Get Your Own Personal NPR Station with Swell

Xconomy National — 

We’ve hit the time of year dreaded by all public radio fans: pledge drive season, when stations hold your favorite NPR and American Public Media programs hostage until enough listeners pay up.

Until recently, there’s only been one way around this semiannual torture ritual, and it’s only been available to listeners of KQED here in the San Francisco Bay Area. It’s the pledge-free stream, a password-protected online version of the station’s programming that’s available to listeners who give $45 or more.

But now there’s another way to enjoy a radio-like stream of news and information shows, without pledge drives, at any time of the year—and at zero cost (to users, anyway). It’s a smartphone app called Swell, from the Palo Alto, CA, startup Concept.io.

You can think of Swell as your own personal NPR station, or perhaps as the Pandora of news and talk. Yes, that’s an analogy I’ve used before, in a January article about the on-demand radio app Stitcher. But Swell has adopted a set-it-and-forget-it approach that makes it even more consciously Pandora-esque than Stitcher. It’s like turning on your favorite public radio station, and letting little software-driven station managers inside your phone worry about the exact content you’ll be served.

When you start up Swell—which is available only for iOS devices at the moment, but is coming to Android soon—it automatically picks a program from the Swell catalog based on your past listening behavior. (The catalog isn’t drawn just from NPR—it’s also heavy on programs from APM, TED, the BBC, Disney/ABC, Fox, and Bloomberg.) If you like the app’s selection, you can keep listening until it ends, at which point another show will start. If you don’t like it, you can swipe left to skip straight to the next program.

Over time, as the app observes which shows you listened to and which you skipped, it gets better at picking stuff you’ll like. (Yes, this is exactly the sort of mechanism that screens out anything that might jostle your existing world-view; Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser has called that the filter bubble problem. But let’s face it, public radio is pretty uniformly lefty to begin with. And hey, you can always get Fox.)

This play-or-skip model is more or less how Pandora works too, but because Swell is about ideas rather than music, the technology under the hood is fundamentally different, says G.D. “Ram” Ramkumar, CEO and co-founder at Concept.io. Oakland, CA-based Pandora (NASDAQ: P) has built a huge “music genome” database to identify the traits of the songs and artists you like, on the theory that you’ll also like other songs with similar traits. Swell, by contrast, relies on algorithms from probability theory related to the multi-armed bandit problem and a strategy called “exploration and exploitation.”

It’s too complicated to explain here, but it boils down to tracking your listening patterns and identifying the program choices that best predict your preferences. There’s also an element of old-fashioned collaborative filtering, in the mold of Amazon or Netflix recommendations. For example, if you liked This American Life, and other people who liked TAL also liked The Moth Radio Hour, Swell knows you’ll probably like The Moth too.

“This notion of picking the source that helps the most, and combining that with an element of collaborative filtering, is new technology that didn’t exist before Swell,” says Ramkumar. “The point is, as you continue to listen, it understands and learns at the level of programs, topics, and genres.”

Here’s a cute video that Swell produced to explain the whole thing. (Article continues below video.)

Concept.io released Swell in late June. So far, according to Ramkumar, it’s being used mainly by people who are running or exercising with earbuds, or commuting in their cars while playing the audio stream over their vehicles’ Bluetooth audio systems. Those happen to be the exact scenarios the company had in mind when it built the app, he says: “It’s about making productive use of your time, and staying engaged in the time you are driving and exercising.”

Ramkumar’s previous company, Snaptell, also built a consumer app: a visual product scanner that used computer-vision algorithms to identify products from cameraphone snapshots. Amazon bought the company in 2009 and incorporated the technology into an augmented-reality app called Flow. Ramkumar spent a while at Amazon’s A9 research operation as “chief architect for visual search,” then went on to an entrepreneur-in-residence position at Charles River Ventures, where he started looking for another area of consumers’ daily lives that he could help to improve through mobile technology.

“We settled on the commute as the critical time period,” Ramkumar says. “If you want to listen to music, there are good alternatives, but if you don’t, there are limited choices. There is the choice of searching TuneIn or iTunes, but search is not convenient when you are driving.”

After abandoning a couple of early experiments—such as a text-to-speech engine that recited Wikipedia articles based on nearby landmarks—Ramkumar’s team turned its focus to 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.