Michael Robertson takes on Pandora, Web radio

The founder of MP3.com and MP3tunes.com says the next step for Web radio is freeing fans to make their own programming decisions and give them more full-featured offerings.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
3 min read

Web radio and cloud music are hot--largely thanks to the recent success of Pandora, but that doesn't stop Michael Robertson from declaring that what online radio currently offers is "lame."

Robertson, the controversy-courting founder of MP3.com and Linspire, is preparing to roll out a new online music service called BYO.fm. He said that BYO taps into Web radio's potential to enable users to act as their own program directors.

"All online radio does now is transfer audio over the Web," Robertson said. "Web radio should be personalized."

BYO, which stands for "Bring Your Own" is built on top of Robertson's MP3tunes.com, which offers digital music lockers. Users can access copies of their songs from Robertson's servers using Web-connected devices. With their own music, BYO users will be able to create their own music programming as well as be able to fast forward and rewind. "They have total control," according to Robertson. The real hook here, though, is BYO's incorporation of news, weather, and sports.

A user can program a playlist to include, for example, the results of NCAA basketball tournament games or CNN news reports. They can choose what time to hear it and how long the content will play. To do this, BYO draws from the user's favorite sports sites, and with the help of text-to-speech technology provided by Pittsburgh, Penn.-based Cepstral, delivers the information in an audio format. BYO users are even allowed to choose their broadcaster's voice. The service offers a variety of different digital voices, including one that sounds like U.S. President Barack Obama. BYO is compatible with iPhones, Android-based devices, and Internet radios, such as Logitech's Squeezebox.

Michael Robertson James Martin/CNET

Robertson and indeed Pandora, the top Web radio service that recently reported its first quarterly profit, are trying to stake out turf in a potentially lucrative market. According to a story in Themusicvoid.com, Pandora's managers recently said that Americans listen to about 20 hours of music a week and radio listening accounts for 17 of those hours.

In the case of MP3tunes, business has been slow going. The company has yet to make the kind of mark left by MP3.com, Robertson's pioneering digital music service. MP3.com started out in the mid-1990s as a digital stage for indie music artists to promote their work online. Then, after a public offering, Robertson tried to branch out by offering music listeners the ability to store their tunes on his servers and access it from PCs.

The music industry responded by nearly suing MP3.com out of existence. The brand was eventually bought by CNET.

If that business model sounds similar to what Robertson is doing with MP3tunes.com, well, it's similar enough for EMI to have filed a copyright lawsuit against the company in November 2007. That case continues to play out in the courts.

Meanwhile, Robertson continues to look for new directions in which to take digital music. At the core of his beliefs about consumers and the Web is this: technology has freed consumers from editorial decisions made by others.

"That's one of the reasons why newspapers have been so ravaged," Robertson said. "We used to be dependent on an editor's decision about what to put on the front page. Now consumers can make those decisions for themselves."