Turning On to Live Internet Radio with TuneIn

Radio. It’s my periodic obsession, my news lifeline, my aural ecosystem. It’s the most antique of electronic media, yet at the same time, it’s evolving as fast as the Internet, perhaps faster.

Where is radio going? How will it thrive? What will it look like (or sound like) in an era when every phone, tablet, and automobile has a broadband data connection? Does the word “radio” even make sense anymore? As somebody who’s been a public radio fiend since the age of 12, I brood over these things.

In the past I’ve written about efforts to bring the community of public radio broadcasters into the Internet age, do away with public-radio pledge breaks, and let commercial radio stations crowdsource their playlists. I’ve covered a startup accelerator that hopes to bring Silicon Valley-style innovation to the world of public radio and other media, as well as efforts by companies like Apple and Stitcher to bring some order to the world of on-demand radio shows, aka podcasts.

But the one thing I’ve never really written about is live radio. That’s probably because I never listen to it, except for the handful of hours each week when I’m stuck in my car driving to interviews around Silicon Valley. And then I only listen to one station, KQED—I might as well glue my dial to 88.5 FM. All of my other “radio” listening is actually podcast listening. (Just like all my “TV” viewing is actually Netflix and iTunes viewing.)

I know I’m a latte-liberal weirdo in this regard, but I’m not about to start sitting in my car listening to Top-40 stations just to burnish my credentials as a plebeian. If I’m ever going to experience live radio north of 91.9 megahertz (the upper limit of the spectrum that the FCC designated for non-commercial radio back in 1945), it’s going to be mediated by one of my computing devices, where I can control the experience.

TuneIn CEO John Donham

TuneIn CEO John Donham

That’s why I’ve been wanting to learn more about TuneIn, a startup in Palo Alto that’s probably doing more than any other company to marry live radio with the Internet. At its core, TuneIn is a huge annotated catalog of live radio programming from around the world—it knows what shows will be on which stations 24/7/365. It connects users to those stations’ live digital streams for free via its website; its iOS, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry, Palm, and Samsung apps; home systems like Sonos audio players and smart TVs; and even Internet-connected cars.

Recently I sat down with TuneIn CEO John Donham, a veteran gaming and entertainment executive who’s done stints at Sony, Playdom, and Disney, to find out where the company came from and where it’s going. Interestingly, our talk turned into something of a debate over the value of live versus on-demand radio. As you’ll see in the Q&A below, Donham handled my sometimes combative questions graciously, while at the same time bringing some pretty powerful statistics to bear. It turns out that TuneIn users spend 98 percent of their time listening to the 70,000 live radio stations that the service aggregates—this despite the fact that the TuneIn directory also includes virtually every podcast ever published (some 2 million of them).

Donham believes that live radio carries an emotional resonance that on-demand shows just don’t. Sometimes that’s about immediacy: if a big news event like Superstorm Sandy is unfolding, you want to listen while it’s happening. Sometimes you want to be transported, in your mind’s ear, to the scene of the broadcast: Comerica Park or AT&T Park during the World Series, for example. And sometimes you just like knowing that there’s a live DJ on the other end of the audio stream, programming stuff you’ll like, and that thousands of other people are listening at the same time.

Those are Donham’s explanations for the popularity of live radio, anyway. I’m not sure any of these features matter much to me, but then I’m a writer, I live in my head, and my information needs are highly targeted (and don’t include live sports). TuneIn’s rocketship growth curve—from roughly zero users in 2009 to 40 million now—speaks for itself, and there’s no doubt that somebody had to create a global, real-time directory of radio programming. So my talk with Donham created a nice bookend to another conversation, around the same time, with Stitcher co-founder and CEO Noah Shanok. By aggregating on-demand radio, Stitcher is the perfect complement to TuneIn (though it’s not yet available on as many platforms).

TuneIn has raised $22 million in venture backing from Sequoia Capital, General Catalyst, and Google Ventures, and it’s got a headcount of 80. Like Stitcher, it makes money by showing display ads within its mobile apps—and also like Stitcher, it has deals with automakers who are building more digital options into their infotainment systems. (Just this week GM named TuneIn as one of the partners for an experimental new in-car “app catalog.”) I think both companies will be around for a good long while, because they serve different needs.

Which brings us back to my “whither radio?” question. My guess is that radio is bifurcating into two separate media. There’s the stuff that’s valuable mainly because it’s live: breaking news, live sports, call-in talk shows, and perhaps music programmed by a DJ you like. That’s TuneIn’s territory. Then there’s the programming that’s a little more produced, content-rich, and evergreen, especially public-radio stuff like This American Life, Radiolab, and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. That’s Stitcher’s material, because people like me wouldn’t hear it at all unless they could time-shift it. Over time, there will be less and less reason to broadcast these programs at all. (Indeed, there are already some great NPR shows, like Planet Money, that are never actually heard on the radio.)

I guess the $30 billion question is whether there’s a convincing business model for both types of radio, and how streaming changes the equation on both sides. TuneIn shares the revenue from its in-app ads with radio stations, and in theory it’s adding an incremental, potentially global audience to each station’s terrestrial listenership (the people within 40 miles of the transmitter), which should boost advertising rates. In practice, the economics are still being worked out. Anyway, here’s the edited text of my conversation with Donham.

Wade Roush: What’s the history of TuneIn?

John Donham: TuneIn is an 11-year-old company, and for the first eight years it was called RadioTime which constructed a directory of live audio on the Web, including a lot of radio. It licensed that to manufacturers like Sonos or makers of Internet alarm clocks. The struggle was that they were waiting for one of these devices to take off in order to really generate business.

Along the way, a developer named Ben Alexander built an app called TuneIn that used the RadioTime back end. The founder of RadioTime, Bill Moore, finally saw the traction he had been waiting years and years for—it just happened that the device was a smartphone instead of some piece of consumer electronics in the home. He quickly acquired TuneIn, took the name, and pivoted the company over to become direct-to-consumer. At that point growth really started to take off. Between 2009 and 2011, the company went from nearly zero users to 25 million, with no marketing, just word of mouth.

WR: What attracted you to the company?

JD: Having just come from the social game space, when I got an introduction to TuneIn I was staggered to see that number of active users. In social games, you need a highly viral platform like Facebook and many millions of dollars in marketing to create an audience like that, so to see TuneIn do it organically was pretty stunning. Seeing that magic, and recognizing that … Next Page »

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The Author

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.

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  • Anthony

    Great article. I am an avid music fan from the states that happens to live in Tokyo, Japan. Tunein enables me enjoy and discover great music each day on the way to and from work,etc. My iPod touch combined with and LTE mifi is how I listen to my favourite Allegro Jazz, Lounge,FM Italia and LBC. It really expands my options on content I can enjoy.

  • Jeannie

    WWOZ New Orleans has more streaming listeners around the world than they do terrestrial listeners in New Orleans because they produce a sound that is unique and loved the world over – and now everyone gets to hear it!