Will Jelli’s Crowdsourcing Kill the Radio Stars (and Save the Stations)? Stay Tuned

7/12/10Follow @wroush

As the Web enters its third decade, it’s getting harder to think of industries that haven’t been transformed in major ways by its ubiquitous, disintermediating, democratizing force. But we wrote about one of them last week—banking—and there’s another that’s just as ubiquitous as the Web itself: broadcast radio.

“If Alexander Graham Bell came from the past and saw the current stage of the telecom industry, with its massive change in network architecture and wireless devices, for example, he wouldn’t recognize it,” says Mike Dougherty, CEO and co-founder of San Mateo, CA-based Jelli. “But if Charles David Harold, the first guy who started a radio station—which was in San Jose, incidentally, in 1909—came into today’s radio world, he would probably recognize everything about the technology…There hasn’t been a lot of innovation in radio for a long time, for lots of reasons.”

At Jelli, Dougherty and co-founder and COO/CTO Jateen Parekh are doing their part to modernize terrestrial radio, one station at a time. For the last six months, San Francisco-based CBS affiliate Live 105 (KITS) has been handing over its airwaves to Jelli’s automated, Web-based audience voting software six nights a week, with an electrifying effect on ratings. Through radio syndicator Triton Media, Jelli programming now airs on 18 stations nationwide, including X107.5 in Las Vegas (WZRX)—which will launch a Jelli-powered program called “Resistance Radio” at 9:00 p.m. tonight.

The basic idea behind Jelli is to let a radio station’s listeners decide which songs get air time, at least for part of each day. “It’s a crowdsourcing concept,” says Dougherty. “Rather than being chosen by a programming director or a DJ, the playlist is now being developed by the audience itself. We call it ‘social broadcasting’ or ‘radio democracy.’”

Mike Dougherty, co-founder and CEO of JelliOf course, there’s nothing new about letting listeners suggest songs. Radio stations have been taking call-in requests since the 1940s. But Jelli’s concept goes well beyond that. Once listeners are logged into Jelli’s website, they can not only vote for their favorite songs, but use “power-ups” to push a song to the front or back of the queue. They can also influence what’s currently playing, through votes called “Rocks” or “Sucks.” Enough “Sucks” votes and a song will implode in mid-stream, complete with funny sound effects. It’s all a great example of what Greg has called the “gamification” of the Web—or in this case, the airwaves.

Dougherty, Parekh, and their backers—who include Battery Ventures, First Round Capital, and a variety of angel investors—hope that the Jelli concept will become the next big thing in radio, helping an industry that’s been hit especially hard by the recession. The goal is to help stations find new ways of engaging with listeners while at the same time lowering programming costs. A station syndicating Jelli doesn’t need a DJ during the hours Jelli’s platform is in control, which makes the format “highly cost effective,” in Dougherty’s words.

That’s key in a business that saw an 18 percent revenue decline in 2009, thanks to the evaporation of key advertising accounts with sectors like the automobile industry. “This year it’s back up about 16 percent, which gives them some breathing room, but it was a wakeup call that … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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