It's TiVo for radio. That's Michael Robertson's elevator pitch for his latest startup, DAR.fm, a website that records radio stations' internet streams, stores them in an online cloud service and allows people to listen to the shows whenever they want through smart phones, desktop computers or other devices.
But before Robertson goes into his argument about why time-shifting radio is so important and how he thinks the technology could help save a dying radio industry, the entrepreneur—who gained fame in the late '90s when he launched the digital-music-sharing site MP3.com—rolls his office chair over to a laptop computer to show me a YouTube video on horseback riding.
He clicks on a video of Stacey Westfall, a horse trainer who specializes in bridle-less bareback horsemanship. Robertson lives on a ranch in North County, and until recently, his barns were filled with anything but animals; he's a dot-com guy, not a cowboy. But, a few years ago, he got someone to round up a few wild mustangs from the Mid west. He ordered a horse-breaking how-to DVD through eBay and taught himself how to tame and ride the horses, often without a saddle or reins.
“I had ridden a horse, like, twice in my life, and I decided, Well, you know, how hard can it be?” he says. “Horses don't rule the planet; humans do.”
That Robertson has the guts to tame a wild animal shouldn't come as a surprise. The man's got a reputation for being a ballsy rabble-rouser, unafraid of going head-to-head with big media companies, whose lawsuits have already cost him millions. Robertson has an innovate-or-die way of thinking, and even though he sold another one of his startups, Gizmo5, a voice-over internet protocol (VoIP) communication network, to Google in 2009 for a reported $30 million, his addiction to working in the fast-paced dot-com startup world hasn't slowed. In 2010, Robertson told U-T San Diego that one of his goals was to “work less” than his average six or seven days a week, but with DAR.fm now in its second year, he's not exactly a part-timer.
“I would say I probably work, like, five-and-a-half days now, so, yeah, I made some progress,” he says, seated at a conference table in his Sorrento Mesa office, where a staff of 10 works on developing DAR.fm. “Some days I wake up and I think, Oh, I should downshift, but if [work] is in your DNA, it's in your DNA.”
A UCSD graduate in cognitive science, Robertson considers himself a businessman first and a technology guy second. He says his goal is simply to make money where he sees technological gaps.
“I don't do it for the sake of being a provocateur, although that's a fun word,” Robertson says. “I do it because that's where I think the world should go and let me blaze a trail, and hopefully I can build a business there.”
Before too far along in our interview, he launches into his full DAR.fm pitch; time and experience have made him quite good at convincing people of a new technology's worth.
“People expect everything on their schedule,” he says. “News—I want it one click away when I want it. Video—I want it one click away when I want it. And so, what we're doing with DAR is applying that same concept to radio. If there are radio shows or radio stations you want to listen to, you should be able to listen to it when you want, how you want, fast forward, rewind, etcetera.”
When DAR.fm launched last February, most technology writers assumed the site would end up in a lawsuit just like MP3.com and MP3Tunes.com, another of Robertson's startups that provides cloud-based music services. But even though DAR.fm is powered by copyrighted material, Robertson says he's on firm legal ground this time. Citing a 2008 case, Cartoon Network v. Cablevision, which essentially gave the cable company the right to store recorded shows on its server instead of on a box in customers' homes, Robertson maintains that DAR.fm is operating in much the same way. So far, he's received one cease-and-desist notice; it came from Univision last year, demanding that DAR.fm remove Univision's shows. Robertson complied—as a courtesy, he says, since no one was recording Univision material at the time.
Lots of radio shows already record their broadcasts and make them available to consumers through free, downloadable audio files or podcast subscriptions on iTunes. That's great, Robertson says, but not good enough. This month, DAR.fm will add a huge library of available podcasts to its service, increasing its library of 16,000 available shows, most of which aren't currently recorded anywhere else. The site makes money by charging $40 a year for anything beyond one free recording.
One of the most recorded streams on DAR.fm is Coast to Coast AM, the late-night conspiracy-theory and paranormal-activity talk show, which doesn't offer listeners a free podcast. But the No. 1 show on DAR.fm is NPR's Fresh Air, which does have a free podcast.
Robertson calls podcasts a “neat technology,” but he says they've failed to reach a mainstream audience because only a small percentage of radio stations make them available. With DAR.fm, he says, if the radio show has an online stream, it can be added to his system. As DAR.fm's popularity grows, Robertson does expect large companies like Clear Channel to start to worry. Just as television stations were nervous about TiVO and viewers' ability to fastforward through commercials, he says he expects to hear the same concerns about DAR.fm. Eventually, though, he hopes radio stations will see the value of recording their shows for wider, easier consumption.
“Radio has an amazing wealth of content,” he says. “It's like a goldmine, but because it's so inaccessible, it basically just evaporates. We figured out that every week, more than 100,000 hours of radio programming is broadcast, and most of it evaporates into space…. It's a shame, because some of it is quite good.”
Follow Kinsee on Facebook, Twitter or shoot her an email.