Pandora, Confusing the Marketplace
I met Tim Westergren a while ago, when
we were both keynote speakers at a conference here in the United Kingdom. He’s
a nice man: passionate about his product but also down to earth. (He wore a
t-shirt. Not many conference speakers wear t-shirts. I think there’s a law
against it it.)
Cridland. Image courtesy BBC Academy
Westergren has a product, Pandora, that’s
worth being passionate about. If all you want is music, it’s a great jukebox
service. I loved it when it was available in the U.K., and whenever I’m back in
the U.S., I sneak a little listen every now and again in hotel rooms wherever I
am — that is, if I can’t find something on the radio that I like.
Radio, as a brand, stands for a live,
local, shared experience curated by human beings. Pandora isn’t radio — it’s a
jukebox driven by a computer algorithm.
Listening to Pandora, I stand little
chance of knowing when my electricity will be turned back on or when the
hurricane will get worse. I don’t know when the subway isn’t working, or who
won the big game last night, or exactly what will come out of Limbaugh’s mouth
Musically, I don’t hear something that
surprises me; I don’t hear a great story behind a song, or any information
about the artist that I didn’t already know. I don’t hear exclusive live
performances, and I don’t even hear a good segue.
I understand why the company branded
itself using “radio.” Radio is a great thing, and Westergren understands that
people might use Pandora more readily if “radio” is part of their product.
However, because Pandora has stolen the
radio brand, in the mind of many consumers we’re one and the same. Those of us
in “real” radio have idly sat by and let others redefine what we are.
An exterior shot of a “real” radio
station in the UK, taken by the author.
Pandora hasn’t just stolen a brand;
they’ve deliberately confused the marketplace. Pandora CEO Joseph Kennedy
claimed recently that Pandora is “one of the largest radio stations in every
market in the country” during their last quarterly earnings call. Really?
Let’s put Pandora side by side with a
large radio operator like CBS Radio, which, just like Pandora, offers a variety
of programming for the audience to the same market. Pandora shrinks in comparison.
The only thing in Pandora’s box, so to speak, is a whole lot of confusion.
Westergren can’t reach agreement with
the music rights holders in order to get Pandora into the U.K., so what does he
do? He goes after the radio industry.
In a recent interview for the website PaidContent,
Westergren boasted,“The number of Internet radio hours streamed by all services
in the U.K. in a quarter is roughly equal to the number of Internet radio hours
streamed by just Pandora on a single day.”
Of course, that statement is flawed,
and not just because the U.S. clearly has a larger population than the U.K.
(who knew?!). More importantly, Westergren didn’t read the U.K. radio research
figures properly, mistaking a week’s Internet streaming figure for an entire quarter.
In fact, if I might fly the flag for
British radio, when you compare the figures correctly, U.K. radio performs just
as well as Pandora online. We’re doing something right on this small damp
island after all.
Pandora is not “radio,” no matter how
hard the company claims it is. I will never start a conversation with “did you
hear Pandora this morning?” I won’t tune in to Pandora in a new city to find
out what’s going on. I won’t hear amazing stories on Pandora, nor something
that’ll make me smile.
The company clearly wants a bit of
radio’s star quality, and that’s to be expected. Ninety-three percent of the U.S.
uses radio every week, after all. But to be part of that success, it helps if
you don’t try to destroy the very thing you aspire to be.
This is not the way to gain allies, old
chap. No matter how many t-shirts you wear in conferences.
is a radio futurologist and managing director of Media UK, www.mediauk.com.