If you think streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have grown to prominence because people want their music on demand—something traditional radio can’t provide—you’re only half right. Traditional radio can’t provide what people want, but what people want is good radio.
No one knows that better than Scott Keeney, better known as DJ Skee. He’s been a staple on the radio airwaves since taking his first gig at age 16, hosting flagship shows on Sirius XM and KIIS-FM in Los Angeles. Skee is responsible for giving early spins to Kendrick Lamar, Lorde and Lady Gaga.
“My whole life has revolved around radio,” he told the Kernel. “It’s the reason I’m in the position I am.”
That what made it particularly shocking when he decided to step away. In 2014, he abruptly resigned from his radio gigs, providing a straightforward explanation as to why on his Web TV show: “Radio sucks.”
Behind the scenes, Skee was feeling the same way while he was still on the air. “Even though I worked at one of the biggest stations in the country it just wasn’t that exciting. It felt very corporate; it’s not really cool,” Skee explained. “I remember being introduced to this group of kids and they were like, ‘Oh, you’re on radio?’ When they introduced me as DJ Skee from KIIS, it was almost a bad look.”
It’s not surprising Skee got dirty looks when he said he was on the radio; despite the fact 92 percent of Americans listen to the radio, less than 15 percent actually enjoy it. It sticks around in part because it’s always been there.
The slow march of Dash
Two weeks after stepping away from the broadcast medium he spent his life with, Skee introduced what he hopes will replace it: Dash Radio, a commercial-free Web station that wants to challenge everything you know about radio.
A digital radio platform offering 24/7 streaming programming, Dash is what radio would look like if a Silicon Valley startup built it: The stations aren’t regional or restricted by signal strength, everything is accessible, and you can see what’s currently playing on every station at all times.
The main draw are some of the big name hosts, which includes Snoop Dogg, acts with cult followings like Tech N9ne, and forgotten favorites like T-Boz of TLC. And tuning in to Snoop’s station on Dash isn’t like tapping “Snoop Dogg Radio” on Pandora. Snoop is more inclined to share stuff he’s been listening to and music that has influenced him rather than just the artists he shares a genre tag with.
By putting experts at the helm, Dash is attempting restore the human element to music curation. Regardless of where you fall in the human-versus-algorithm debate, it seems obvious that radio should at least provide a viable alternative to computer-driven services. In most cases, there isn’t one. Skee got confirmation of that when he was still a part of the beast.
“Twenty minutes out of every hour is dedicated to commercials and there’s 10 formats that kind of rule the airwaves,” Skee explained of traditional radio. Radio’s best attempt to get into the digital realm, where Pandora and Spotify were eating their lunch, was to port their outdated model to an app.
Because of the station consolidation that has taken place across the country, radio has gone from being driven by competition to driven by profit. The songs that prove to be most profitable get the most plays, and 80 percent of stations share the same playlist. The same issue plagues the shows themselves; national broadcasts that can sell ad time get syndicated in place of local talent. You might be listening to a station in your city, but the show being played is actually coming from Los Angeles.
This is abundantly clear in the iHeartRadio app. Switch between stations and you’ll hear the same broadcast playing in an array of different markets. “You get into their app and even though they have thousands of stations, the reality is it’s the same 10 stations over and over,” Skee explained.
When Skee first started thinking about digital radio, broadcasting out of his own studio that he built so he wouldn’t have to travel to Clear Channel’s offices, he thought it was “just kinda corny.”
He came around on the idea once he saw how far technology had come. With no mandatory playlists, censorship, or commercials, Skee said he the format reinvigorated him and made him think, “This has the potential to be way, way, way bigger than just me. This is kind of what the future of broadcasting looks like.”
Now out of its beta stage, Dash has amassed over 1 million listeners who have opted to surrender control of their playlists to the hand-picked talent hosting shows on the platform’s 65 unique stations.
Beating radio at its own game
While Dash is trying to upend broadcast radio, Skee is pulling from radio’s own handbook to do so.
In The Business of Media: Corporate Media and the Public Interest, authors David Croteau and William Hoynes explain how radio survived the advent of television: “focusing on the youth market and, with the help of technological developments, becoming a local instead of a national medium.” Radio studios got smaller, shows got cheaper to produce, and technology made it easier to broadcast.
“In all actuality, this isn’t the most revolutionary idea in the world,” Skee admitted. But when your competition acts so counterintuitive, you can easily appear much bolder by comparison.
The biggest thing propelling digital radio forward is simply the proliferation of access. Music has never been the bandwidth hog video is, but five years ago, mobile networks weren’t fast or consistent enough to support continuous streaming of any medium. Now, with speeds on the rise and more of the map blanketed by LTE networks than ever before, digital is aiming to hit terrestrial radio where it couldn’t before: on the road.
Over 40 percent of all radio listening takes place in a vehicle, and 81 percent of adults who listen to audio in the car are listening to traditional radio. It’s been an impenetrable fortress for the music industry.
“Nobody out there is like, ‘Radio is the coolest thing ever,’” Skee said. “It’s not a cool thing but everybody listens to it because it’s free and it’s there, and it’s still sent to your vehicle.”
GMSA said it expects over half of all new vehicles sold this year to be Internet-enabled. Ten years from now, it believes 100 percent of cars will have Wi-Fi. “The connected car being the future, we think FM radio is going to go the way of the tape deck,” Skee said, though he admitted, “We still think it’s a little early.”
It’s definitely early. Online radio trailed terrestrial radio, CDs, MP3s players, and satellite radio when listeners were recently polled as to what their primary listening source was in the car.
But there are dents in the barriers that once made it difficult to get play in the car. According to a survey by Edison Research and Triton Digital, 35 percent of smartphone owners said they listened to online radio by connecting their device to their car audio system—a 26 percent gain since 2010, when the figure was just 6 percent.
Dash Radio is already doing everything it can to position itself for the shifting landscape, like partnering with AT&T connected car initiative Drive, as well as building apps for Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Making it work
Even if it gets in the car, online radio will have a passenger in on-demand streaming that will benefit equally from expanding Internet access. Skee doesn’t see that as a problem, though.
“There’s hundreds of thousands of songs, millions of songs, and people will historically make one playlist when they sign up and play the same thing over and over,” Skee said. “With radio, the reason it works is because it comes to you.”
The greatest strength of streaming services is also its greatest weakness: There’s an overabundance of content, and its efforts to curate it all is handled primarily by algorithms. Even with Pandora’s considerably intricate music genome project, stations become predictable. Spotify has come closest to mastering curation at a massive scale with its Discovery feature, but it still lacks in terms of cohesion; it finds good tracks but can’t string them together the way a DJ can.
For that reason, Skee thinks online radio and streaming will find harmony rather than fight for the spotlight.
“We don’t compete with Spotify, we don’t compete with Tidal,” Skee said. “If you want to hear something on demand, that’s what you pay for. That’s the music business side. We actually want to drive people to discover artists so they can go stream their entire album on those platforms.”
The strategy isn’t all that different than what many people grew up with: You hear a song on the radio and go pick up the album at your retailer of choice. The only thing that has changed is that it’s all happening on your phone. It’s easy to check the app and see what’s got your foot tapping, then hop over to Spotify and check out the artist’s discography.
The complementary nature of these services was apparent to Dash’s newest competitor, which just happens to be the most profitable company in the world. Beats 1 Radio is Apple’s gateway drug to try to pull people into the subscription-based Apple Music. But it’s only one station. “We’re that, times 65,” Skee said.
Beats 1 is a streaming billboard for Apple Music, and Apple uses it to play exclusive tracks found only in the subscription service. Dash doesn’t have that luxury, so its primary challenge for survival will be figuring out how to live off of ad support—a model that has doomed many services that came before it.
One of the primary means of working in advertisers is through title sponsorships, where a brand tosses its name on a station like it would a football stadium. Another way is by delivering the ads through the DJs themselves with a live read, a method that will be familiar to podcast listeners.
Its best weapon, though, is its limited run stations built around an entire brand or event, which they call pop-up stations. Skee pointed to a partnership with Electronic Arts and the release of the latest edition of its FIFA video game, for which Dash hosted members of the U.S. soccer team and artists who appear on the game’s soundtrack to create a unique listening experience that also served its purpose as a promotional tool. Advertising will always have a stench that makes people turn up their noses, but Dash’s stations do a good job to mask the smell.
The broadcast business is booming
Even with the promise of online radio finally approaching a pinnacle, terrestrial radio isn’t likely to disappear any time soon. Much like television and print media before it, it will eventually be fazed by the encroaching growth of digital and will have to adjust, but it’s still massive enough to survive for a while longer.
“Everybody has been focused on the music industry—which I believe is a $15 billion a year industry in North America—the broadcast industry is a separate business and it’s an $18 billion a year business,” Skee explained. “While everybody is kind of fighting it out and slugging it out in the streaming music space, we’re happy. We don’t want to get into that stuff…we want to be very narrowly focused on creating the best broadcast radio in the world and spreading that.”
Compared to Beats 1, Dash Radio might just be a slingshot in a fight against Goliath, but it’s held by someone familiar with the giant’s weak spots—and he’s ready to take a shot.
A version of this story originally appeared on the Daily Dot on Nov. 21, 2015.
Photo via Alan Levine / flickr (CC by 2.0) | Remix by Max Fleishman