AudioPress, Packaging Podcasts & Streaming Radio For People Stuck in Traffic, Seeks to Tap Fast-Growing Market

10/19/10Follow @wroush

Something like 50 million Americans spend at least an hour a day commuting to work, which is a lot of people and a lot of time. For entrepreneurs who aspire to deliver audio content over the wireless Web, this is turning into a huge market of potential consumers up for grabs.

More and more of these commuters carry smartphones with wireless data plans, and there’s an abundance of content that can, in principle, be sent on-demand to those devices, from NPR podcasts to CNN news videos to streaming radio stations. The problem is that it takes some work to locate all that content and get it onto your device—which is where audio-aggregator services like Stitcher, MediaFly, and Aha Mobile come in. Then there’s the issue of making the technology so simple that it doesn’t make drivers distracted. When audio equipment maker Harman bought Palo Alto, CA-based Aha last month, Harman CEO Dinesh Paliwal called safe in-vehicle Internet access “one of the biggest challenges facing the infotainment industry” and portrayed it as a major growth area for the company.

Such a big market is unlikely to have one dominant player, and this month a new one jumped into the mix: San Francisco-based startup AudioPress. The company’s free iPhone app was released on Columbus Day, and has already climbed to the No. 4 spot in the iTunes App Store’s list of the most popular free news apps; it also won a coveted spot in the “New and Noteworthy” section of the iTunes App Store’s front page. Judging from user reviews, the app is hitting a sweet spot: it lets people subscribe to podcasts and hear the latest episodes on demand without having to sync with iTunes or figure out what they’ve already listened to. “This could become my one-stop, go-to streaming app,” gushes one reviewer.

AudioPress screenshotI met recently with Taylor Bollman, the CEO and founder of AudioPress, who says the idea behind the advertising-supported app is to let commuters create their own lineups of audio programming from the app’s catalog of podcasts, radio stations, and other content. By stringing audio selections together into custom playlists, users can ensure they won’t run out of fresh content while they’re supposed to be concentrating on driving. “The problem we’re addressing here is the person who gets in the car and wants to switch between podcasts and audiobooks and updates on local traffic, then tune into the radio to hear weather, then check for stocks or sports scores, all while they’re driving to and form work,” Bollman says.

Stitcher and Aha Radio are similarly configurable, but AudioPress has an added ingredient that could set it apart from the competition. It’s called AudioArticles: long-form pieces, based on newspaper, magazine, or wire service content, that are read aloud by human voiceover artists (not synthesized voices). Think of it as Audible.com for news. The first AudioPress AudioArticles are all based on Associated Press content, with 20 to 40 new articles available every day. But Bollman says the company is working to bring in articles from other sources such as The Economist, the Wall Street Journal, and Technology Review. “That enables access to a huge universe of quality content that people often don’t get to read, but may have extra time to listen to during their commute,” Bollman says.

Bollman is a New England expatriate who formerly analyzed the mobile technology sector as a consultant at Boston Consulting Group. He says the AudioArticles concept was the seed idea that the rest of the AudioPress business grew around. While walking to the bus stop on his way to work, he’d listen to streaming radio or podcasts, but once he got on the bus, he’d switch to reading articles in a printed magazine. The idea of being able to listen to the articles too “was the initial spark to get this going,” he says.

Bollman tried starting AudioPress in Boston, but he says he couldn’t locate a technical co-founder to take on the all-important chief technology officer role in the startup. So he moved to the Bay Area, where he met Francis Lee, who was studying computer science and interaction design at UC Berkeley.

The angel-funded startup now consists of Bollman, Lee, two and a half other engineers, and a content manager, as well as partners in India who recruit inexpensive voiceover artists for the AudioArticles (they all have what Bollman calls “pretty neutral BBC accents”).

While the AudioArticles are unique, Bollman says the app is just as useful as a general Internet audio discovery and management tool. “There was a lack of products that allow you to move between podcasts and streaming radio and integrate them both into a playlist,” he says. “And oftentimes content discovery and navigation is difficult, with the exception of a few audio player apps from individual brands like NPR. So getting a combination of a mix of publishers and quality interfaces is something we’ve identified as lacking.”

Right now AudioPress’s revenue comes from in-app ads, some of which come courtesy of Apple’s new iAd platform. “We’re excited about the opportunity for ads here,” Bollman says, since the audio focus leaves room to put rich visual content on the screen—think click-to-call ads for Pizza Hut with a picture of a luscious slice. As the company adds more AudioArticle content, there might be an opportunity to charge for subscriptions to certain premium sources.

For now, commuters who want to use AudioPress will have to do so via their smartphones. (A note to drivers from a guy who just passed his California driver’s license exam: It’s illegal to drive with headphones in both ears. One at a time is fine.) Down the road, so to speak, Bollman hopes to integrate AudioPress with systems like Ford’s Sync, a voice-activated system for making hands-free calls, searching for music, and the like. The Sync system already includes an “AppLink” feature that drivers will eventually be able to use to control Pandora and other smartphone apps. “We’d like to come in as a supported app like Pandora,” Bollman says.

Personally, I’ve mainly been using AudioPress while running, not driving. For me, it’s an easy way to aggregate all the radio shows and podcasts I like to listen to, including “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me…,” “Planet Money,” “Radiolab,” “Car Talk,” “Fresh Air,” “Savage Love Podcast,” and “The Moth Podcast.” I’m not too interested in Associated Press articles, but I’ll be the first to sign up if and when AudioPress adds content from sources like The Economist.

“The end game is to be the ultimate, single source that people go to for spoken audio,” says Bollman. That’s an ambitious goal, especially in a market where big players like Harman and Apple would also like to have a role. But at the moment, with smartphone data usage increasing so quickly, there’s plenty of room for all comers.

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

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