INTERVIEW by DANIELLE OLIVER | PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of MICHAEL ROBERTSON
The creator of the largest digital music website, mp3.com, has found success once again. But this time, he’s made his mark on the world of radio. Meet Michael Robertson, founder of DAR.fm, a Digital Audio Recording system with a little name and a big future. Only three months old, DAR already records one million minutes of radio content per day, allowing listeners to tune in on their own time. Robertson’s ingenious system is well on its way to becoming just as revered as our television programming savior, TiVo.
Can you give our readers a basic explanation for how DAR.fm works?
DAR is a TiVo for radio. 40 percent or so of people at home today have DVR. They’re familiar with the concept of recording broadcast material so they can play it back on their own schedule. That’s exactly what DAR.fm does, except we do it for radio. What we’ve built is an index of about 5,000 stations, and if it’s a pop station, we try to build a schedule guide to actually know what radio shows are on that station. And this means that visiters can go to DAR.fm, type in the radio shows they’re interested in, hit the record button, and they get set up to record every single broadcast for their personal listening pleasure.
To give you an example, let’s say someone wants to record Jim Rome, who is a sports show host. He’s on 9-12 in the middle of the day, Mondays through Fridays. A lot of people aren’t at their radio from 9-12. Well, they can go to DAR and search for Jim Rome, hit one record button, and then every day that three-hour Jim Rome show is automatically recorded for them, and upon completion, they will receive an email saying, “Hey, your show is recorded and now ready for you, and you can listen to it whenever it’s convenient.”
It has to be a radio show that’s broadcast online, right?
It does have to be a show broadcast online. The good news is that most radio stations are simulcast now over the internet. So I mentioned that we have over 5,000 stations. More than 3,000 of those stations are am/fm stations. So I would say that the majority of popular radio stations are already in our DAR system.
I saw that there are radios you can buy that play DAR.fm, like the Grace radio, but you don’t need that necessarily to use DAR, right?
Right. I mentioned that DAR is similar to TiVo, but it’s actually different in a very important way. It’s a cloud service. With a DVR, you need equipment that you have to buy or rent from the cable company, but because DAR is a cloud service, all you need is a web browser to set it up and tell us what you want to record. And because it’s a cloud service, all your recordings are automatically stored on the internet. After it’s recorded, you can listen on any internet-aware device, streaming it. But you can also use other devices like internet radios.
I’m curious about any potential grey areas you may be in, legally, in terms of copyright.
I would say we’re not in a grey area. There was a very important case called Cartoon Network vs. Cablevision, and what Cablevision wanted to do was create a centralized DVR system. Instead of giving everyone a DVR in their cable system, which is a very expensive system with a lot of equipment, they wanted to just send all their customers a smart remote-control with a record button that would send signals back to their central office to record a show whenever someone selected it. This is a service that they launched and immediately companies sued them, saying that it was copyright infringement. Cablevision ultimately won. What was fascinating was what the judges said. They concluded that Cablevision didn’t make any copies. Now, this is a surprising result for most people because it’s Cablevision’s equipment, they built and maintain the system, it’s in their offices, so you would think that they made copies. But the courts said as long as the user is telling Cablevision to make copies, it’s the user that is making a copy, not cablevision, therefore they weren’t liable for copyright infringement. Well, what Cablevision was doing is exactly what we’re doing, only we’re doing it with radio content. This is an issue that has already been examined and concluded upon by the courts, so while it’s a new application, I think there’s strong legal precedence that it’s okay.
Got it. Have you noticed a trend in your users, yet? Are people recording pop music stations, conservative talk radio…?
I’ll caution that it’s still early – we’ve only been doing this for three months so I wouldn’t jump to any long-term conclusions. But we are seeing a trend. Number one, we’re really filling a consumer need because we’re already recording over one million minutes of radio a day, which is a very big number for a service this young, and other than some press articles, we haven’t really done anything to market ourselves. And number two, when we look at the content being recorded, 60% of the content is talk shows, and 40% is music.
Do you have a personal experience or connection to radio or music?
Not necessarily radio. A lot of people know me from previous companies I’ve done – one of them being mp3.com, which I founded in 1997, which grew to be the world’s largest digital music company. I eventually sold it to Universal Music. So I’ve been around digital media for more than a decade.
I was wondering what your opinion is on the state of radio, and if it’s possible that DAR.fm could help… well, save it.
It’s undeniable that total radio listening is down. And I think that’s because radio is kind of looked at as antiquated. What I mean by that is that TV – due to the DVR – is now looked to as “on demand.” It’s also interactive. You can fast forward, you can rewind. It’s been modernized. But radio hasn’t changed much since invention. I do want to make the point that DAR does modernize radio, making it twenty-first-century-friendly.
So what can our readers do to help and participate in the success of DAR.fm?
Sign up for DAR. It’s a free service. And then give us feedback. We’re using that feedback to shape what the future of the product looks like. Also, I should stress that we’re trying to build a guide for thousands of stations all over the world, and that’s a really big job. We’ve built a system that’s kind of like Wikipedia, where we rely on users to type in the data. So if there’s a station they really like, they can add it and set up the broadcast schedule, and then that station will be set up for everyone else to download, as well.
Do you have a favorite station or show you’d recommend?
There’s a music show called Big Sonic Chill, which is fabulous. It just so happens to be in my hometown of San Diego, [laughs] but that doesn’t matter, right? With DAR, anyone in the world can listen to it.