Putting food on my table comes from being the founder of a company that among other things helps tech startups, and bands that operate like startups (looking at you, Roger McNamee and Moonalice), establish and grow social media communities.
Thanks to an invitation from the founder of Moonalice Radio, Ben Fong-Torres, I also moonlight as DJ “Moongirl” on his recently formed internet radio station. Having had the opportunity to work closely with the team at the station, I have absorbed a number of insights into the key drivers behind its launch, growth and success.
Here are five startup lessons that can be learned from starting a radio station…
1. Know it. Live it. Love it.
Moonalice Radio was the dream of Ben Fong-Torres, American rock journalist, author and broadcaster. He is best known for his association with Rolling Stone magazine (nearly from the magazine’s inception) as well as his work with the San Francisco Chronicle. He was portrayed in the 2000 film, “Almost Famous” by actor Terry Chen – the fictional version of Ben is lead character William Miller’s editor at Rolling Stone.
“I got into music and radio because that’s all I had to keep me sane when I was growing up in Chinatown in Oakland, pretty much trapped in our family restaurant. The radio was an escape and the music, in the 50’s and 60’s, was just getting interesting.”
I’ve had the pleasure of observing Ben at work and he embodies someone who doesn’t just know but lives his passion, and who continues to love literally everything about it. In other words, Ben has the perfect 11+ passion level required for a startup, which on a good day can consume upwards of 15+ hours of time.
A startup can sometimes feel like insanity; living and loving the substance and the journey is the best way to stay sane. Assuming it’s true love, of course.
2. Ride Out A Niche
Ben had noticed that Roger McNamee’s band Moonalice was heavily into social media, and ahead of most bands in letting fans hear and see their shows online. While doing a biography of Moonalice, Ben asked Roger McNamee (the multitalented and multifaceted musician who formed the band) why the band didn’t have a radio presence. Roger replied, “I’ll do a station, if you’ll build it!”
How does Moonalice Radio set itself apart from other stations? Here’s Ben’s take:
“Well, for one thing, it’s free-form. I’m programming music reflecting the band’s and my tastes, which are all over the place – classic rock, but also today’s artists; not just rock, but blues, R&B, reggae, country, singer-songwriters, jam bands, jazz…really, just about anything.”
“While many stations devoted to an artist or band plays tons of their music, but don’t have those artists’ voices on the air that much, we play Moonalice and affiliated acts [like the Doobie Decibel System] a couple of times an hour; the rest of the time is given to music they like or were influenced by. And listeners hear Roger, Pete Sears [vocalist and keyboardist], Barry Sless [guitarist] and John Molo [drummer], through the magic of voice tracks. “Moongirl” and I do shows on the weekend, the legendary Dead roadie, Big Steve Parish, now Moonalice’s “Road Scholar” and MC, pops in.”
From Ben’s lips to Moonalice Radio live and on the air. If you identify a niche within the plan, and the planets of right place and right time align, jump on it.
3. Do Your Homework On Everything
While the radio station was getting ready for launch there were indications that the most attractive platform for Moonalice Radio’s needs, let’s call them Platform X, might not be around for much longer.
While the writing was on the wall, no one knew exactly how long it would take for Platform X to go belly-up. The kicker was that Platform X covered licensing and royalty fees for its broadcasters with a level of ease that no other platform at the time did (or in fact still does). In the end, despite the shaky horizon, the decision was made to go with Platform X.
Sure enough, three months into setting up the Moonalice Radio with Platform X, Platform X was no more. The station was faced with having to find and migrate onto a new platform in the middle of the holiday season.
As Ben describes it,
“I did have Platform Y set as a backup, once I got the rumors about Platform X’s likely demise. I had hoped that the guys who’d fled Project X to form their own company would’ve gotten that act together in time for Moonalice Radio to move there, but they didn’t, and I’m just glad that we had – or I had begun learning the Project Y system in time to have a 24-hour bloc ready to go. Of course, we didn’t figure on Platform X disappearing a day before it was scheduled to, so we were dark for a short time. But it could’ve been much worse.”
This was a case of having done extensive homework not only into the business itself, but also the technologies required to support it.
Even when you have done your homework on everything, planning for worst case scenarios is always a good idea. Which brings us to #4…
4. Sometimes “Good Enough” Is Good Enough
Would it have been better to go with a less attractive but more sustainable platform to start with, avoiding the shift to a new platform in the middle holiday season, along with the pain of migrating listeners who had become accustomed to accessing the station on that very platform?
At the time Platform X offered the best support and functionality by far; the closest alternative was technically more complex, not based in the same country (think: if their servers go down on Friday, they will not be up until the following Monday), and did not offer customer service support.
The reality is that startups are faced with making “non-perfect” or “good-enough” decisions every day, and decisions that force you to sacrifice some future for some present. Paralysis by analysis and doing nothing can be a worse case scenario than making a “good-enough” call. Sometimes not-perfect is more than OK.
5. Use Social Media Platforms In Ways They Were Never Intended To Be Used
Moonalice Radio was going to be a return to freeform radio at its finest. But with so many fine internet radio stations already out there, the challenge was going to be gaining listeners.
The station started off by strong sharing key broadcasts – for example my “Moongirl” and Ben Fong-Torres’s three-hour weekend shows. While we saw an uptick in listeners, it was not of the Earth-moving variety.
Then the thought occurred: Why not use the new Facebook Mentions Live app to broadcast special “Facebook Editions” of the “Moongirl Show” directly into the news feed of Moonalice’s 408,000+ Facebook fans, with a mix of live and pre-recorded material and plenty of listener reinforcement thrown in?
Broadcasting radio via video onto Facebook might seem unusual, but that was at the core of the attraction to try – Moonalice has a long history of off-the wall and out-of-the-box experimentation on social media, and was the first act to use Meerkat and Periscope to broadcast shows.
So try we did, and the results speak for themselves. Levels of engagement and reach are orders of magnitude higher than with traditional native video on Facebook. For example, upward of 40,000 minutes has been viewed during some broadcasts, with reach in the region of 300,000.
As with the startup journey in general, there are few “rules” to Social Media. Make it your own, and you could just make it bigger than you imagined.
Gail is a Chicago-based food scientist who writes for leading US and European food and technology publications. A devotee of all things shiny, electronic and buzzing, with a passion for building on-line communities and conservation, she is an entrepreneur and founder of a sustainability and social media startup who moonlights on weekends as DJ Moongirl on Moonalice Radio. Clients range from rock bands and media companies to high-tech startups.