Radio Reinvented

Back in the day, there were a few major radio networks that brought you entertainment programs, music and dramatic programs, news and sports. All you needed to get them was a radio that had an on-off switch, a volume control and a dial to select a station. Often -“ still way back in the day -“ that radio was in the living room where the family could gather to listen.

Then along came the Internet and digital everything. iTunes and MP3, streaming and podcasts, and don’t forget the early days of file sharing and that cute little headphone-wearing kitty symbol of Napster -“ all of which require some sort of computer-centered technology, the right software and the ability to make it all work together.

What if you want to have the best of both worlds -“a device with an on-off switch, a knob to choose an acceptable volume and a dial to select a station that plays exactly what you want to hear -“ music, entertainment, drama, news or sports -“ without static or fading or quality issues because it’s all digital?

You can, with an Internet radio or Digital Audio Receiver as some in the industry call them. While the ability to get specific radio stations and your choice of thousands of pieces of music via your computer has been around for years, the idea of a dedicated piece of hardware to do that without the intervention of a computer is a relatively recent development.

Jake Sigal, founder of Livio Radio.

It was 2008 when Jake Sigal in Ferndale, Mich., started Livio Radio -” that’s “Liv”as in Living Room and “io” as in radio -” with the basic idea of making listening to music (and other audio) as simple as, well, turning on an old-fashioned living room radio.

Sigal is the third generation of entrepreneurs in his family. His dad invented the drive-through menu boards that greet you at fast food restaurants, and was instrumental in the initial conversion of camera film from analog to digital. Working on a “$7 million film scanner that was about the size of your fist back then was a pretty big deal,” Sigal laughs.

“Music has always been my passion, as long as I can remember,” Sigal continues. “I think a common denominator among 98 percent of people is music. I’m very fortunate that I’m able to live the dream and work with music every day -“ do what I love, which is music and technology.”

Putting the two together was the reason behind Livio, Sigal explains.

“Music is music, so whether you’re listening to U2 or Britney Spears or the Rolling Stones -“ how you listen to that music is distribution. The distribution of music is evolving. Originally, it was live performance, then records that you could share. There was 8-track, then cassette tapes, CDs, MP3, satellite radio -“ but that doesn’t affect ‘what’ you’re listening to, it’s more of the ‘how’, so Internet radio is the ‘how,’ not the ‘what.'”

“Internet radio lets you control the ‘what’ because it’s two-way communication. When you listen to broadcast radio it’s a single antenna shooting the content out to hundreds of thousands of listeners. Internet radio is one-to-one communication. Everyone who listens to Internet radio makes an individual connection, through a computer server, back to the radio station. If you have 10,000 people listening to Internet radio, you have 10,000 individual connections.”

This opens up a number of possibilities. “Be the seventh caller and win a pair of Cubs tickets” may elicit a bunch of phone calls to WGN-Radio in Chicago but only one lucky listener gets the tickets. Given the Cubs’ season so far, WGN probably has many more tickets to give away. With thousands of listeners plugged in via the Internet many more of them could simultaneously click or hit a response button and win their tickets.

No, it’s not a high school computer class, it’s two of the development engineers at Livio Radio.

Or, as Sigal suggests, “The station could pose a question and get an immediate response from listeners via the Net, just by pushing a button on their Livio radio. Net radio isn’t changing the content of radio, just the ‘how’ of its delivery.”

Sigal has partnered with Pandora, the delivery arm of the Music Genome Project. Livio radios equipped with the Pandora feature allow their owners to, in effect, become their own radio station program directors. They listen to a song delivered by Pandora and then indicate, via a button on their radio, whether they like that song or not. Pandora is able then to keep suggesting music, based on the responses from the listener, until they provide a collection of music that is exactly what the listener wants to hear.

Listening to music via an Internet radio doesn’t have to come from Pandora, though. It can come from almost any of the thousands of radio stations across the globe. Sigal explains, “getting content that you normally wouldn’t have access to might include a live Reggae station playing in Jamaica. You listen to the music, you listen to the local station’s commercials, and it really helps set a mood.”

“There are hundreds of stations that play nothing but ’80s rock,” Sigal continues. “There’s even a station called Reunion Radio that has a different stream for every year [since Sigal is still under 30 he perhaps hasn’t discovered that ‘every year’ starts at 1960] and it plays the pop hits for that year. It feels like you are in high school. I graduated high school in 1999 and when I listen it feels like I’m in my father’s Mustang convertible, with the top down, crusin’ for babes.”

Music, news and sports aren’t the only things to be found on Net radio. Some stations offer podcasts of some of their programs -“ sort of like DVR for radio. Sigal says, “I used to have a podcast that 80,000 people a week would download. The thing about podcasting is that you have to have targeted, unique and relevant content. Unless you’re a New York Times or Wired magazine you probably won’t be successful for just general commentary. If you’re a business and you can solve a specific problem with your unique solution you have a chance of being successful via podcasts, but with a much smaller audience.”

Sigal’s Livio radio also comes in an NPR version. There’s almost instant access to more than 800 NPR member stations around the country via a couple of buttons. Sigal explains that he listens to “All Things Considered” or “All Tech Considered” via podcasts. “Sometimes I’m not particularly interested in a story that’s being covered so I can fast-forward through that story to get to the next section. It’s not that I don’t like the shows, it’s just that there are some elements I’d rather listen to than others.”

Sigal has developed a product for use in cars -“ called, naturally enough given his fondness for music, Carmen. “It lets you transfer anything you’ve recorded on your computer -“ favorite radio stations, music or whatever, to the built-in memory of Carmen. When you’re ready to go somewhere Carmen plugs into your 12-volt adapter [formerly known as the socket a cigarette lighter was housed in] and transmits the content right into your car’s FM stereo.”

That was last year. Now Livio has an application -“ or app -“ called Car Internet Radio. “It lets you listen to Internet radio while driving via an iPhone or Android smart phone. It’s the safest app you can use while driving a car. It has very big buttons, pre-sets and menu items -“ you don’t have to be using both thumbs while you’re using it.”

No, that was earlier this year. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Livio introduced a version of their technology that integrates it into the original-equipment radio that ships with new cars. “We are working with Visteon and they’ll build our software into the touch-screen stereo interface that has radio, climate controls, navigation all in one unit. We’re also building an aftermarket version so that if you have built-in satellite radio you can just pull that unit out and put ours in its place so you get Livio Internet radio but you don’t have to pay the monthly fees of satellite radio.”

Sigal, along with many others, is concerned about the issue of safety and potential driver distraction. Having Livio integrated into the mostly hand-free, voice-activated communications centers built in to many of today’s (and tomorrow’s) vehicles will help alleviate that.

Sigal says that as smart phones become even more ubiquitous, carmakers are anticipating problems integrating the many apps that will be developed that can plug in to the hands-free in-dash hardware. “I’m working on helping develop industry standards that will allow multiple applications to work with multiple cars. I’m a board member of the Consumer Electronics Association’s small business council and we’ve been doing a lot to achieve those goals.”

As noted earlier, the current stable of Livio radios emulates the old style analog radios. That’s for a reason, Sigal explains. “At the end of the day, my Mom and my Grandma have to be able to use my products.

“Our job at Livio is to manage all of the hard work on the back end so my Mom can turn on her radio and listen to her Rolling Stones or Frank Zappa and be happy,” Sigal laughs again.