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

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our broadcast partners and the way people are using Jelli in this early phase, we have strong alternative rock coverage, and pretty good pop-rock, and then some eclectic stuff. We’re probably light on the hip-hop and definitely light on country.”

Jelli debuted its system on Live 105 in San Francisco on June 28, 2009. “They gave us the least risky time slot they could give us, which was 10 to 12 on Sunday nights,” Dougherty recounts. “We were just excited to get whatever time slot. It was super cool, and we saw some interesting things that I don’t think a lot of people predicted would happen. [More on that in a moment.] Importantly, our ratings were strong, which obviously, in traditional media, is the point. And about six months after running that pilot on Sunday nights, Live 105 said they would try it out on a more standard schedule, so now we have 8 to midnight six nights a week.”

Jelli ended up being so successful for Live 105 that the station climbed from the No. 5 slot in the ratings for that time slot to the No. 1 slot for its demographic (alternative rock fans). And that success, in turn, helped Jelli win its syndication partnership with Triton, which is now building a national footprint for the startup.

Jelli makes money in the same way as any other provider of syndicated radio programming. A radio station buying an hour of content from Jelli gives a certain percentage of the advertising spots during that hour back to the startup, which it is free to sell directly to advertisers. (In practice, ad spot sales are handled by a national radio advertising network.) “We launched in one of the worst recessions of all time, so we said ‘Let’s keep the business model simple’ and make the economics the same as what a radio station would typically pay for Rush Limbaugh or Ryan Seacrest,” Dougherty says.

So far, so good. But if automated social playlists are really the future of radio, what will happen to old-fashioned DJs—the best of whom are valued by listeners for their skills as musical curators and introducers? Will Jelli kill the radio star?

Dougherty points out that at a lot of chain-owned radio stations—the name ClearChannel comes to mind—DJs don’t really choose music anyway. Playlists are handed down by automated systems, often at far-away corporate headquarters.

“I think that true curation is very good,” Dougherty says. “But I think crowdsourcing stands alongside of it. One morning you can listen to a curated experience, and when you want something different or more dynamic you can cruise over to this crazy radio station using Jelli. It’s very similar to reading a highly curated blog for a while and then going over to a free-for-all like Twitter.”

In fact, the experience of listening to a Jelli-driven station can be surprisingly entertaining, Dougherty says. This goes back to the point about the unexpected lessons of the Live 105 pilot.

“Before we launched, a lot of people thought this might become just another popularity chart, just another Billboard 100,” he says. “And another set of people, ironically, had the 180-degree-opposite concern, that this was going to end up being … 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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