Sean Ross

Digital content producers at RAIN Summit suggest "trying to get 22 year-olds to listen to AM/FM" maybe is missing the point

Monday, September 24, 2012 - 12:25pm

In his opening remarks at Tuesday's RAIN Summit Dallas, consultant Walter Sabo emphasized the need for radio to develop "original, exclusive content" to weather the transition to the digital medium (see coverage of, and listen to, Sabo's opening remarks here), and even made a point that he was looking forward to the afternoon's "Innovating Online Content" panel (which immediately followed his opening).

Moderator Sean Ross (right, himself VP/Music & Programming at Edison Research) deftly led the conversation among four leading programming executives through what they're currently developing, what's working, and the staffing and monetization challenges of financing the production of compelling content.

And one could sense the sincerity of Ross, lifelong radio devotee himself, when he implored his panel for a strategy to "repatriate" today's 22 year-old to radio. To that last concern, ESPN Radio Director of Digital & Print Media Revenue & Operations Cory Smith (left, with the two RAIN Internet Radio Awards won by ESPN Audio) suggested that maybe getting young people to actually listen to the AM/FM broadcast wasn't the point. We "give content to listeners in the format they prefer," whether on-demand, video, blogs, SMS..."let the user decide," he said. "Pushing everyone to radio might be a real challenge."

"We're moving to a world of 'segments' and less a world of 'streams,'" Bob Kempf, NPR Digital Services VP, agreed. What could be of interest to a new generation of young listeners would be what he called "algorithmically-driven segments" -- think content delivered based on that listener's preferences.

TuneIn Programming Senior Manager Scott Fleischer said it's as simple as understanding the content priorities of our hypothetical 22 year-old; restated simply by UK Radioplayer Managing Director Michael Hill as "fish where the fish are."

Hill and Kempf concluded (and often agreed while at it) by passing along some programming wisdom. On the perennial issue of understaffing at programming departments, Hill make an unconventional point: "Radio has always been, and we should keep it, a 'lightweight' medium," he said. There's a danger in "becoming the incumbent" -- that is, slow and inflexible and stifling innovation. "Keep on the lookout for disruptors" on your staff, he suggested, "those willing to experiment." He and Kempf agreed that partnering outside your department (or company, even) can help lighten the load.

"Yes," continued Kempf, "experiment, keep development lightweight," and makes sure and test and assess what's working and what's not as often as possible. "Measure, measure, measure."

But how do you finance all that experimentation? How do you get the best ROI when you come upon something that does work?

"Stop underselling your digital assets," Hill stressed. "Put a good, solid price-tag on them." Kempf added, "Be patient." The transition to digital will happen, "the audience is going to be there, the revenue will follow."

Please listen to the entire "Innovating Online Content" panel via SoundCloud below, and watch for more coverage from RAIN Summit Dallas this week.

Slacker, Echo Nest, iHeartRadio, Rovi execs debate role of "human touch," listener data during "Personalizable Radio" panel

Tuesday, May 22, 2012 - 11:00am

Personalizable radio panelCustomizable radio, like the offerings from Slacker, iHeartRadio, Pandora and others, is a "combination of art and science," members of the "Personalizable Radio" panel at RAIN Summit West explained. The discussion was one of the most popular and thought-provoking of the conference.

The "art and science" metaphor was first put forward by Owen Grover, SVP of iHeartRadio. On the one hand, there's the "science": data from companies like The Echo Nest and Rovi about what artists are similar to other artists, what vocalists sound the same, what guitar solos are related and so on. 

But then there's the "art" of also taking into account the much more complicated "cultural" factors, explained Rovi Director of Architecture & Innovation Michael Papish. That is, linking artists and songs that don't necessarily relate to one another scientifically, but that are tied together in popular culture. "There's a lot more going on than just saying 'these two songs sound alike, therefore we should play them together.' There's a lot more behind why humans like different types of music," said Papish. 

Both Grover and Slacker CEO Jim Cady spoke to the power of having an emotional connection within the stream as well. "There has to be humans behind it," said Cady. Slacker employs 75 programmers to give their streams that human touch. Otherwise, "there's a missing emotional connection." He says most users want that "lean-back," curated experience (as long as they can "lean-forward" when need be to customize the stream). Grover said Clear Channel has seen their Custom Radio service actually push new listeners to the traditional AM/FM streams (which are all curation and virtually no personalization).

Michael PapishBut Papish (pictured left) challenged the idea of the power of the human touch. "We think there's something magical being done by the DJ song-to-song, but maybe it's all in the listener's head," he said, referencing studies that found that listeners prefer a random assortment of music just as much as a carefully-crafted playlist. "There may not be a way to measure whether a playlist is 'good' or not."

Whether the playlist has a human behind it or not, "The idea of uniformed playlist given a seed artist is unacceptable," argued The Echo Nest's CEO Jim Lucchese. It must be customized to each listener's individual preferences, and the process of discovering what those preferences are may be the next big challenge for personalizable radio services and the engines that fuel them.

Indeed, data about artist similarity can only take you so far, said Grover. "You don't want to start making too big leaps of faith around data," he explained. "A thumbs down on a Lady Gaga song doesn't necessarily tell you much of anything about that song, that listener, or Lady Gaga." Perhaps the sequence of songs wasn't quite right, or the time of day had an impact, or the listener may have just heard the song 50 times already. More information is needed.

"We may have hit the wall in terms of what we can do with either thumbs up/down, or ratings," mused Papish. "We need to figure out new, better ways of actually asking our listeners what they like." That process is still on-going. "We are just getting started identifying the individual listener," said Lucchese. Papish shared that Rovi, for example, is looking for better ways to have the listener explicitly share preferences with music services. One idea is to use gamification elements to make sharing that information more fun and engaging.

Jim Lucchese and Owen GroverAll this shows that the entire realm of personalizable radio is still "in the exceptionally early days," said Lucchese (pictured first on the right, beside Grover). But it's already changing how consumers think about radio, as the panelists explained.

Cady shared the anecdote of driving with several 10-year-old boys who asked him to skip the song currently playing on FM radio. Grover shared his own experience of a 9-year-old asking why he couldn't go back to the beginning of an AC/DC song playing on the radio. "There's a change that's happening," said Cady. Radio is being redefined and the industry "can't hold on to these old conceptions."

But, in Grover's opinion, the idea that these new customizable services will destroy traditional radio is "nonsense." Papish agreed: "We can't lose that one-on-one feeling," that DJ-curated experience. Not everyone wants that kind of experience all the time, but "we can't lose it."

That said, Grover argued, "If you aren't where your listeners are, with the features and content that they expect, you're nowhere... Be where your listeners are."

You can watch the "Personalizable Radio" panel, moderated by Radio-Info's Sean Ross, from RTT News here.

CNN Money reports "we are running out of wireless bandwidth"

Thursday, February 23, 2012 - 12:20pm

CNN Money's chart using FCC dataCNN Money recently reported that "the supply of wireless data in the United States -- the stuff that lets us use the Internet on our smartphones and tablets -- is fast disappearing," writes Eliot Van Buskirk in Evolver.fm.

He argues that, if true, that may pose problems to media services like Internet radio. Van Buskirk encourages web radio services to offer offline playback options (like Slacker and most on-demand services) as one solution.

He also notes that customers of at least one mobile carrier, AT&T, "are already feeling the squeeze." The carrier is apparently throttling unlimited data users' mobile speeds after they consume less than 2GB of data in a billing period.

Sean Ross ran into that issue earlier this year (RAIN coverage here), though he noted such a issue probably wouldn't impact most mobile web radio listeners.

A new study from wireless bill analysis firm Validas found such behavior on the part of AT&T to be "pointless... throttling does nothing to alleviate network bandwidth issues."

You can find Van Buskirk's article here and more on Validas' study in Boy Genius Report here.

Some critics wonder if joining iHeartRadio platform worth pulling streams from other sites

Wednesday, February 8, 2012 - 11:05am

iHeartRadio's growing networkVarious industry publications and commentators have recently voiced or reported second thoughts about iHeartRadio's role as an aggregator. Specifically, some question the wisdom of going along with Clear Channel's reported exclusivity requirement for joining iHeartRadio.

Clear Channel has recently added hundreds of third-party station streams to iHeartRadio from Greater Media, Cumulus, EMF, Univision, as well as various non-comms and college stations.

Jennifer Lane writes in Audio4Cast that some of these companies "are rumored to have made iHeartRadio their exclusive digital portal." She thinks that's a dangerous move: "Content creators should work with every distribution platform they can to give listeners access in as many ways as they want it." (Find her blog post here.)

That echoes industry journalist Sean Ross, who in late 2011 wrote (more here) "I’m still in favor of station streams being available in as many places as possible," (though with the warning: "aggregation is not curation").

Earlier this month Carleton College "snubbed" an offer from Clear Channel to join iHeartRadio, Radio-Info reported (here). The student station manager said that to join iHeartRadio, the college station "would have to pull its live stream from all other sites" like TuneIn.

Soon after that story broke, an unnamed commercial station executive told Radio-Info's Tom Taylor that his or her station too "had second thoughts about the requirement that we would have to remove our signal from all other Internet services." The executive did not reveal if the station ended up joining iHeartRadio anyway.

Finally, industry commentator Ken Dardis today points to data from Google to argue iHeartRadio isn't as popular, or as easy to find, as you might expect.

"Be careful about getting caught up in hype," he argues (here). "The exclusivity clause offered to new iHeartRadio stations may turn out to be more a shackle for acquiring, than a bridge to exposure."

What do you think? Is going exclusive with iHeartRadio a good idea? Share your opinion by commenting on this article.

Sean Ross: Though industry insiders may hit limits, mobile web radio growth has "quashed concerns"

Thursday, February 2, 2012 - 11:00am

Mobile web radioNearly two years ago, AT&T and other U.S. mobile providers began implementing monthly data limits. Representatives from mobile companies pointed to web radio listening as one of the culprits of high data usage (more here) and observers worried such caps would impede the growth of mobile Internet radio.

Since then though, the growth of mobile web radio has "pretty much quashed the concerns from two years ago," writes respected industry journalist Sean Ross.

Likewise, Pandora CFO Steve Cakebread recently said "the impact of data caps for Pandora listeners is almost non-existent." More than half of Pandora's listening now happens on a mobile device (RAIN coverage here). Other web radio services have an even higher percentage of mobile listeners.

However, Ross did find that those in the industry who tune in to radio for a living can run up against carrier's data limits. He recently received a notice from AT&T that he was in the top 5% of data users. "I can say that there are more occasions when I ask myself if streaming is really worth it," he writes, but notes that "none of these are likely concerns for a civilian listener."

Ross points to other annoyances about streaming AM/FM in general, including awkard and at times "unlistenable" stopsets and the difficultly of finding which app offers a particular station's stream (iHeartRadio? Radio.com? Some other aggregator?).

You can find Sean Ross' column at Radio-Info.com here and more on Pandora CFO Steve Cakebread's comments in Radio Survivor here.

Spotify offers ad-free, unlimited premium service free for 30 days

Thursday, December 15, 2011 - 1:10pm

On-demand music service Spotify's will now let you try their premium plan for 30 days for free.

Spotify does have a free, ad-supported version of its service. But for subscribers, the music is ad-free and can stream to most major mobile devices (Apple, Android, Symbian, and Windows).Spotify artist radio

Just last week Spotify announced it had re-tooled its customizable Internet radio feature (RAIN coverage here), now allowing listeners to create radio streams based on favorite artists, songs or genres (a la Pandora). Read Sean Ross' "First Listen" to Spotify Radio (in which he protests that he's really not a big Nickelback fan) here.

Spotify's move may be a reaction to new on-demand startup Rara.com, which this week launched an unlimited access service boasting 10 million tracks and mobile access with a $2/month introductory price for ad-free listening (more here). 

Keep in mind that if you do decide to take Spotify up on their offer, you'll need to give them a credit card number. If you sign up, you're on the hook for regular automatic recurring payments if you don't cancel before the 30-day trial is up. You also need to register with your Facebook account.

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