Stitcher, the Pandora of Talk, Works to Make Internet Radio Easier

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$310 million. After the brief Houndbite experiment—which Shanok calls “America’s Funniest Home Videos, but for audio”—he started Stitcher with technical co-founder Peter deVroede, a veteran media software developer.

StubHub and Stitcher “were very similar in that it was an absolute certainty to me that this was a better way of doing things,” Shanok says. “In the case of StubHub, there needed to be a secondary market for tickets with transparency, and the Internet was a great way to do that. The same with Stitcher—it’s an absolute certainty that the Internet is a better way of delivering the audio content people want to hear.”

The two companies had one other thing in common: they were both founded during economic downturns. That’s “the best time to start a company, if you can be smart and prudent with resources,” Shanok says, because it forces founders to be “heads-down focused on the product.”

But the first version of Stitcher, released for the iPhone in 2008, was pretty basic. “Without downloading, you could listen to a couple thousand shows, and you could search for shows and also create your own favorites playlist,” Shanok says.

Because the first couple of generations of iPhones on the AT&T network had limited broadband capabilities, Stitcher also did a lot of work to compress its audio streams down to a bitrate that allowed reliable streaming even in areas with poor connectivity. Shanok says the app still has a very light bandwidth footprint today.

Stitcher for the Web

Stitcher for the Web

In the years since then, Stitcher has focused on adding more content to its catalog, expanding beyond the iPhone, and building in personalization and recommendation systems that help listeners find more on-demand shows they might like. The company borrowed some key ideas from Oakland, CA-based Pandora, including the idea of continuous-play “stations” seeded around particular shows, and thumbs-up and thumbs-down buttons that help the app figure out what sorts of shows to include in each station.

This year, Stitcher also added a “smart station” feature that scans a user’s existing stations and puts together a customized playlist including both old favorites and new surprises listeners might like. Shanok says the company has been “shocked” so far by its user statistics on the feature, which show that people keep listening to the new shows Stitcher recommends. “People come for a specific piece of content or set of shows, they listen to those for a while, and then for whatever reason on a given day they decide to press Smart Station, and lo and behold, it’s something they really like,” he says.

By the way, the company is called “Stitcher” for a reason: the stations are stitched together algorithmically from many shows or segments of shows. In other words, creating a station on Stitcher is not like subscribing to a specific podcast in iTunes or other podcasting apps. I was confused and frustrated about this as an early user, until I finally got it through my head that this is part of Stitcher’s strategy for simplifying the Internet radio experience. It’s basically Pandora for talk radio—you pick your station and then just listen to whatever it plays.

To compete with terrestrial radio, the experience has to be this hands-off, Shanok says. (If you really want to listen to consecutive episodes of a specific podcast, you’re much better off using Apple’s own Podcasts app or something like Vemedio’s Instacast app.)

In addition to its Ford and GM partnerships, Stitcher works on Sonos home audio systems. And this fall, the startup introduced a Web app that lets users access their existing stations through a browser on a PC or laptop, thus becoming “one of a number of mobile-first companies that have been coming full circle to a Web experience,” says Shanok.

As it adds platforms, the company is working to make sure users don’t get lost. Playback is synchronized so that you can “start a show in the office on your computer, get into your Internet-enabled car and … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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