Gas, grass or apps

Like Pandora, Slacker foresees a shift in streaming to the car

Slacker Radio was born as a dedicated portable music player, and it found its eventual home in the smartphone. But new CEO Duncan Orrell-Jones anticipates that his music and radio streaming service will one day relocate again – this time into the car dashboard.

While Silicon Valley has generally kept its distance from the automakers’ in-dash development programs, Slacker and myriad other audio streaming services like [company]Pandora[/company] and iHeartRadio have taken a keen interest in bringing their apps to the connected car.

Duncan Orrell-Jones
Duncan Orrell-Jones

Slacker has already optimized its app for 10 different in-dash platforms, ranging from Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay to Harman’s Aha infotainment systems and the automakers’ own operating systems. In 2015, Slacker’s service will be integrated into 100 vehicle models made by 15 different automotive brands, and those number will increase to 167 models and 20 automakers in 2016, Orrell-Jones said. Slacker most recently landed on [company]Toyota[/company]’s Entune and Lexus’s Enform systems.

Why the interest? By Orrell-Jones’ own admission, vehicle infotainment systems are still a small part of Slacker’s streaming volume. But 40 percent of all radio listening today happens in the car, Orrell-Jones said. Bringing Slacker to the car isn’t just about competing with Pandora or Spotify, it’s about going to head-to-head with FM radio and SirrusXM, which has built a business around 25 million paying subscribers.

“We’re still in the early days, but I can say with confidence the car will be very important to us in the future,” Orrell-Jones said.

Slacker hasn’t publicly released any subscriber data since 2013 when it revealed it had about 35 million registered users (most of whom subscribe to its free, ad-supported personalized radio service), and it isn’t breaking out how many of its users are listening in their vehicles. To a large extent, Slacker doesn’t know.

Very few cars on the road today actually actually have a connected infotainment system that can directly support Slacker’s app. Many consumers, however, are plugging their smartphones into their dashboards via Bluetooth or USB, using their cars as an auxiliary speaker system. To Slacker, those users look no different from someone listening to Slacker while running or working out at the gym.

Tesla Model S infotainment center
Tesla Model S infotainment center

But Slacker is learning a lot from the subscribers who are using Slacker’s integrated app on platforms like [company]Ford[/company]’s Sync AppLink and [company]Tesla[/company]’s infotainment center, Orrell-Jones said. Users who take Slacker into their cars spend 50 percent more time listening to its content than users who use it on their phones or the web alone. Those in-car listening sessions to be shorter, averaging 20 minutes compared to 52 minutes on the smartphone and 1 hour and 48 minutes on the web. But car listeners average three sessions a day, double that of web and mobile listeners.

In total, Slacker is seeing an average of an hour per day spent listening in the car, which is above the average daily commute times of 51 minutes. Its users are not only more closely with Slacker in the car, they’re making Slacker one of the primary entertainment sources while driving, Orrell-Jones said.

Today Slacker plays the same content and runs the same ads over its car apps as it does over its web and mobile apps, but Orrell-Jones said Slacker could eventually start optimizing the listening experience specifically for the car (Pandora has already started selling ads specifically targeted at its in-car listeners). Driving provides a lot of context, so Slacker could customize listening playlists based on driving or weather conditions and even pre-select the type of radio content you’ll want to listen when you first turn the ignition.

“What I listen to on the way to work to is very different from what I listen to on the way back,” Orrell-Jones said. “That kind of personalization will be relatively easy to integrate into Slacker in the future.”