Sonos, the Santa Barbara, California-based tech company that has been making network-connected audio hardware for 15 years, is now trying its hand at streaming by launching a new radio service within its mobile app—a free, ad-supported stream that will play exclusively on Sonos speakers.
A good portion of the content that’s available through Sonos Radio will be music and news streaming services that are already available in the Sonos app; now, that will be repackaged and produced as part of Sonos Radio. But it’s also the speaker maker’s first official foray into what it is calling original content, since some of the stations are platforms for Sonos-produced content, hosted by radio personalities the company has hired. Sonos also plans to leverage its existing relationships with famous music artists to try to draw listeners to celebrity-curated playlists.
Sonos is launching this new radio service during a global pandemic that has forced the shutdown of businesses around the globe and has led to many people sheltering in place at home. Ryan Taylor, the company’s director of business development, says listening on Sonos is up: The service is seeing a “New Year’s Eve-level of engagement most days now.” About half of that listening is dedicated to radio, including services like TuneIn that offer digital streams of radio stations. (Meanwhile, podcast listening in general has been trending downward.)
Sonos’ radio station plans have been in the works for a little over a year, Taylor says. “It’s an interesting time to launch something, but it was in no way correlated.”
The new Sonos Radio service rolls out today as part of a software update to the Sonos app. It includes more than 60,000 radio stations, according to the company, but again, the streams will be repackaged from deals with existing content partners such as iHeartRadio, Radio.com, and TuneIn, among others. Clicking on the Browse icon within the Sonos app will bring up to a list of the services you’ve already connected to your Sonos account; now Sonos Radio will show up there as well. (You can opt out of this listing, the company says, if you’d rather not use the new ad-supported radio service.)
I wasn’t able to try Sonos Radio in advance of the launch, but based on descriptions of the app and a short video of the interface, it appears that the radio stations are split into three buckets: Sonos Presents, Sonos Stations, and Local Radio.
The first is curated music and original programming, including something called Sonos Soundsystem. This is a channel hosted by Sonos-hired DJs (who were recording out of New York City until the pandemic hit) and will include guest radio hours hosted by artists like Thom Yorke and Jamila Woods. It’s a little confusing—again, I haven’t used the updated app yet—but Sonos Presents also seems to include entire ad-free stations that are created and inspired by people like David Byrne, Brittany Howard, and Yorke.
Sonos Stations is a roundup of more than 30 genre-based music listening stations—think Cocktail Hour, Indie Gold, Workout Remix. And finally, the Local Radio category will point users to the thousands of streaming radio options Sonos users already have, whether those are dedicated to music, news and talk radio, or sports.
At launch, the music streamed through Sonos Presents and Sonos Stations is being served by Napster.com. Taylor declined to talk about the specifics of the licensing partnerships that make this all work—or how deep Sonos’ direct conversations have been with music publishers—except to say that Napster is powering the underlying licenses and catalogs for what Sonos is calling its “owned and operated” radio services.
Sonos Radio is launching with some limitations. It’s only available on Sonos speakers, which means you can’t listen to the service when you’ve taken your phone out on your daily walk, or if your current role as an essential worker means you’re in the car a lot. You can’t use voice control, like Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, to launch or control Sonos’ radio stations; third-party voice control is something that Sonos has worked years to set up business deals around, and more recently it’s resulted in a contentious lawsuit between Sonos and Google. And Sonos Radio will only be available in the US and the UK, as well as Australia, Canada, and Ireland for starters.
Sonos says that the radio service will work on both newer Sonos speakers and older ones, even though it is splitting its operating system—and effectively creating a split between “old” and “new” speakers in peoples’ home systems—later this spring.
Part of Sonos’ reasoning behind launching this new service is that it is trying to solve a problem that’s not unique in this era of massive streaming media libraries and never-ending scrolls: discovery. Sonos believes a certain portion of its customer base just doesn’t know the best way to find good stuff to listen to in the current version of the app. As its streaming partners have ballooned over the past several years—it currently claims more than 120 partners—and as Sonos has started to integrate things like voice control, support for Apple’s AirPlay 2, and soundbar-specific features, it has had to find ways to simplify its app.
“Learning what’s available on Sonos is actually kind of hard today, if I’m being honest,” Taylor says. “So Sonos Radio was designed in a way to highlight content from our services for our users, right out of the box and free for them.”
But it’s also increasingly common for connected device companies to push further into services, as they look for additional revenue streams and for ways to hook customers into their products through exclusive software, in theory making those people less likely to ditch the hardware for another brand. “Sonos is following a few good examples, including Apple with Beats1 Radio and Roku with the Roku Channel,” Ross Rubin, founder and principal analyst at Reticle Research, points out. “The latter is a particularly good comparison because it’s leveraging the content of partners, but putting its own value-added spin on it.”
It’s possible that Sonos could eventually offer a subscription service, if Sonos Radio is successful enough to justify the model, Rubin says. But the company would have to move cautiously there: “It’s one thing to compete for listener time with your content partners. It’s another thing to compete for subscription dollars with them.” In other words, it’s one thing to nudge users away from going directly to Spotify in your app, and it’s another thing to try to get them to pay for your service in addition to (or instead of) a service you’re currently partnered with.
Sonos is also late in getting into the original audio content game, Rubin adds. “There are still interesting things happening in audio, like Calm and Audm, but there’s relatively little incremental appeal that’s going to come from supporting such services.” And while Sonos has a healthy audience for a high-end speaker company—it says it’s in more than 10 million homes, with 29 million active devices in use—that’s a small user base compared with the devices we carry with us all day long and can listen to almost any streaming music app on: our phones.
One thing that tends to set Sonos listeners apart is their brand loyalty. Sonos owners tend to buy more than one speaker, and as demonstrated a couple months ago when the company put out its initial plans for phasing out old speakers, they tend to be pretty vocal when something isn’t working for them. If Sonos can entice at least some of those customers to see Sonos Radio as a worthwhile service, that’s a start.
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