Last week I sent these questions to Jonathan Sasse of Slacker Radio. He was kind enough to answer all of the questions that I asked him. If you haven’t heard, Slacker Radio is one of the leading streaming music providers in the United States. They offer an app on every major smartphone and tablet platform. Scan the QR code to pick up Slacker Radio from the Android Market.
AS: Can you give me a brief introduction – Name, Job Title, The time you’ve been with Slacker Radio?
[JS] – Jonathan Sasse, SVP Marketing – Slacker Radio. I arrived at the company in 2006 when we were still in stealth mode under the intentionally boring name of “Broadband Instruments”. Before Slacker, I was the CEO of iriver America and prior to that I was at Rio, so amazingly I am going on year 12 in the digital music industry.
AS: Slacker announced Personalized Radio Everywhere on 3/15/2007 – What date did Slacker.com go live? What was the size of the music library at launch?
[JS] – Our “go live” date for Slacker.com was on the same date (March 15th in 2007) – we launched the company at the 2007 SXSW Music Festival in Austin, Texas. We launched the company with most of our label deals and content in place, so we likely had a couple of million songs in the library at launch.
AS: Was this before or after the announcement of deals with the Major and Indy labels?
[JS] – Most of our label and publisher deals were in place at launch, although we didn’t officially announce those relationships until a few months after the company launch.
AS: How long did it take to go from the original concept to going live? What were some of the obstacles? Was there anything that was easier than expected?
[JS] – At a very high level, the original concept hasn’t changed much, which is the idea of having personalized radio that you can access wherever you are. Given that, much of the initial work took place in 2006 – which might not seem like that long ago, however it is worth noting that in 2006 Wi-Fi wasn’t in use in a practical way in MP3 players, the iPhone hadn’t launched yet and mobile applications were still years away from making an impact. As a result there were a number of challenges on coming up with a solution that would enable to you have access to personal radio content away from the web and the PC. Primarily we focused on caching innovation, being able to store music locally and assemble radio stations on the fly that you could continue to personalize, looking at satellite technology and Wi-Fi as a means to deliver content to devices, but not require a connection in order to play. This began as our own devices in 2007 and 2008 and evolved into the mobile station caching we provide today across major smartphone applications. Few things are ever easier than you expect them to be, but the explosion of the smartphone market and applications has moved very quickly and presented us with the opportunity to take the technology from our own portable devices and move it to the smartphone platforms.
AS: Nov 15, 2007 Slacker announced pre-orders for the Slacker Portable G1 pre-orders were announced with shipping to begin Jan. 31, 2008. How was the device received? Is that why there was such a short turn around time with the G2?
[JS] – The first portable device, the Slacker Portable [G1] – did something that no portable media player had ever been able to do. That was, the ability to retrieve music over wi-fi, store the content onto the device, and assemble custom radio stations on the fly with the music it had received. This took a bit longer than expected and gave us the opportunity to essentially begin to develop the G2 in parallel, which is how it arrived to the market about 9 months after the original device.
AS: As far back as I can remember there have been two big names in Streaming Internet Radio – Slacker and Pandora. Aside from the delivery method; what similarities do the two share?
[JS] – Pandora has been around longer than we have, but it seems we have both emerged from what were a few challenging years for our industry that saw a lot of companies arrive and disappear. The similarities between us are primarily related to the fact that we are providing a service to listeners that enables them to access a customizable radio experience, in the form of a free music service.
AS: What are the key differences between the two companies?
[JS] – To name a few – we have direct licensing agreements with content owners which enable us to offer more music to our free listeners (our library is several times larger than Pandora’s) and we are able to offer more features to our paying subscribers. Subscribers to Slacker Radio Plus ($3.99/mo) are not only able to remove advertising, but we offer unlimited song skips, mobile station caching (for off-line listening) and additional custom news content in addition to the music. Subscribers to Pandora One do not receive any of these benefits.
In addition to the benefits that our licensing agreements provide to our listeners, our programming philosophy is unique. Our genre stations are extremely popular and the reason is that we have real music experts; radio programming experts in fact – that carefully curate our 130+ genre stations to give our listeners an unparalleled starting point for tuning that station to perfectly match their tastes. We not only look at the attributes of a song to determine why it might play, but artist relationships, popularity, programming frequency and rotation across our genre stations, listener ratings and more. The balance between music discovery and entertainment (familiarity) is what makes the art of radio programming so satisfying from a listening perspective and very few of the companies in our space are paying much attention to this.
AS: When I met you guys in September I had asked about why I rarely was introduced to new artists with Slacker. The response (paraphrasing) “Our algorithms are designed to play music we think you will like.” Can you elaborate on this?
[JS] – It really depends on the music you like and the method you choose to listen on our service as to the frequency of discovery that you will experience. If you are exploring an unfamiliar genre, you will likely discover many new artists simply by tuning in to one of our many hand-crafted genre stations. However, if you are already a knowledgeable enthusiast you will get the deepest discovery by either selecting a genre station, or making your own station with a few seed (selected) artists and then exploring our “Fine Tune” options within our stations. These tools will enable you to turn “Artist Discovery” way up and turn “Popularity” down, which will have the impact of maximum discovery. This is really one of the great values of our service, you really can control your comfort level of discovery. Some of our listeners are really looking for a “familiar” experience, to sing along to all of the hits that they know and love and some listeners want to hear a new song or artist with regularity (and of course most of us are in between someplace). We work to provide a great experience as a default, but then give our listeners to the tools to really dial in the experience that they prefer.
AS: At what point did Slacker decide to move into the Mobile Phone (Smart Phone) space? How much confidence did the company have in the ability to execute a streaming service via cell phones?
[JS] – As soon as smartphones were adding the capabilities to enable companies like us to create functional applications we knew this would be the evolution of what we had started with our own
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