Richard Stern doesn't have Joe Rogan envy. TuneIn's CEO, who joined the radio aggregator last November, is perfectly fine with not having any splashy exclusives on his platform, and he's not too concerned about companies like Spotify spending hundreds of millions of dollars to sign up celebrity podcasters.
He's more focused on taking a cue from Spotify's emphasis on product development. "They have the same music catalog [as] Amazon Music, Apple Music [and] Tidal, more or less," Stern recently told Protocol. "But they've delivered a product experience [that] is exemplary."
Stern's focus on product is no accident. Before joining TuneIn, he was chief product officer at Audible, and previous gigs included product leadership roles at Sony PlayStation and Amazon Studios. "When you're trying to reinvent content in a digital context, the content doesn't necessarily change," he said, again referencing Spotify. "But everything around it does, from the business model to the distribution to features to discovery. And I'm excited to do that around radio."
In his conversation with Protocol, Stern talked about how he wants to do this, why exclusives aren't necessarily part of the puzzle and how the pandemic has accelerated innovation in the radio space.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
You joined TuneIn in the midst of the pandemic. How have things changed for the company under COVID-19?
There's a tendency in mature industries to say, "Digital is coming, but it's not here yet." And then, we have this wake-up call. It's here, it's right now, and it's everything. COVID gave the [radio] industry a real shake-up. All of a sudden, one day, everybody stopped driving, which is where a lot of people listen to radio. All of the sudden, this crossover to digital became a lot more urgent.
This last year, we saw tremendous growth in our listening, especially on [consumer electronics] devices in the home. We haven't really seen that abate, even as people have been vaccinated and even as life is starting to return to sort of a new normal. Even though a lot of people have come back to work, there's still a very large portion of people that are working from home, or that are going to continue working in a hybrid model. Those habits of having their Alexa or their Google Home device playing radio in the background, passively listening throughout the day, that isn't necessarily changing.
However, we've seen the commuting patterns start to reemerge, and we've seen some of the old listening patterns around mobile start to reappear around morning drive time and lunchtime listening and driving home. Listening has been relatively consistent. We're just seeing the patterns of listening start to change a little bit.
As you started to dig into this data, did any of it surprise you?
When I think of radio, I think about music. But at TuneIn, only about 30% of our listening is music. About 70% of our listening is spoken word. The other thing that's very interesting is that radio has an ability to be both national and hyperlocal. We see a lot of listening across both of those two spectrums. Especially during the height of the pandemic, people wanted to take a pulse of what was happening in the world, [and also] wanted to get hyperlocal. They wanted to know what was happening in Chicago, Atlanta or Milwaukee. Local radio [is] a great conduit for that.
Speaking of spoken word, some of the streaming services have been investing heavily into exclusive podcasts. How important is exclusive programming to TuneIn?
Earlier in TuneIn's history, we put a lot of emphasis on exclusive content. Over the last couple of years, we realized that exclusivity doesn't mean as much to us as we once thought it did. It's more important for us just to have everything than it is to necessarily have it exclusively. We really want to have everything that our customers might want to listen to in the world of radio and broadcast. The value proposition is once you're here, you're going to discover everything else you might want to listen to.
Isn't that model threatened by Apple, Spotify and others signing up talent exclusively?
I don't think we've ever lost any sleep over [Spotify] paying several hundred million dollars to bring Joe Rogan onto the platform or Howard Stern getting half a billion dollars being on Sirius.
Those businesses have very different motivations for why they're investing in content. In the case of streaming music, they're trying to offload a significant amount of listening to content that has better unit economics for them. Howard Stern and Sirius, he built that platform. To this day, the No. 1 reason why people sign up is still Howard Stern, which is probably a challenge for Sirius as they look to continue to grow.
Our value proposition really lies in a massive directory of global radio. We have more radio stations on our platform than any other platform in the world, over 100,000 of them. When you combine that with premium content from partners like CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, Bloomberg and then the national sports leagues, it really ends up becoming a one-stop-shop for everything that a customer might want to listen to in broadcast. That is very different from the content offerings that you'd get from a music-streaming platform.
How are you monetizing that content these days?
Our business is split 50-50 between our free listening, which is ad-subsidized, and our subscription business. Our subscription business has a couple of different value propositions. One is a lot less commercials, and the second is play-by-play sports and great sports coverage.
On TuneIn, you get every single NFL game play-by-play, every single NCAA football game. We recently launched NHL play-by-play, and the season just started there. It isn't just exclusive to TuneIn, so there's other places you could go to find different pieces of that content. But we have it all together in one place. It's very easily organized, we give you notifications when the team that you're following has a game that's about to start.
Where do you want to go from here? What's next for TuneIn?
As an industry, there's been a lot of really noteworthy innovation as radio has tried to cross over into digital, but it hasn't seen the same type of impact from that transformation that other industries like film or television or music have. I think audio was sort of forgotten about for a long time during the digital streaming revolution. People became myopically focused on video services, whether it be short-form or long-form, and they really missed the opportunity for audio.
[However,] we're struggling with similar challenges that the video industry has struggled with, which largely is about discovery and personalization. How do you help the customer find exactly what they're looking for when there's a very, very long tail? And how do you start leading customers to non-obvious choices in these very big catalogs? We're spending a lot of time looking at how we can use data to drive superior personalization around this content. We're investing a lot of time and effort in analytics, really understanding what people are talking about in these streams. Breaking it down, so we can build better personalization algorithms and better recommendation tools for our customers.
You're also going to see a lot more innovation with TuneIn working in the automotive industry. We have a great partner in Tesla. We were the first radio platform that went out in a vehicle without an AM/FM tuner to accompany it. You're going to see several other major EV manufacturers follow suit and work with TuneIn in very similar ways. There's lots of time that customers may need to kill while they're charging, [and cars increasingly have] these large, beautiful screens. They'll have 5G connectivity. It's a really exciting time around infotainment in the vehicle.