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So What Do You Do, Alan Levy, Founder and CEO of BlogTalkRadio?

This podcast innovator discusses how he turned a new radio concept into a reality

By Kristen Fischer - June 16, 2010
Taking an idea and making it a reality is no easy feat, especially when that concept is to allow readers to "hear" conversations on their favorite blogs. For BlogTalkRadio founder and CEO Alan Levy, that was the challenge when he launched the now leading podcasting platform in 2006. With a background in the telecom arena, Levy knew little about the exploding Web market and was forced to rely on an old business axiom to get started. "Always try to surround yourself with people that are smarter and know more than you do," he says.

Now, with about 1,300 new BlogTalkRadio shows popping up daily covering everything from the home birthing phenomenon to African-American conservatives, anyone's voice can be heard. And thanks to an amazing technology that lets you call in live and speak to hosts, Levy's little idea that could is succeeding online where terrestrial radio couldn't.


Name: Alan Levy
Position: Founder and CEO, BlogTalkRadio
Resume: Prior to BlogTalkRadio, was president of Destia Communications, an international telecom company which went public in May 1999 and was sold to Viatel in December 1999
Birthday: May 15, 1959
Hometown: Seaford, Long Island, New York
Education: BS in accounting, Boston University
Marital status: Married
First section of the Sunday Times: Business
Favorite TV show: The Office
Guilty pleasure: Expensive wine
Last book read: Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin
Twitter handle: @alanllevy

Tell me a little about BlogTalkRadio.
The idea behind BlogTalkRadio came about after creating a blog for my dying father in May 2006. Prior to creating this blog, I barely knew what a blog was. By being exposed to the enormity of the blogosphere, I kept seeing the words "join the conversation" all over the place. I couldn't "hear" any conversations and hence came up with the idea for BlogTalkRadio. BlogTalkRadio enables anyone to create a live, streamed online, archived call-in radio show using any type of phone including Skype.

The real power of BlogTalkRadio is the live aspect of the platform. By taking live callers or interviewing a panel of guests, this dynamic makes the conversation much more engaging then the majority of traditional podcasts, which do not enable live call-ins. We have also created a premium offering that allows our hosts to screen callers, which essentially replicates the producer function in a radio studio.

"When I started, I had no idea BlogTalkRadio would grow as big as it has. I didn't know any bloggers, podcasters, media companies, or tech venture capitalists, but I knew that we were at the early stages of a self-publishing revolution."

One major obstacle to being a successful business owner is limited funds. How did you secure the financial backing for BlogTalkRadio, and what advice would you give to others looking for investors?
Given my prior success in the telecom space, I was in a financial position to invest the initial funding for BlogTalkRadio. As our platform began to get traction and our business model evolved, we were in a position to secure third-party private equity funding. These are very difficult times to raise money. Capital is scarce, and risk capital is even scarcer. Develop your idea, validate your model, demonstrate a market size and need, and then execute. The capital will take care of itself.

A lot of people have business ideas but they aren't always successful because they don't tap into a big enough consumer need or want. How did you know that the market was ready for BlogTalkRadio?
When I started, I had no idea BlogTalkRadio would grow as big as it has. I didn't know any bloggers, podcasters, media companies, or tech venture capitalists, but I knew that we were at the early stages of a self-publishing revolution. Technorati indexed 100 million blogs in 2006. That's a lot of self-publishers, never mind what you see now with Facebook and Twitter. Also I thought that the mobile phone could be the next medium to create and consume content.

What were the biggest obstacles to setting up the technology platform?
In the early days, we struggled with scaling the network and to ensure that the platform was stable. No one had created a technology platform such as BlogTalkRadio, so we couldn't rely upon technology vendors.

How has BlogTalkRadio enabled authors to use it as a platform to promote their books?
Enabling authors and book publishers to engage their fans and audience in a live interactive manner is one of the strongest verticals for BlogTalkRadio. The authors need flexibility because they are constantly on the road and they can participate in shows using their mobile phones and don't have to appear in a radio studio.

We have top publishers like HarperCollins, McGraw-Hill and Hachette Book Group using the platform to promote some of their top authors. BlogTalkRadio has hosted original interviews with some of the most famous authors including Salman Rushdie, Paolo Coelho, David Baldacci, Andrew Morton, Jodi Picoult, and many others.

Tell us about the most successful show, in your opinion (besides yours). How has it reached its target audience and what does it offer its listeners?
You mean apart from the Mediabistro show on BlogTalkRadio? I enjoy many shows on BlogTalkRadio, and many are extremely successful. The most touching show I have ever experienced occurred just over one month ago. A host, Sunny Goodman died of a long-standing battle with cancer. A day or two before she died, she recorded her final show. It was like a self-written eulogy that was hauntingly powerful. Listening to this show made me appreciate the true power and appeal of the platform.

"Develop your idea, validate your model, demonstrate a market size and need, and then execute. The capital will take care of itself."

What is on the horizon for you and for BlogTalkRadio?
We are really excited about the many cool features we will be rolling out in the next few months. For example, in the fall we launched a platform called Cinch, which is like an audio Twitter, but you can add photo and text to it. A Cinch can be created using our iPhone app or any mobile phone. Later this month, we are rolling out a fully integrated transcription service. For a fee, our hosts will be able to record a show, have it transcribed and export the file to a PDF or into a blog post. Lastly, we are rolling out a high-fidelity digital service which will record the broadcasts in digital quality sound. Again, this feature will be a premium service.

We will also soon be offering an automated transcription service to our hosts. For a fee, hosts can elect to have their radio shows fully transcribed complete with timed stamping capabilities, exporting files to PDF, XML and other formats. The text-based transcripts will strengthen SEO efforts and provide our community with a tool to easily create text-based content.

What about for you personally?
I haven't really focused on what's next, but I am leaning toward teaching entrepreneurial studies at the graduate level. I feel that I can share some of my real life experiences with students as they head out into the "real world" and embark on their careers in a very difficult economic environment.

Internet trends come and go. Are you concerned at all about the future of podcasting or of it being displaced by the next new thing?
The pace of change and innovation is incredible. New applications come and go, and the public's attention span is minute. As I said earlier, we are in the early stages of a self-publishing revolution. Also, every major brand and company has a Facebook and Twitter profile. Everyone is seeking ways to engage their audience in an interactive way, and a platform like BlogTalkRadio is one of most interactive on the Web today. The phone network is the backbone of our platform, and the use of mobile phones to both create and consume content is only getting bigger.

It seems like BlogTalkRadio would be a major disrupter to broadcast radio. Have any of the big dogs approached you about buying you out?
I can't comment on whether or not we have been approached by large platforms, but no doubt we have developed a model which is worlds apart from terrestrial radio. The problem traditional talk radio platforms have is that they have very high content costs, production costs, labor costs, and compliance costs. At the same time, their audiences are declining spending much more time online and on their mobile phones.

The terrestrial radio companies have completely ignored social media and the behaviors of today's audiences. There are 500 million people logging into Facebook each month, do you think it makes sense to ensure that radio content is integrated with this platform? I look forward to working with the terrestrial radio space in helping them figure this out.

Alan Levy details how to create engaging content and grow an audience at the Social Media Marketing Boot Camp held from June 9 through July 28.

NEXT >> AvantGuildHey, How'd You Build an Entirely New Publishing Business, Eileen Gittins, CEO of Blurb?


Kristen Fischer is a copywriter, journalist and author living at the Jersey Shore. Visit www.kristenfischer.com to learn more.

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