Two old-school radio stations are getting a decidedly modern twist next month, deriving all their programming from the social web. KHIJ-FM and KVBE-FM, a pair of Las Vegas stations, will be entirely sourcing their music content from listeners, who will vote for the next song online. A company called Jelli is behind the venture, and both stations will be re-branded as "Jelli" stations.
"Jelli is the most significant innovation in radio-format programming in a decade," Gerry Schlegel, president of the LKCM Radio Group, one of the owners of the two stations, said today in a release announcing the venture. "We want to transform the market in Las Vegas by engaging with our listeners directly through the web and mobile, and building a strong community around an amazing music experience."
Though these are the first all-Jelli-all-the-time stations, Jelli has been a part-time feature of many radio stations over the past year, in markets ranging from New York to Atlanta to San Francisco. The San Mateo, Calif.-based service, which launched in 2009, had 25 participating stations by March of this year. Loyal listeners of those stations are invited to go online and vote on a playlist from a database of songs the station has licensed to play. If a listener wants to lend an up-vote ("Rocks!") or a down-vote ("Sucks!") extra weight, they're afforded a certain number of "rockets" and "bombs" to do so. Chat features and an automated voice announcing who helped rocket a particular song to the top spot add another layer of interactivity. "We wanted to make radio more social and more fun," Michael Dougherty, Jelli's CEO, recently told CNN.
The feature has been popular enough to merit expansion on certain radio stations. And in Las Vegas's case, the metrics were promising enough to hand over the entire programming process to the crowd. The crowd, as we know, works for free. So when the numbers prove good in Las Vegas, presumably you could be seeing Jelli-branded stations elsewhere. When it comes to the future of radio, what happens in Vegas isn't likely to stay in Vegas.
But the venture raises all sorts of serious questions about the meaning of crowdsourcing, the future of taste-making in America, and the decline of traditional trades. As one blogger recently put it, "Digital Killed the Radio DJ." There are certainly upsides to the rise of Jelli: a rise in engagement in a medium that has been struggling, bringing a new twist to an old craft, and so on. But will a semi-automatic, fully democratic radio experience ever enable the rise of another Nic Harcourt, say, and all the beloved musical careers he helped launch?
They've dubbed that automated voice—the one that announces successful "rockets"—as "T-Bone, the one-and-only Robot DJ." Last year, Jelli produced a jokey video where T-Bone sings along to Lady Gaga's "Poker Face."
Hilarious, right? Somehow we doubt the real DJ's out there are laughing.
Dougherty, however, says it's less nefarious than it may appear.
"Most of the on-air talent in radio actually act more as commentators who discuss a playlist that is programmed on an automation system by either—in the best case—a local market "music director" who creates the list ahead of time, or a centralized programming team at corporate," Dougherty told Fast Company via email. "There is a lot of commentary how radio has become much more stale because playlists have significant similarities across markets, and the trend I just described is part of the problem."
In about a third of Jelli's broadcasts, on-air talent "hosts" the Jelli program and comments on the crowdsourced music.
"We don't see Jelli as disrupting DJs," says Dougherty, "but we do see it disrupting traditional, boring automated playlist programming."
[Image: Flickr user cogdog]