Get Your Own Personal NPR Station with Swell

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news radio content from NPR, the BBC, and ESPN, which all offer convenient streaming versions of most of their shows. “It’s some of the best content you can find at your fingertips,” he says.

To get Swell built, Concept.io raised $1.8 million in seed funding in April 2012, with Charles River, Google Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Andreessen Horowitz all chipping in. That was followed by a $5.4 million Series A round this February, with InterWest Partners, Correlation Ventures, and Draper Nexus Ventures also coming on board. Today the company has a dozen employees, including Ramkumar’s co-founders Keshav Menon, who was a principal engineer at Snaptell and A9, and Dominic Hughes, a mathematician and machine-learning expert who teaches at Stanford.

Ramkumar isn’t ready to disclose how many people have downloaded Swell, but he’s excited that Apple seems to like it—the company recently featured the app in the News category of the iTunes App Store. And he says early usage statistics are encouraging—a group of “power users,” according to Ramkumar, have the app running for as much as 6 hours per week.

The only downside of using a streaming-audio app for such extended periods is that it can chew through a lot of cellular data. Listening to Swell for just an hour each workday would use about 500 megabytes over the course of month—in my case, one-quarter my entire monthly data allotment. But Ramkumar says the app mitigates the damage by “aggressively caching” shows in your iPhone’s memory when you’re connected to a Wi-Fi network at home or at work. “Anecdotally, roughly half the content is downloaded over Wi-Fi and the other half over 3G/4G/LTE,” he says.

Following what’s now a traditional path for startups in the mobile-app era, Concept.io is forgoing revenue, concentrating instead on building up its audience and its catalog of shows. When the time comes to ask people to pay for the service, Ramkumar says the company will likely mirror Pandora again, inserting commercial messages between programs and asking users to pay for premium subscriptions if they want an ad-free experience.

Concept.io’s one big advantage over Pandora, Ramkumar notes, is that it doesn’t have to pay artist royalties: all of the programming it transmits is free for the taking at the producers’ websites. But while that’s great for the company, it does raise the free rider question. Pledge drives, as annoying as they are, exist for a good reason—they’re the best way to guilt people into paying for good public broadcasting, which obviously isn’t free to produce. If enough people abandoned their local stations in favor of apps like Swell, it would choke off one of public radio’s main sources of funding.

At some point, then, organizations like NPR and APM might be forced to limit access to their online feeds, or to charge aggregators like Concept.io a fee. But the startup might find ways to head off that eventuality: Ramkumar says he’s open to including credits, fundraising appeals, and “other mechanisms that respect the content provider’s business model” in Swell’s audio stream. “Longer term, we will put in place business arrangements that benefit both content provider and Swell, the aggregator,” he says. That could mean sharing part of the revenue from advertising and premium subscriptions, the way TuneIn does.

So why, in the end, would a news-radio fan pick a new app like Swell over a more established service like TuneIn or Stitcher, or Apple’s own Podcasts app? The main difference is that Swell takes less attention and effort. With both Stitcher and TuneIn, the experience starts with searching a catalog or browsing a list; to get started, you have to know at least a little about the programs you’d like to hear. Listening to Swell is more passive—people in the video industry would call it a “lean-back” experience. “It’s not about browse-and-search, it’s not about navigation,” says Ramkumar. “It’s just listen and enjoy.”

Which sounds a lot like listening to your favorite public radio station. But that’s exactly the point.

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