By Jim Kott
Senior VP, Products and Marketing
(When Abacast announced its upcoming song-skipping feature for live radio streams several weeks ago, RadioInfo publisher Michael Harrison had originally criticized the concept in a short article as detouring from radio’s traditional role as a programmed, one-to-many service. We reached out to him to clear up some misunderstandings and explained how we view this feature as benefiting not just the listener but the broadcaster. He then invited us to write this article to explain the feature and our thinking on it in more detail.)
VANCOUVER, WA — In mid-February we were excited to announce the upcoming beta release of our new song-skipping feature for live radio streams. This feature will enable listeners to skip songs that they don’t want to hear when listening to live radio online. The announcement generated a fair amount of publicity as well as some questions as to how it works and what the ramifications are for the radio industry, the program director, the audience, and more. In this article I’ll explain why we think this feature will be beneficial to the radio industry, how it works under the covers, the controls we are providing PDs around this feature, and how we view it being used.
What’s Great About Radio
As we all know, competition to broadcast radio has proliferated recently with playlist services like Pandora and Slacker. Today, consumers have more options for listening to the music they love and discovering new music than they ever had in the past. The ability to have some control over the music—emphasizing music that they like and avoiding music that they don’t– has proven to be a very appealing feature to audiences, and as a result Pandora and its peers have built up sizable audiences.
However, when we talk to consumers about what they like about traditional radio, there are key differentiators that radio has over the playlist services. Listeners like the live aspect and immediacy of radio. They like local content relevant to them and their community. Finally they like the on-air personalities and the narrative they create and information they relay about the music and the happenings in the community and world. These three things – live, local content woven together by on-air personalities–are the core differentiators that traditional radio has over today’s playlist services.
Digital Provides New Capabilitie
The great thing about digital delivery of radio is that it enables radio to maintain its differentiators over playlist services, yet it provides additional capabilities that radio can take advantage of. With an eye towards enabling traditional radio to do what it does best yet capitalize on new capabilities in digital (and give consumers what they’re asking for), we developed our live stream song-skipping technology.
In short, our live-stream song skipping technology (admittedly a mouthful and thus code-named Hammer) gives listeners the ability to skip songs that they don’t want to listen to. Hammer works on top of Abacast’s patent pending Cloud Insertion and Personalized Live Radio technologies. When a listener chooses to skip a song that is currently being played, another song from the station’s playlist will be played immediately and in its entirety for that listener. Hammer’s individualized buffering and insertion functionality ensures that the rest of the stream, including songs, DJs, and commercials, is played seamlessly and in its entirety as well.
Benefits to Broadcasters and Advertisers
When listeners have the ability to skip songs that they don’t want to hear, we believe that broadcasters will benefit from increased listening times as well as audience growth. One could argue that there has always been song skipping technology – just change the channel! However, that is one less listener for that broadcaster. With Hammer they’ll instead be able to skip the song but remain on the station. Consumers have indicated that they love the ability to skip certain songs, and we think they’ll favor services that offer this capability. We plan on releasing detailed listening time and audience size metrics at or shortly after we release this feature in Q2 2012.
As part of this feature we’ll offer some new advertising opportunities that should appeal to advertisers. For example, if someone chooses to skip a song, you know that they are engaged with the player and that they may be a candidate for a visual ad or a visual branding experience.
Benefits to Listeners
Consumers for the most part don’t want to constantly fiddle with their content–they want to just lean back and enjoy it. In today’s digital world however, they also expect some level of control. We see live-stream song-skipping technology as giving consumers a level of control. Not to constantly fiddle with the content, but to just skip a song every once in a while that they’re tired of hearing, is by an artist they don’t care for or just don’t want to listen to for whatever reason.
What About the “Radio Experience”
When we announced our song skipping technology, we heard from some in the industry that this feature just wasn’t what radio traditionally is—a one-to-many model programmed for mass audiences. Giving people the ability to selectively skip songs from a well thought-out playlist is a departure from the way things have been done in the past.
We heard from other people that this feature de-emphasizes and marginalizes the job of the program director . Since the PD takes a lot of time programming the songs why are we enabling listeners to just skip them?
We realize that this feature is a departure from traditional one-to-many broadcast radio. We are thus building controls into the system to allow broadcasters to experiment with it to see how it works best for them. Song-skipping can be day-parted so that it is only available during certain days or hours. This allows broadcasters to get comfortable with it and get audience feedback at their own pace.
Also, certain songs can be designated by the PD as non-skip able. We call these “sticky” songs, and they can be power songs that the PD wants everyone to hear or artists that promotions are being built around.
A key benefit for PDs will also be the data that we’ll capture for them from the service. This will be real data, not surveys, that shows what songs are being skipped by audiences and at what frequency. This can only make their programming better.
We believe that stations will start out with tight controls as they get used to this capability. They’ll probably start out with tight day-parts to see how it’s used and designate many songs as sticky (non-skip able) until they get comfortable with it. Ultimately however, we feel that as they see consumers using this feature (as they do on other digital audio services) and listening times increase, they’ll open up the feature to broad use.
What About Royalties?
Because performance royalties must be paid any time any portion of a song is heard, the question we’ve gotten is “won’t royalties be higher as a result of this feature?” Yes, royalties must be paid if any part of a song is heard. Because of this we will limit the number of skips in a session or in an hour. We are thinking the number will be somewhere between three and six skips an hour but will be doing extensive testing on this during our Q2 beta. We can also choose to play an ad on a skip event after the first few skips to organically reduce the number of skips. We believe that a policy of allowing a reasonable number of skips per hour will ultimately be the thing to do to increase listening times, attract and grow audiences, and ultimately lead to more digital profits.
Contributing to Radio’s Success in a Digital World
Abacast is focused on helping radio stations to compete and thrive in a digital world. In short, we think that live-stream song skipping is a revolutionary enhancement in the history and progression of radio. It enables radio stations to preserve their differentiators over playlist services – namely live, local content with engaging personalities – yet give the audience a measure of control that they are expecting nowadays. We look forward to our release in Q2 2012 and welcome any feedback or input on this service.
Jim Kott is Senior VP, Products and Marketing for Abacast, Inc. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org or phoned at 360-326-4798.