Since it began six years ago, the Internet radio service Pandora has changed the way millions of people listen to music online. Now the company wants to do the same for comedy.
Last week, Pandora added 10,000 clips by more than 700 comedians to its archive, allowing users to sort through them in the same way they do the site's music: by picking a starting place — a comedian, type of comedy or even a specific joke — and then letting Pandora send a stream of similar material chosen by analyzing his or her taste.
"This is a logical step under the umbrella of personalized radio," said Tim Westergren, the founder and chief strategy officer of Pandora Media, the company behind the service.
The comedy offerings stretch back to the days of Will Rogers and W.C. Fields, and include most of the greats, past and present: Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Bob Newhart, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Pryor, Eddie Murphy, Joan Rivers and Cheech & Chong. For more specialized tastes, there are routines by Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Minnie Pearl and Yakov Smirnoff.
As with music, Pandora has developed a system to predict what its listeners will like. With the help of professional comedians, the company identified more than 100 traits common in jokes, from basic themes (ethnicity, family) and styles of delivery (dry, self-deprecating) to broader categorizations of how comedians toy with logic and language (spoonerisms, juxtaposition, misdirection).
Put together, these traits make a "genomic" composite of a joke or routine, and can be strung together to follow unexpected themes. For example, a listener who begins with Chris Rock may end up listening to Bill Hicks because of his similar "male perspectives, subject explorations, sarcastic delivery and slow delivery," as the service explains.
For Pandora, comedy is one piece in a broad expansion that has made the company one of the biggest players in digital music. For most of its history, it struggled to stay alive and raise money, but now, largely thanks to its popularity on smart phones, it has 82 million registered users and is preparing to raise $100 million in an initial public offering.
The company is still reporting losses, but they are getting smaller. According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Pandora Media lost $1.7 million for the year that ended Jan. 31, compared with $16.8 million the year before; advertising revenue, its main source of income, was $119.3 million in fiscal 2011, compared with $50.1 million in 2010.
Each comedy track on Pandora is about three to six minutes, with some made up of multiple bits by the same artist.