INTERVIEW: Faisal Sultan, Internet radio entrepreneur

frisky radioFaisal Sultan is the founder and owner of FRISKY radio, a 12-year-old EDM pureplay station. (See its Pureplay of the Day coverage here.)

Sultan has overseen three distinct growth stages of his Internet radio startup. FRISKY became a sufficiently viable business proposition for Sultan to resign from his position at AOL, where he had worked as an engineer and product lead for ShoutCast, Winamp, and AOL Radio. He left the company last August, before AOL announced it would shut down ShoutCast and Winamp in December. The sunsetting action never occurred, and both units were reportedly acquired by Radionomy at year’s end.

We spoke with Faisal Sultan about how he built his pureplay station, how the business is framed, and his feelings about the ShoutCast product he helped create.

RAIN: How did Frisky get started?

In college I DJ’d. My background is in tech. At AOL I was on the ShoutCast engineering team in 1999. During late-night coding sessions, I started streaming music as a test. When ShoutCast.com actually launched, we needed content. In 2001 I started streaming my station. I started seeing the same IP addresses coming in [to listen] every day, tuning in. Pretty soon I started getting contacted by DJs who wanted to air their mixes on the stream. It didn’t have a name yet. My DJ name in college was Frisky, so that was a logical name.

So, it ran along with whatever playlist I had. Around 2007 I got together with some people who would run it with me. We decided on a show format, as if it were a TV station. We had certain shows playing at certain times. We’ve always been focused on exclusive shows. We never believe in syndication. We are still 100 percent exclusive to Frisky. I think that’s a huge differentiator. Curation is coming back into vogue, and it’s something we’ve always believed in.

Last year that EDM got bigger. We decided to focus all our energies into it. We started the subscription model last year. We’re in a pivot moment. We’re growing, and we have features and products in the pipeline.

“My DJ name in college was Frisky, so that was the logical station name.”

“We’ve always been focused on exclusive shows. We never believed in syndication.”

“We’re growing. We have features and products in the pipeline.”

RAIN: How does the business work?

We don’t run any audio ads right now. We are focusing on the user experience. It’s tricky. You can’t tailor ads to a specific genre. With EDM, ads can be disruptive. And if you lose listeners, they’re probably not going to come back.

We want to focus on the on-demand part, and enhance the subscription business. People don’t want to own music anymore. They’d rather listen on-demand. Subscriptions provide more than 50 percent of our revenue. Subscribers get a better user experience on the website. The ads are gone. They can listen to all DJ sets at anytime — unrestricted, unlimited plays. Subscribers can also download the mixes.¬†We are working on a dashboard that would let them follow favorite DJs and shows.

When it comes to traffic, we look at TTSL (Total Time Spent Listening). Last year’s was TTSL for all our streams over a million, which is fairly big since we only had one stream. [FRISKY now offers two stations.]

“With EDM, ads can be disruptive. And if you lose listeners, they’re probably not going to come back.”

“People don’t want to own music anymore.”

“Subscriptions provide more than 50 percent of our revenue.”

RAIN: At AOL, you worked on ShoutCast and Winamp. Was it an emotional shock when AOL announced that it would sunset those products? And if ShoutCast had been unplugged, would that have wrecked your business?

It would definitely have hurt a lot of smaller webcasters, like myself, who were sticking to that particular directory. ShoutCast has always been our directory. We have never used other aggregations sites. If ShoutCast had gone away … because of all the API programs and apps that use ShoutCast, that would have certainly hurt our numbers. And those of many other stations.

It was a learning experience for us, and we have taken the lesson: Diversify. Go into TuneIn and others, be in as many directories as possible. Get the station out there in as many ways as possible.

ShoutCast was my baby, if you will. I started out as an engineer, then was a product lead for four years. So yes, it was pretty sad [to think that it might be unplugged].

“If ShoutCast had gone away, that would have certainly hurt our numbers. And those of many other stations.”

Brad Hill

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