Michael Robertson is best known as the founder of digital music pioneer MP3.com, but today he has an exciting new project, DAR.FM, that promises to transform the relationship radio fans have with their favorite radio content by enabling a “virtual DVR” for your favorite shows.
Michael is uniquely positioned to evaluate the cutting edge of technology and how it will impact radio across platforms, across devices, and even on the open road.
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What follows is an abbreviated transcript of our chat….
Michael, what is DAR.FM and why does it matter to the radio industry?
DAR.FM is based on a DVR concept that allows you to record things you like and listen when you like and applying it to radio. That’s why we call it DAR, the Digital Audio Recorder.
We have built a catalogue of about 5,000 radio stations and also a guide for those stations that allows people to record any of the stations or shows. So, if I’m a sports fan, I can go record Jim Rome. If I’m a politics fan, I can go record Rush Limbaugh. If I’m an NPR fan, I can record “All Things Considered.”
Our system knows what days the program is on and how long the show is. We record all of that for you much like a “season pass” on your DVR, and we do all this on the Internet. There’s no equipment for that user to buy, unlike your DVR and your TV.
Once you record it, you can listen from anywhere and that’s what’s really exciting. You can go to your personal computer at work, you can go to your laptop, you can use your Smartphone and listen to all of those shows, and just like on your DVR you can rewind, fast-forward, and find the stuff that you like.
We’re taking this amazing pile of radio content that today evaporates into space, and we’re allowing people to record it and listen to it on their schedule.
This is important because you’re enabling a degree of control that consumers are increasingly accustomed to in other areas of their media diet: The content should be available to you, the consumer, anywhere and you should have control over it your way, right?
Absolutely. That’s what people expect today. Thanks to the iPad and web pages and DVR’s, people expect all media – print, video and audio – to be available on their schedule and to be able to rewind and fast-forward and this is what we’re bringing to radio. We’re giving that capability to radio content, letting people listen to it on their schedule.
How is radio as an industry doing in giving the audience what they need in that regard? How good are our digital offerings right now?
I look at radio today and see it as basically being divorced from the Internet. There’s really no intersection between radio content and the Internet.
What I mean by that is that if you look at the emails you get or the Twitter feeds you read, you’ll see people saying, “Hey, go check out this article. Go look at this graphic, it’s amazing. This video was astonishing.” You will never see them say, “Hey, go look at this radio. Go listen to this radio content; I can’t believe this was said or talked about.”
Radio is almost invisible to the Internet and that has to change. And the first thing people need to be able to do is to record it, and then people need to be able to tell other people about it and say, “Oh my gosh, listen to what I heard.”
That has to be the evolution for radio to stay relevant in the Internet age.
Right now, I can point people to my stream but what’s on my stream now isn’t what was on my stream when I heard something fantastic, right?
But I can theoretically point people do a podcast that lives somewhere, can’t I, if something fantastic is there to be heard?
Right. But podcasts are only available for a tiny amount of the content. We looked at the top 20 radio shows, only 4 of them had podcasts. The other 16 didn’t have a podcast.
In other words, they were designed to be ephemeral. They were designed to exist and then cease to exist – no possibility of control, personalization, or sharing.
And the other big problem there is that when people point you to a YouTube video and it runs 35 minutes, you don’t watch it, right? People expect “chicken nuggets” now, not a six-course meal and that’s what radio is. We have these 3-hour blocks, 1-hour blocks, that’s too much. People want to dine and dash. And radio isn’t bite-size yet and it needs to be.
You need to be able to say, “Oh my God, I want to share this little clip with my friend so that that person will learn about this great show host or listen to this highlight or hear this great morning show.” People need the power to invite others to get engaged with radio. And that hasn’t happened yet, but it will come.
But with DAR.FM my ability to record the content that interests me doesn’t necessarily mean I can share that content with somebody else, does it?
It doesn’t today. Today we’re a personal recording service. But I think that’s part of the foundation we’re building up to. First people have to be able to record content.
When you look in our database today, we have about 22,000 radio shows across the United States.
And these are primarily talk shows.
These are primarily talk shows, right.
Ninety-five percent of them evaporate. Once they’re broadcast, they just evaporate. By design.
The first step is to capture them, to store them somewhere. Because once that storage happens then you can enable sharing or group discussion – all the things that people expect on the Internet today.
If you look at YouTube, there are a lot of videos that are a still photo with an audio track.
I know. Isn’t that amazing? People actually go to more effort to put the still photo in than they should have to in order to convey the audio content.
Right. That’s people saying, “Hey, I want to share. I need to share this. I want to include radio in the Internet but it’s just too hard to do,” and that has to change.
Otherwise radio is going to continue to see a decline in mind-share.
Why has radio been resistent to recognize this?
We all have this innate fear of the unknown, and I saw that when I was with the record labels and did MP3. They feared the unknown. They feared what the Internet could do, and it took a long time for them to realize, “Hey, this could be good for our business. We can actually make more money. We don’t have to deal with packaging and we can sell our old catalogue” and all these wonderful things. That’s where radio is today.
When I show people DAR, one of the first questions I get is “Hey, won’t they use that fast-forward to skip the commercials?” And this is not new, right? When TiVo came out ten years ago the TV guys said the same thing and yes, it’s true, some people skip commercials.
But a fascinating thing also happens: More people watch more TV. More people are engaged.
So even if you take out those commercials that were skipped, total TV viewing over the last ten years is up a whopping 40 percent. That’s huge.
So while DAR.FM may allow people to skip the commercials, it also allows people to get more of that content, to share more of it with others, and to turn on other people to the show and introduce new people to the station, right?
I contend that in any business, your number one issue is always marketing. It’s always awareness. How do people even know you exist?
Exactly. And so as a smart business you must use every weapon you have to get that awareness because without that awareness you never get the audience to try to make money from.
And I think that’s where radio is. They’ve got to leverage these technologies so that they stay relevant. So they increasingly grab that attention from users and it doesn’t evaporate to social networks or move to videogames or move to YouTube or wherever.
Consumers don’t understand if the show they want to listen to is on during their drive to work, why can’t they listen to it on their drive home? That doesn’t make any sense to today’s consumer, and I agree with them, and that’s why we’re making Smartphone apps where you can listen to the first half of the show in the morning and the second half of the show when you’re doing your afternoon jog.
In terms of devices, the one we all want to talk about in radio nowadays is the car. How do you see the relationship between the mobile device and the car dashboard in the future? How engaged is your company in what’s going on in that dash?
We don’t spend one second working with any car companies because it’s a strategic choice. But here is our thought; the Smartphone is advancing so fast. If you look at any new Smartphone, the type of computation that’s in there and the screen and the memory is so phenomenal. It is generations ahead of anything in any car and it will only keep advancing.
So we believe what’s going to happen is that the cars are simply going to adapt to the Smartphone. You’re not going to have to work with Nissan and Ford and GM and 27 different car platforms which is what happens today, and it takes years of advance planning to get in there.
We believe the Smartphone is going to take over the entire market and the car is just going to become Smartphone-aware. It’s going to take your display from your Smartphone and stick it on a big screen and everything is going to come from a Smartphone and not from a proprietary car system that’s only in one make or model.
And DAR.FM allows me to circumvent the whole problem of bandwidth, right?
Exactly. Just use one of the apps that we provide which automatically download anything you’ve recorded while you’re at work over your company Wi-Fi. And then when you jump in your car or your subway or whatever, all those recordings are right there and you can play them without any data access. When you get home it will say there are some new recordings, and use your home Wi-Fi as well. At DAR we try to offer both streaming and downloading solutions.
The interesting thing about this is that none of it matters unless there’s content. We can have all the technology you can create but ultimately it comes down to great content worth hearing.
That’s true. And I would contend the content is out there but it’s hidden right now.
I ask people, “What is radio’s Pawn Stars?” It’s buried on the History Channel. You would never watch it except the DVR lets you record it, and it’s one of the highest ranked shows on cable.
What’s that equivalent for radio? It’s out there. But today it’s impossible to find because that great show host might be in St. Louis or Memphis or Tallahassee or whatever, and you have no way of knowing about them and getting that out to the world.
And radio needs to foster new talent so that it’s not just about music because if it’s just about music, they’re going to lose that market share to Pandora or iTunes.