December 26, 2013

Text-based journalism has Flipboard and Zite. Music has Pandora. Video has YouTube. Tapping into elements of all these services for a different form of media is Rivet News Radio, the first product from Chicago-based startup HearHere Radio LLC, which launched earlier this month.

The Rivet app — iOS only for now — taps into two of the day’s biggest buzzwords in echoing other new media successes: mobile-friendliness and customizability. It occupies an aural space somewhere between podcasts that you deliberately seek out and radio news that you listen to just because it’s on and you’re trapped in traffic during your commute.

During my visit to Rivet’s tiny downtown Chicago newsroom, just across the street from the Willis Tower, news head Charlie Meyerson explained to me the vision for the service: “Our mission is to provide one riveting experience after another.”

That’s a tall order requiring a deep well of stories considering users can be very specific about which categories of news they want to play and can skip anything that doesn’t interest them. Yet that skippability also frees Rivet reporters — who are all working on a contractor basis for now — to take time with stories when warranted.

One very cool application of radio “freed from the tyranny of the clock,” as Meyerson puts it: an interview with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, which surfaced on my Rivet feed first as a traditional, short radio segment of highlights. Then, it transitioned into the full, in-depth, unedited conversation with Emanuel. Listeners uninterested in the full interview could simply skip ahead to the next story, but listeners who wanted it all could hear it without needing, for instance, to remember to go online for the rest.

Another example: When Newtown 911 tapes surfaced, Rivet could air them without worrying about offending listeners. Traditionally, radio journalists would err on the side of caution and not air certain content even if they thought it had news value, or they would warn listeners to turn down the volume if children were in the car or if they preferred not to hear something.

But with the option to skip ahead to the next story, listeners of Rivet could decide for themselves whether to listen to the Newtown tapes. That’s an advantage of adaptable Internet radio that goes beyond simply providing movie news to listeners who like movies, or North Side traffic news to people located on the North Side.

‘Set it, forget it’

Rivet uses a “set it, forget it” strategy allowing for minor tweaks along the way. It’s a formula that should be familiar to users of Pandora or Zite: Tell the app upfront what you’re interested in; then, once it serves up some content, indicate what you like and don’t like as you see fit.

The minor tweaks users make to their personalized algorithms can be tracked in the Rivet newsroom, helping editors see which stories are most skipped or given a thumbs-up. That brings a level of accountability to Rivet’s reporters and hosts that text-based journalists have faced for years with web analytics, Meyerson said.

Indeed, Rivet’s goal is to bring radio news up to speed with other forms of Internet content in various ways, according to HearHere CEO and founder John MacLeod, who occupies a corner space — but not an office — in the startup’s crowded, lively newsroom.

“Ten years ago, the Internet was primarily a desktop experience,” MacLeod told me. “But radio is primarily a mobile experience.”

Customizable, mobile radio just wasn’t practical in the past, he said. But now, cloud hosting allows startups like Rivet to get off the ground without the millions of dollars in capital that would have been required just for servers in the past. And mobile data plans — structured to handle video streaming — can easily handle streaming audio when Wi-Fi isn’t available.

MacLeod, previously of Navteq, where he helped pioneer automotive navigation systems, said the ultimate vision is to expand into cars and into different markets, where Rivet’s personalized, free, ad-supported business aims to compete with satellite radio.

If a hands-on radio experience seems to be a poor match for cars, Rivet has thought of that, with its simple car mode that might be even less distracting than the typical car radio:


MacLeod said the app combines two powerful features: customization and search, which allows users to build their own playlists, including the latest episodes of popular radio shows such as NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” The whole idea is to bring radio fully into the Internet Age.

Said MacLeod: “It’s kind of ironic that the first media — radio — is the last to go to the Internet.”

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
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