Can Jelli make radio compelling to iPod generation?

June 3, 2010

Entrepreneurs Mike Dougherty and Jateen Parekh have developed software that changes the way listeners interact with live radio, but a panel of experts was divided on whether their innovation would be able to bring iPod users back to the box.

Jelli, their San Francisco, California startup, uses a Web-based platform that allows listeners to make song requests through social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter and actually control the music that gets played on a live radio station (read original story here).

Popular music websites such as Pandora and Slacker already allow readers to vote on songs and control what gets played, but Dougherty said Jelli takes it a step further, giving surfers the ability to interact with a live FM radio station and “take over the stick,” as he called it.

“We wanted to be the bridge between all that engagement that is occurring on social media, on services like Facebook and the social Web, and pull that into this radio station,” said Dougherty, who co-founded Jelli 18 months ago with Parekh, a former Amazon executive who helped develop the Kindle.

Jelli listeners can vote for or against songs, directly through the website or via Facebook and Twitter, and use video-gaming type “power-ups” and “bombs” to try to get their favorite tracks played or have tunes they dislike yanked. “If enough people hate a song and hit ‘sucks’ the song will blow up real time when the song is on the air and it will get taken down and the next song will play,” said Dougherty, who raised a $2 million seed round from a mix of friends and family and angel investors.

Starting out with local San Francisco radio station LIVE 105, a CBS affiliate, Jelli has grown from its initial four-hour Sunday night test slot, to airing six days a week. It recently hit No. 1 in the ratings for its time slot – 8-12 a.m. – among the key advertising demographic of 18-34-year-old men.

“That kind of validation with the ratings matters to any radio station when they hear about Jelli,” said Dougherty, who in the last year has expanded Jelli into 17 cities across the U.S. “I think over time we’ll start seeing a rolling thunder approach there.”



Beth Goldstein, founder of Boston, Massachusetts-based Marketing Edge Consulting Group and author of “The Ultimate Small Business Marketing Toolkit”, said Jelli has a lot of potential positioning itself as the next generation of call-in requests for local radio stations, but wondered if it was compelling enough to reach a broader audience.

“Why would anybody do this if they have the songs in their own portable device?” asked Goldstein, who suggested Jelli add some prize-based incentives, like discounts or giveaways, to keep listeners coming back and making requests. “If I can listen to my own music on a player then there’s got to be a compelling benefit to doing this.”

Goldstein said the business model might have mass-market potential, but Dougherty and Parekh should be thinking about other industries, outside radio, their platform could be used in.

“Can they use this for research which would allow individuals or groups to provide feedback that then causes an action or reaction?” said Goldstein, noting Jelli’s platform might be used by businesses for product testing with their target audiences prior to a launch to gauge potential reaction. “This would provide a revenue-stream from the business community that would allow them to sustain their social media aspect but also tap into their proprietary system they built.”

Barry Horwitz, another Boston-based marketing expert and founder of firm Horwitz & Co., said Jelli’s interface that lets listeners vote to blow up a song live is an interesting turn on the Pandora phenomenon, but wondered if there was ultimately enough there to hold a listener’s interest for an extended period of time.

“How long one would wait until their song rises to the top and gets played?  If the feedback cycle is too long, I would suspect that some of the early interest may fade,” said Horwitz, who added this problem may be compounded as Jelli grows and achieves a larger audience. “The pitch makes it sound like a group of local listeners can take over the stick, but if this serves a sizable crowd, as it would need to in order to scale, how much connection can any individual or small group have in causing immediate change on the play list?”

Horwitz said he didn’t see Jelli as being able to be syndicated as a national radio show, as that would mean each market would be stuck listening to the same songs – a sort of “American Top 40″ – and the ability for one individual or group of listeners to change the setlist would be diminished.

“A unified national approach across all engaged stations would remove the individuals further from immediacy, I would think, as a large number of voices likely causes more delays from vote to play,” Horwitz said, who nevertheless thought Jelli’s younger demographic would be attractive to radio advetisers. “Having an audience that has grown, and that is actively engaged during the times Jelli is playing should make it attractive for advertisers targeting that audience, and they can promote that time slot as a premium for the right marketers.”

Sima Dahl, founder of Chicago, Illinois-based social media marketing consultancy firm Parlay Communications, was not so skeptical of Jelli’s value proposition and ultimately felt it had “legs” as a viable business.

“For a generation of music lovers who are accustomed to living in a world filled with user-generated content and connecting online, it sounds like a match made in heaven,” said Dahl, adding Jelli is a refreshing Gen Y twist on the old radio format where DJs controlled the playlist.  “Jelli flips the coin and gives the listeners the voice.”

Dahl was also optimistic about Jelli’s ability to grow and become relevent – ratings-wise – in radio markets outside California.

“I think they can leverage their early success in the San Francisco market to encourage 90-day pilots in hip, music-rich markets like Chicago and Minneapolis,” said Dahl. “A few more successes under their belt should help them fine-tune their revenue model and open more doors.”

What do you think? Does Jelli have staying power? Will it transform the radio industry? Post your comments below:

One comment

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What resonates for me with Jelli is that they are taking emerging user models from the social web and applying them to a mature and large business like radio, which has been dishing out basically the same user experience for decades.

Jon Goldman

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