One-to-One Radio

The idea probably hit me in 1997 during one of those interminable commutes along Route 85 in Silicon Valley. The trip was only 15 miles long, but thanks to insane traffic conditions, it often took longer than the fabled tour aboard the S.S. Minnow from “Gilligan’s Island.”

Being an NPR junkie and a New York snob, I thought, “If only I could listen to my local New York public radio stations while stuck here in traffic, life in California might be grand.” I even went so far as to discuss the idea seriously with my old friend David Frerichs. David is one of those brilliant people who understand technology right down to the molecular level. Give him a weekend, and he’ll learn Japanese, fly to Tokyo, and lecture about it.

So I wasn’t surprised when he called me one day to tell me he wanted to show me something. There in his New York hotel room was the first prototype for Sonicbox, now called iM Networks.

While I was ruminating about the idea over beer fumes, David had run into some folks who had actually done the work and built the thing. It didn’t work in my car, but there it was: a radio pulling in stations from around the world in perfect clarity, controlled by a remote control device — and not a computer in sight.

Niko Bolas, the CEO, asked me to write the revenue portion of the company’s business plan. I came up with an idea that included highly targeted and sequential advertising messaging across what amounts to a traditional radio network: iM Networks. Imagine being able to own and sell into the entire FM channel, worldwide, and completely control the reach, demographic, and frequency of the advertising message.

Well, guess what? While I went back to my beer fumes, the folks at iM Networks went out and built it. It works. And it’s available now.

David calls it “friction-free advertising.” iM Networks aggregates content within vertical affinity groups: 32 channels of blues in the “B” band, 32 channels of classical in the “C” band, etc. Small broadcasters who address niche audiences can leverage iM Networks’ bulk broadband purchases and suddenly open themselves up to an audience that competes with any Clear Channel station. And also start making some money.

iM Networks rewards users who provide opt-in demographic information by enabling a “Tell Me More” button on its hardware remote controls: Anytime a song comes up that listeners want to learn more about, they can press the button that triggers sending a rich media email to them with information about the selection.

The huge opt-in base allows media buyers to make very targeted buys. For instance, a media planner can specify that the campaign should target males between the ages of 35 and 55, that every person should hear the messages in a certain sequence (message one first, message two next, etc.), that the sequence should be heard a maximum of 20 times per listener, and that the campaign should run for 20 million listens. Planners can also target specific radio stations or types of stations.

Whatever station is being listened to when the ad runs receives 65 percent of the ad revenue. And unlike pre-roll messages that can run before online video or audio content, adding to the clutter of online media by stuffing ads into every conceivable place, ads on iM Networks simply replace existing radio ads. This means that listeners are not exposed to more ads, just more targeted ones.

Says David: “We look at the Internet as just another pipe, rather than something that needs to be accessed through a Web page. We are leveraging the one-to-one relationship that the Internet provides to do a targeted overlay of traditional spots over what has been thought of as a broadcast-only medium.”

Currently, average session times on iM Networks are more than an hour. I can believe it. My iM Networks connection is running almost constantly. In fact, I’m listening to a local New York station right now as I write this, telling me how much snow we’re getting. As it turns out, I don’t have to be living in California to want to listen to my local New York radio stations on the Internet. They just come in clearer on the Internet than they do on my radio.

Hey, what was that song? Sorry, gotta go. I’ve got buttons to push.

Until next week, keep it rich!

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