Turntable.FM and the Rise of Community-Centric Radio - Radio Week


Image via Turntable.fm website

Making music into a social experience has been one of the slower advancements in new media and entertainment, but with the launch this year of Turntable.FM, the movement has, at last, made a breakthrough. Turntable.FM brings radio into the hands of its users, employing techniques created by social gaming strategists with the classic format of a broadcast, all the while still maintaining music in its essence.

Beyond terrestrial radio stations and increasingly popular online mediums like Pandora, Turntable.FM creates a forum where listeners, portrayed as avatars, can join a room based around certain styles of music, and hand select songs to play on their rotation as DJ. There are a host of other quirky attributes as well, and the station additionally takes on the qualities of a game, as players earn points along the way, which they can use to purchase more elaborate costumes and invite their friends.

What is great about this concept is its potential for growth and expansion. The challenge with music on the web has not only been to monetize it (well, that’s the ultimate challenge), but how to keep focus in one direction and look beyond ceaseless piracy problems. Television has embraced interactive experiences with social media and programming (see: econsultancy.com), forming a new outlet for advertisers to tap into, and subsequently, more revenue for networks. Virtual worlds have been built around movie themes, and social gaming is predicted to be a $5 billion industry by 2015. Music, however, has always been more of a listening experience, so the trick is to uncover how to make it communal beyond the mere liking of songs on profile pages.

Radio is the first format to come up with a promising model.

“The ultimate goal is to get more users and to get more attentive users,” explains Corey Denis, VP of Digital Marketing & Social Media at Tag Strategic, a company using digital entertainment to help start-ups maximize business development. “As far as a social strategy, Pandora actually had to move backwards, and create a social network, though many ideas are becoming overdone…Dealing with music fans, you want to approach it by genres. Find the biggest stoner rock enthusiast on your site and have him scream about how awesome it is…Turntable utilized this idea with Facebook Connect.”

In a way, Turntable was set up to market for genres. Users select rooms based on styles or moods of music, and encourage their friends to participate. They can promote the room they’re in on Facebook and Twitter by announcing where they are, and what type of music is playing. The concept blurs the lines between radio and home catalogs, as listeners have the option to choose what they play on their turn (in fact, they can even upload from their personal source if they can’t find a song), but conversely, they cannot anticipate or select the music of others. Furthermore, you are prohibited from being in a room alone. In this way, the company is able to avoid stringent licensing restrictions.

“Licensing is a key part of the process for music,” notes Denis. “The other is packaging, and choosing a model for your business plan. Free Internet radio is built around advertising and sponsorship. Not only are ads a part of the experience, but sponsors will license music for ads on their products…It’s a business plan designed for a consumer who interacts with music online.”

Another task for software developers has been determining how to bring the live music experience into the mix of social media, as watching a concert via the virtual platform somehow seems to defeat the purpose. The creators of StreamJam, however, believe they have found a way, and their setup is similar to Turntable.FM. On StreamJam, users have the opportunity to join any live show listed on the site’s homepage; for artists who wish to charge, there’s a ticketing fee, but others are free. Fans are portrayed as avatars and can converse with other fans attending the show, or they can choose to merely watch and listen. There are virtual goods and soon physical merch will be available. The idea harkens back to the early days of radio, where the medium was the sole channel for the public to experience live sporting and music events, and television shows.

“The Internet has changed distribution of physical music and we believe it can do the same for live music,” comments Sibley Verbeck, Founder & Executive Chairman of The Electric Sheep Company, who is behind the product. “In the real world, live music is a big business, but it’s not online, and I think it can be…People really enjoy social games, so if we can bring social experience to live music, it will be highly entertaining and fans will love it. No one has done it successfully yet.”

This decade has seen the computer overshadow nearly all other forums of physical hardware designed to foster entertainment. Out with theaters, televisions, radios, and record players, now everything can be streamed and searched, viewed and attended from one source alone. Turntable and StreamJam look at the next piece of the puzzle in this growing industry: the community aspect. What’s missing for music has been the shared experience, as we sit in our homes and crave the presence others. Radio was designed to broadcast to everyone at once, so we all heard something together, and then could discuss it. Even with a successful station like Pandora, the human component is lacking. There is no DJ to bring the experience live, to ensure we’re all hearing the same thing and to offer opinions from himself and others. These new conceptions offer a common link, nevertheless, bridging the gap between radio stations and the little avatars among us.