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Dash Radio: What happens when Apple swipes your mic? (Q&A)

When DJ Skee launched his startup, he didn’t anticipate going head-to-head with Apple Music’s most popular feature, but he isn’t letting Beats 1 knock him down.

At 6 feet 3 inches tall, DJ Skee isn’t often the little guy, but everyone looks small compared with Apple.

The Cupertino, California, tech giant is known for following established trends with polished products and services. What does that mean for a fledgling company that paved the way? Scott Keeney, better known as DJ Skee, said explaining his startup got a little easier, especially to people who thought he was crazy.

Skee spent a decade as a DJ for radio giants like LA’s KIIS-FM and satellite radio service Sirius XM. That was long enough for him to see what was going wrong. Too many commercials and the lack of freedom to be musically adventurous were making radio unlovable, he said.

So he quit and launched a startup a year ago: free Dash Radio, a digital network of live radio channels with a mission of expertly picking the right tracks.

“We want to bring back the magic of what live audio could be,” Skee said.

Unfortunately for Los Angeles-based Dash, Apple had the same idea.

When Apple Music launched in June with a three-month free trial, its live worldwide radio station, Beats 1, was among the most lauded features because of inventive programming and expert hosts.

With Apple Music’s first free trials due to expire Wednesday, Skee spoke to CNET about what it was like when the technology giant moved into a niche he had carved.

Q: Apple’s Beats 1 is fundamentally similar to Dash Radio, your startup. What’s that like?
DJ Skee: We don’t necessarily look at Apple Music as a direct competitor as much as, say, iHeart Radio or Sirius XM. Apple Music only has one station, and its main goal is to get people to start using subscription services. It just happens that Apple is using radio services as marketing for that.

Bob Pittman, CEO of terrestrial radio giant iHeart Media, once joked that if Apple invented radio, everybody would be amazed. Launching Beats 1, Apple made good on that punchline, in a way. Will Dash be overlooked?
Skee: Just by the media power and the spending power that Apple has, it helped educate a whole group of people who didn’t realize how magical live radio could be.

People nowadays grew up in the era of corporate radio. For the past decade or so, if you turned on the radio, you had a 99 percent chance of tuning into a station owned by one of the big conglomerates. Chances are it’s the same 20-song playlist, and there’s a 1 in [3] chance you’re listening to a commercial. About 20 minutes per hour on traditional radio is commercials. There’s so much more music out today than there was ever before, and radio never caught up. They’re still in bed with the major labels. They’re still shady. Just being honest. That was one of the key reasons I left.

Apple has launched one station that has incredible content and top artists. We still think we have that too, on steroids. Plus ours is uncensored, and we don’t have ulterior motives, like trying to sell things.

Is there anything Beats 1 is doing that makes you envious?
Skee: Absolutely, I’m envious. No. 1 is just the budgets they have. It’s the most valuable company in the world, so they can afford to hire the biggest staff ever. But I wouldn’t trade places, because they’re more limited in what they can do.

The biggest thing is censorship [of obscenity]. I’ve talked to many DJs there, including some who started off with us but were offered a huge check to leave, and they’re frustrated with that. I understand why they have to be clean: It’s Apple, they only have one station, and they don’t have any other option. We have clean stations, and we have dirty stations.

I wouldn’t trade that, even though they have all the money in the world.

A few weeks before Apple Music launched, Dash had more than a million monthly active users. Where is it at now?
Skee: It has grown. It’s been climbing steadily every month. I don’t have the exact number, we haven’t disclosed it yet.

[Dash has more than 2 million monthly active listeners, Skee said in a follow-up after the interview. Apple hasn’t discussed monthly active listeners, but last month it said 11 million people have signed up for Apple Music free trials.]

Can you characterize how Dash’s growth rate has changed since the introduction of Apple Music?
Skee: It hasn’t gone down, but it hasn’t made a tremendous jump because of Apple entering the space. We haven’t lost anybody. The time spent listening is going up steadily, almost five minutes every single month, so about 35 minutes to 40 minutes per session right now. When we launched, we were at four or five minutes per session.

You’ve talked before about how you met with Apple to give the company more insight into Dash, in the hope of App Store promotion. Then Apple executive Jimmy Iovine took to the stage to introduce Apple Music with what sounds a lot like the same pitch you made. What happened?
Skee: I don’t want to make it us versus Apple. At the end of the day, the idea is radio. We took a system that has worked for 100 years but consumers weren’t happy with, and we made it digital and made it good.

With Dash, like every app company, we want to talk to Apple, just like we talk to Google and everyone about store placement. We showed them the product early on, and we have visited Cupertino. At the time, it was to say, “Hey, we’re not competing with Beats,” its streaming service at the time. “We compete directly with iHeart, Sirius — we’re live audio.” And they were always fans.

Then when we started hearing the rumors that they were getting into broadcast, at first of course it was daunting: “Wow, Apple is going to come in, they can do whatever they want.” But even if they’re taking a little bit from the concept, it still justifies the idea. There are people over there that were over here first. I’m not mad at it. Everybody has to do what’s best for them.

We don’t think that it makes sense for one company to own every space. Now, I’m the biggest Apple fanboy in the world. I’ve had an Apple computer since I was a kid, I’m talking on my iPhone to you, I have an Apple Watch on my wrist. Yet we don’t know if we want the same people that forced U2 onto my iPhone telling us what music is.

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