SAN JOSE, Calif. – A new service is taking personal taste in music to another level by combining elements of Internet radio, portable music and satellite distribution.
A startup led by a team of veterans in the digital music arena seeks to offer "personal radio" that lets users choose the tunes, genres or artists they want, and listen to them on the go.
Slacker Inc., based in San Diego, launched its radio service Wednesday, making its Web site, http://www.slacker.com, available in a beta, or testing, stage.
A separate Wi-Fi-enabled pocketable gadget that will be able to play the personalized selections will be available in the early summer, with models ranging roughly from $150 to $299, the company said.
A car kit that will deliver the music via satellite signals will be available later in the year at a price yet to be disclosed.
Here's how it works:
Users who log on to Slacker can begin listening to music from more than 10,000 stations that are built around specific artists and preprogrammed genres.
Users also can create their own stations by indicating what types of songs they want and letting the Slacker "DJ" — a mostly automated system based on complicated algorithms — fill out the station program with more content.
Customization adjustments to stations include choosing "more popular" versus "more eclectic," or newer versus older music. Users can click on a button to ban a certain song. Clicking on a "heart" button will mark the track as a favorite and cause the song to be played more often on that station.
Users also will be able to e-mail their friends with their favorite stations.
After the Slacker players become available, users will be able to have their personal radio stations delivered to the portable devices. (Slacker says it will push radio tracks to the portable players or car kits, on which they'll be stored for playback. The gadgets will not have to be connected to a wireless network for playback, the company said. They'll refresh the music data whenever the devices detect a Wi-Fi or satellite connection.)
The basic Slacker radio service is ad-supported and free. A premium level of service that is set to launch in the second quarter will cost $7.50 per month, eliminate advertising and give users more flexibility and features.
"It's on-demand access to radio tracks," said Jonathan Sasse, Slacker's vice president of marketing. "People will be able to take it with them, and they won't have to work for their music."
Sasse, the former chief executive of portable player company iRiver America, joins the who's who list of Slacker executives who are betting Slacker can fill a need that hasn't been addressed yet in the growing market of digital music.
"The only problem is that until now, personalized radio has been stuck on the PC. Slacker solves that problem," said Slacker co-founder and Chief Executive Dennis Mudd.
Mudd was the co-founder and former chairman and chief executive of Musicmatch Inc., a pioneering online music jukebox software provider that was sold to Yahoo Inc. (YHOO) in 2004 for $160 million.
Some companies, such as Pandora Media Inc., already provide online music-customization services, but analysts say Slacker is the first to make "personalized music" portable — not tethered to a laptop, desktop computer or home media server.
"They're leveraging multiple distribution channels, so they won't be just satellite radio and they're not quite an online music provider either," said IDC analyst Susan Kevorkian. "And they're providing a high level of ease-of-use for the consumer that no one else has offered before."
The Slacker Personal Radio Player, which is about the size of a deck of cards, sports a 4-inch color screen and can also store and play back digital music and videos that a user owns.
Slacker also is looking to integrate its radio service in devices made by others, including cell phone makers.
Slacker's president, Jim Cady, is the former chief executive at Rio, a pioneer of MP3 players. Its vice president of sales is Steve Cotter, who previously held the same title at both Rio and Altec Lansing Technologies Inc., an audio systems maker that was acquired by Plantronics Inc. (PLT) for $166 million in 2005.
The startup, which currently employs about 50 people, has its work cut out. Competition in the digital music space — in both services and gadgets — is fierce.
"Slacker has modest expectations," Kevorkian said. "The management team is going into this with its eyes open, with years of experience behind it and good ideas in front of it."