Detroit’s Livio Radio Tunes in to NPR, Pandora, and a Passion for Pleasing Customers

7/22/10

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possible to create a specially branded, standalone radio that can access all of the thousands of NPR shows and member-station programs like Morning Edition, Car Talk, and Science Friday. NPR is undergoing a big digital-strategy push now, and it sees easy access to all its programming as an integral part of it. Sigal was amazed that, after only a year in business, he was “being approached by the gold standard in news.”

With all the NPR programming out there, it might have been tempting to create something pretty complicated. But Sigal’s emphasis has always been on listening to what the customers want. And what NPR wanted was something simple that a user of any age—or level of technical savvy—could use.

So, what Sigal came up with the NPR Radio, a $199 device that sets up in minutes and has an exclusive NPR menu that allows users to easily find, search, and bookmark NPR stations, podcasts, and content by topic or by program. And like all Livio products, it also connects users to more than 16,000 Internet radio stations.

He applied the same philosophy to Livio’s Pandora Radio. The device, also $199, provides easy access to Pandora’s system for creating radio stations customized to a user’s likes and dislikes, and is the only one with Pandora’s logo on the front and dedicated thumps-up, thumbs-down rating system buttons right on the front panel.

The question he asks himself as he designs the radios: Can his mom use it?

“What does that mean to my mom? It means that if she’s listening to her Mick Jagger station and a Frank Zappa song comes on that she’s not really crazy about, she can give it the thumbs-down and it learns from that without her having to go into a menu system,” he says.

This being Detroit, of course, the next phase is transferring Internet radio into the car. A couple of months ago, Livio released Carmen—a $59.99 DVR-style product that plugs into your computer and downloads Internet radio programming real-time, then plugs into your car’s cigarette lighter and plays it back. Carmen only records from live Internet radio stations, so no Pandora. However, individual NPR stations do have live Internet streaming that can be recorded. Yes, there’s also a $5 Livio iPhone app that works in your car, but Sigal argues that the Carmen is better for those who might be driving, say, up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan through some areas of questionable AT&T coverage.

Sigal keeps in touch with customers on Facebook, Twitter, and through e-mail lists, and they help dictate future products and features. “It’s a very, very important part of our business,” he says. Livio is developing an iPad application now. One customer wrote in and asked for a sleep timer. “That’s a great idea,” Sigal told him. “Let’s do that.”

When Sigal started out, it was the worst time in Michigan to be trying to raise money. But, he says, after he met Beringea through a mutual friend—Josh Linkner, founder of the Michigan Internet marking success story ePrize—the VC firm got to know Livio over the course of eight months and saw the young company’s drive.

“I think the secret is passion,” Sigal says. “I think that my business partners, and more importantly our customers, our end users, they understand that we love radio, we love music, you know, everyone that works here loves music and it’s part of our lives. And we’re taking that passion and putting it into products.”

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