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

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they are at risk,” Dougherty says. “They need to start thinking more about what the future of radio is.”

Speaking of automobiles, Dougherty says the original idea for Jelli grew out of his work for Microsoft, which is collaborating with Ford on a system for hands-free music, phone, and navigation access called Sync. (Dougherty had joined Microsoft through the software giant’s 2007 acquisition of voice applications company TellMe, where he’d been vice president of business development.)

“During that experience at TellMe and Microsoft I started getting interested in all of the things that could happen in the car that aren’t happening,” Dougherty says. “As part of that I was fascinated by this ubiquitous but to some degree forgotten thing that we all have, which is the radio. There are about a billion working radios in the United States and 236 million of those get turned on every week. It’s a pillar of media, along with print and TV, and it has a well established business model related to local advertising.”

But what radio doesn’t have is much audience interactivity, let alone the kind of interoperability between content sources that makes the Web so powerful. Leaving aside streaming “Internet radio” like Pandora or Last.fm—which is an entirely separate technology—the systems that deliver music and other content to terrestrial radio stations are for the most part closed, proprietary, and siloed, Dougherty says.

“There are no open interfaces, no platforms, no room to get more advanced in terms of content management systems or podcasts or the other things we take for granted on the Web,” he says. “So we started thinking about what would happen if you could create a Web platform for radio. In so doing you could create really cool things, like for the first time in a broadcast you could create a feedback loop…and combine the social Web directly with radio.”

(By “we” Dougherty means himself and co-founder Parekh, who is a veteran of ReplayTV and was the first engineer recruited by Amazon to work on the Kindle e-reader. “We’re both very excited about the concept of combining the Web platform with things that are very well understood, such as books with the Kindle, or the phone with TellMe,” Dougherty says.)

What Dougherty, Parek, and their team built is essentially a Web-based social playlist generation system. When Jelli is on the air, a station turns its controls over to the startup’s system, and everything listeners hear comes from Jelli. A given station’s listeners log in at Jelli’s central site, then go directly to the station’s Jelli page, which is skinned with the stations’ own graphics and logos. The page lists all the songs in the station’s current playlist, with a point score next to each.

By clicking on “check” or “X” icons, listeners can add one point to a song’s score or subtract one. The song with the highest score at any given moment is the one that gets played next. But to make things a little more fun and unpredictable, a single listener can send a song almost all the way to the top or bottom of the playlist using a power-up—either a “rocket” or a “bomb.” The more times listeners vote on songs, the more rockets and bombs they’re rewarded with. Users can stockpile up to five bombs and 11 rockets. If a rocketed song gets played, an automated system reads the screen name of the person who rocketed it—which may be what makes the rocket the most popular power-up. Says Dougherty, “Everyone is trying to rocket their favorite songs onto the air.”

As for the music itself, that comes either from the relatively small catalog of tunes that Jelli has licensed, or can be ingested from a station’s own catalog. “We’re still very early in our catalog development,” Dougherty says. “We have a forum where people request songs that we should have available, and those are the ones we go buy next. But because of … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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