for iPhones, iPads and iPod Touches (RAIN coverage here and here).

"With Google Play, people now have access to a wider variety of podcast apps, so we’ve discontinued Listen," explained Google. "People who have already installed the app can still use it, but after November 1, podcast search won’t function."

"I know lots of people are fans of Stitcher and similar apps, and I use them, as well," comments GeekWire, "but I’ve yet to find another app as good as Google Listen at finding relevant episodes based on searches for specific topics across a large database of shows."

"Farewell, Google Listen," GeekWire's headline reads (here). "You deserved better than this."

Apple issues update for buggy podcasts app

Thursday, July 26, 2012 - 12:20pm

Podcasts app for iOSSome had high expectations for Apple's stand-alone Podcasts iOS app (RAIN coverage here), but after it launched in late June, many users -- including Ars Technica, RAIN coverage here -- complained about bugs and controversial design choices.

Fortunately, Apple yesterday issued a much-needed update for the app including "significant improvements to performance and stability."

"While there aren't any major new features here," writes The Verge, "we're hoping that these bug fixes make this app work a lot better than it did before — the concept certainly has potential, despite the continued presence of some truly questionable design decisions."

You can find more coverage from The Verge here.

One week later, how's Apple's podcast app working? Not great, says Ars Technica

Thursday, July 12, 2012 - 12:25pm

Podcasts iOS appLast week, Apple launched its own dedicated iOS podcasts app. Observers hoped the move -- bringing podcasts out of relative obscurity buried in the "Music" app -- would "increase the importance of podcasts" (RAIN coverage here).

After a week of usage, Ars Technica writer Iljitsch van Beijnum has posted his thoughts on the app, which he sees as "surprisingly immature." Besides random crashes and other glitches, core functionality -- like removing podcast episodes -- doesn't work.

And rather than putting podcasts in the spotlight, van Beijnum fears "lots of people aren't going to discover podcasts organically" now that podcasts are not a default feature of iOS (rather, they've been moved into a separate, optional app).

That said, "we have reason to hope that an update could turn this into a great app," writes van Beijnum. He goes on to list a number of needed tweaks and features -- including iCloud support.

You can find the full Ars Technica article here.

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