January 27, 2015
"We want our listeners to feel there's someone authentic at the other end of their experience," Slacker Radio SVP Content and Programming Jack Isquith said. "We want them to hear the passion and love of music we bring to the table. It's that combination of art and science through the filter of humanity; that's we are going for"
Growing up in New York City, Isquith took his musical cues from long-defunct alternative rags like the Soho Weekly News and New York Rocker, then spent his formative years doing college radio at SUNY Albany's WCDB, where he worked with Billboard editor Craig Marks and Kobalt Music Services' Diarmuid Quinn, among others. He joined the San Diego-based Slacker Radio four-and-a-half years ago after a career that took him through promotion jobs at Sony and A&M, a stint in management for Jim Guerinot's Rebel Waltz, then a post at CDNow in Philadelphia, one of the first online retailers; then AOL Music and Warner Bros. Records.
Here, Isquith tells All Access Editor Roy Trakin about Slacker and where it fits into the crowded streaming marketplace.
How do you position Slacker Radio in the midst of so much competition from Pandora to Spotify, iTunes Radio, Beats, Google Play, Rhapsody, Rdio, etc.?
We think of ourselves as very obviously human. Spend 10 minutes on Slacker Radio and it becomes clear that we value an authentic voice. We are music lovers. We have something to say; there's a personality. Our on-air hosts will talk about what they love - and don't love - with passion. They bring a sensibility that someone's home and paying attention. Our hosts are allowed freedom to be on mic and are encouraged to let their personalities come through. We've discovered while there has been some innovation around digital music, the listening experience is often remarkably cold and clinical. We think there should be more to this revolution than just a well-designed jukebox. To us, that means having a better algorithm, influenced by understanding the culture of music. It also takes that human voice - storytelling, someone keeping you company, an experience that creates context -- to make great radio. Above everything, Slacker is trying to marry the human art of radio with the science of technology.
You seem to stress community and interactivity with users in your programing.
We took a look at what we thought was great about the history of radio, and merged that with what we thought were the best things about what was happening now on the Internet writ large. We asked ourselves, "What would radio sound like if it was invented AFTER the Internet?" Where those two things came together was the idea that people do want to interact with each other, and want the sense of being something bigger than themselves, even if they are niches. If you love dubstep, or hard bop jazz, or black metal, you can always access a playlist on shuffle, but to be immersed in a world where someone is playing this music that you can interact with and feel like you're connected to seemed to us a much more powerful experience, and that's what we're shooting for.
How closely do you work with record labels and their priorities?
Our interaction with the labels is very close. We are moving the needle in terms of developing artists. We can point to many instances where we were early on eventual hit acts like Florida-Georgia Line, Lorde, Sam Smith, Tinashe, Silversun Pickups and the like. These artists were Slacker picks that went on to garner wider acclaim. Most of all, we are focused on building a successful paid subscription business ... We believe that subscription streaming is very positive for the industry.
Slacker Radio has a three-tiered system - free, $3.99 and $9.99.
We have an ad-supported free basic level; Radio Plus is $3.99 and we have Premium Radio at $9.99. The $3.99 subscription tier offers a robust radio experience, commercial-free with unlimited skipping and the ability to download stations. The $9.99 version adds a layer of really well-thought-out on-demand on top of the radio subscription.
What is the breakdown at Slacker between ad and subscriber revenue?
The two parts of the business work together and we actually think it's an advantage to be functioning well on both the free and paid sides. We lean toward the subscription model, both in terms of the revenue we are generating, and also the intent of what we're doing. We want to move every listener that we can from free to a paid subscription. Ultimately, we think they will have the best experience that way, and then become the best evangelists for Slacker Radio.
How important is talk to the overall Slacker Radio mix?
There is a substantial amount of talk on the service. We syndicate content from ESPN, ABC News, and American Public Media's Marketplace. We're also starting to pull in some viral YouTube and Vine creators who have their own shows. People like Tyler Oakley and Nerdist's Chris Hardwick are the next generation of radio personalities. They are great on mic with tons of charisma. They sound authentic. These people are doing some really compelling talk-based content, just from a very non-traditional background. Slacker turns it into great radio.
Slacker Radio is currently establishing presence on the smart car dashboard with auto manufacturers like Toyota.
Yes, we recently added Toyota and Lexus. From our standpoint, what's going to happen when it comes to streaming music is what happened when it came to music historically through the '70s, '80s and '90s. It's less about the platform or distribution model, as it is the content and whether users can access it from wherever they are. Whether that's through vinyl, an eight-track, a cassette player, a Discman, an iPod or where we are today in the cloud, they're still going to talk about the actual music and art, the station they're listening to. In the U.S., we're still a culture that's incredibly tied to our cars, but these days we're all walking around with essentially a computer in our hands, on which you can access the entire history of recorded music. That's why we're spending so much time on marketing Slacker Radio in the car and on mobile devices.
Slacker is a small, scrappy company. One of the things that have allowed us to be as competitive as we've been is our presence on practically every mobile platform available in the U.S. No matter what kind of operating system you're on -- Android, iOS, BlackBerry, Windows ... Slacker has spent a lot of time developing apps for each.
You obviously have online retail sales partners for each OS.
Depending on what platform you're on, there's a different partner. On iOS, you can click through to buy anything on iTunes; with Android, you can go to Amazon and Google, etc.
What's your take on Spotify in terms of the future of the record business? Threat or inevitable end game?
Streaming will ultimately be good for music; the way labels and artists will grow their revenue. The choice is not either a threat or inevitability. That would seem to imply a sort of resignation. Like you are accepting streaming as the least of all evils. We think that is misguided ... we think streaming is fantastic. Hopefully, it will be inevitable. When someone comes in and has an experience on Slacker as a subscriber, we think it's easily worth the fee. We offer millions of songs and albums, 350+ handcrafted stations, news, talk, sports and great storytelling and context that creates a rich experience. Our hosts and curators do so much work to make listening enjoyable. The challenge right now is there's a lot of confusion in the marketplace, and tons of misinformation, and that there are still way too many people who haven't yet heard our services. We've just started scratching the surface.
Regarding Spotify ... our difference is, we're focused on offering listeners something better than a playlist on shuffle, and that's the human element. If you want to listen to Nevermind by Nirvana, that's great, but if you tune in to one of our stations, like "66 Songs That Changed the World," you can understand contextually what was happening in culture at the time "Smells Like Teen Spirit" first came out. How radically that song changed not just rock music, but cultural history, as well. We think this is pretty unique to Slacker.
Music discovery is an important element in the Slacker experience.
It's a mandate every day for us. We sit there and ask, how can we communicate the excitement and passion that we have as music fans to our audience in a way that isn't just offering playlists and a search bar? It places all of it within the culture in a major way. We react to things that are happening in the moment. We cover music news every day. When Common made that great speech at the Golden Globes when he won for the song in Selma, the following day, we were linking to his new song, as well as other great protest anthems. What we're trying to do is connect the cultural dots with the help of real-life human beings.
As a privately owned company, is Slacker looking for an IPO or a deep-pocketed partner?
We spend every day focused on pleasing our listeners, growing this business, being competitive and continuing to be Slacker. Maybe there's a little bit of mania in this. We really believe that we can play with the big boys, and become one of them. We're having fun. We want our listeners to hear there's someone at the other end of their experience. Someone who loves music and gets off on making great radio. The combination of art and science through the filter of humanity ... that's what we are concentrating on.