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'Rocks' or 'sucks'? Jelli lets radio listeners play DJ online

Doug Gross
Users vote on which songs play with Jelli. Once a song is on the air, Jelli users can yank it off with enough "Sucks" votes.
Users vote on which songs play with Jelli. Once a song is on the air, Jelli users can yank it off with enough "Sucks" votes.
  • Jelli radio lets listeners battle to set the playlist on growing number of stations
  • Service was created by former Amazon and Microsoft staffers and is currently on 25 stations
  • Listeners give songs a thumbs-up or thumbs-down and can even vote them off as they play
  • Internet Radio
  • Radio
  • Internet

(CNN) -- Do you think radio would be better if you could see the next 100 or so songs scheduled to play and rocket the ones you like from the bottom to the top of the list in real time?

What if you could bomb the ones you don't like, seconds before they're supposed to play, or even make the DJ yank a painfully offensive tune once it's on the air?

Listeners to a growing number of U.S. radio stations now have that chance.

Jelli, a Web-based service created by former staffers from Amazon and Microsoft, offers stations a portal to let their listeners, in effect, use crowdsourcing to program their shows.

Creators say it's a way to marry traditional terrestrial radio with the online tools that, for the past decade or so, have been creating a new wave of competition for them.

"We thought ... what would it look like to kind of reinvent radio? Could we create something new with something old?" said Michael Dougherty, Jelli's CEO.

Launched in 2009, Jelli is now used by 25 radio stations with formats ranging from rock to pop to alternative. The service lets stations link on their websites to a database of hundreds, or thousands, of songs they've selected. From there, the users take over.

A thumbs-up vote moves a song up the playlist, and a thumbs-down sends it downward. Each user also has a limited number of "rockets" and "bombs" that carry extra approval or veto power -- basically, a regular vote on steroids.

Once a song is on the air, it's still not safe. As it plays, users can click buttons reading "Rocks!" or "Sucks!" Enough of the latter, and the song is ripped from the airwaves.

(The first tune to get such an "honor"? Kings of Leon's "Sex On Fire" on KITS-FM in San Francisco.)

There's also a chat feature to let users interact and an automated voice that announces which user rocketed a song to the top before it plays.

"We wanted to make radio more social and more fun," Dougherty said. "In one night, we have four times the amount of actions per user than Pandora would see for an entire year," he added, referring to the popular internet-based radio service.

"We're trying to make something new, a new experience that really shows the audience they're in control."

WPST-FM, a pop station broadcast out of Princeton, New Jersey, has been using Jelli for about a year.

In January, the station extended its Jelli show to a four-hour weeknight slot starting at 8 p.m., and programming director Dave McKay said ratings have been slowly climbing ever since.

McKay said it took the station's listeners a while to warm up to the concept.

"It takes them a second to get past being cynical," McKay said. "(They say) 'Really? Am I really going to get to control it?'

"Once they actually get in there and play around with it, it's addictive. The game really gets you and draws you in."

McKay said the Jelli interface, which has an iPhone app and an Android version on the way, is a nod toward the demographic his station is trying to reach.

"The people who are listening at night tend to be a little bit younger," he said. "Whatever they're doing, they're most likely (also) on their computers.

"There are definitely formats that it especially lends itself to. A pop station, an alternative station ... [has] a little more plugged-in audience that's hipper and more connected" than, say, an oldies station, he said.

On its face, the service may look at one more way for traditional radio stations -- many owned by huge broadcasting conglomerates -- to do away with DJs and other staff. But Dougherty said most of the stations using Jelli have an in-house DJ to host the show.

"People ask me if Jelli kills the DJ, and the answer is no," he said. "(At most stations) the DJ wasn't really picking the songs anymore anyway. With this, the DJ is now having a very active show, talking about the action, kind of like a sports commentator."

He said the format also gives programming directors freedom to include more songs in their databases than usual because they'll only air if enough listeners want to hear them.

Unsigned Bay Area electro-pop group The Limousines got significant air time after fans rallied to get them included in KITS's Jelli database and then worked consistently to get them on the air, he said.

"It does create a more eclectic, more interesting sandbox," Dougherty said. "It creates a sort of unexpected nature to what's going to play."


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