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Why Was Google Interested in 100 Year Old Technology?

As readers of my blog already know, I resigned from IBM in 2000 to start a business around a concept I called “Wireless Interactive Radio,” or WIR. You can read the full story of my entrepreneurial venture in another post, but the basic idea of WIR was this: I’m driving down the road, hear something of interest on the radio, touch a button on my dashboard, and voila! A web link to that item (song, ad, news story, etc.) is logged in my online account, making further exploration possible at a more convenient time. I envisioned WIR as the digital bridge between two silos of content that are still largely seperated today ~ terrestrial radio and the Internet ~ a vast opportunity, as most humans use both (albeit not collaboratively).

My venture did not launch for several reasons, one of which is that it required the development, installation and operation of an extensive network of radio monitoring stations ~ essentially robotic ears that listened 24 by 365 to every radio station in the land, indexing what they heard. That undertaking alone was far too ambitious for my limited resources (try telling that to an entrepreneur), but not for a company that might surprise you: Google.

Indeed, about ten years ago Google quietly deployed thousands of radio monitoring stations across the United States. They are still out there today ~ mostly unplugged. Google also bought a rather conventional radio ad insertion company called dMarc. Billed as “Adsense for Audio,” dMarc did pretty much what you might expect ~ insert ads into the air space reserved by radio stations for commercials. “Adsense for Audio” eventually got mothballed by Google, but not before Google learned a few things about the world’s most pervasive platform for wireless content delivery.

Then Google hired my former business partner, an executive with the Radio Advertising Bureau, and a seasoned pro who admittedly knows nothing about technology but everything about radio. Why? To learn as much as they could about the radio business.

So why all this interest by Google in traditional radio with its 100 year old technology? One reason is clear ~ radio is a $17 Billion behemoth in the advertising business, and Google wanted their fair share. More than half of Americans still tune into the car radio when we drive. But with the announcement of Google Glass, a hands free device, I am seeing the old radio business model emerge with sparkling new digital technology. And Google Maps is the bridge. 

It’s been said that all politics is local. I submit all advertising is local too, and Google knows it. The closer you are to the point of sale when your interest is piqued, whether practically or geographically, the more likely it is you will buy. So it only makes sense for advertisers to know where you are at any given moment so they can pitch you products and services that are close-by.

Companies like HearPlanet also understand this, and use Google maps to geo-tag points of interest with an audio file, so that as you drive down the road “tuned in” to a “channel” of interest (say, “historical markers” or “wineries”), your in-vehicle device will play those files over the car speakers, just like radio. The difference is, you not only get to choose your preferred type of content, you also get to choose the range of your channel. In that way, you won’t hear content for places that are so far away as to be irrelevant, such as the ad for a San Francisco taxi company I heard on Pandora the other day (I live in Virginia, so that would be one whopper of a fare).

With applications like HearPlanet, you can have precise control over what you hear in your car, and will have the option of knowing what’s of interest right around you, that is, what’s local. My personal vote is for the following two developments:

  1. A channel that only plays music written or recorded from within a 100 mile radius of whereever you are, kind of like a locavore, but for music lovers.
  2. “Groupon, Facebook, Pandora mash-up app” that works with my preferred Internet Radio service, as described in another post.

So I see all the pieces coming together ~ content, advertising, infrastructure, and mobile devices ~ to create the new radio. And unless someone knocks them off their hill, Google will be king.

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