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Published November 05 2010

Morast: Pandora founder listens

It’s not often that one of the world’s 100 most influential people stops in Fargo-Moorhead to chat with the common folk.

It’s even less frequent when one of Earth’s great thinkers makes his local appearance not in the protective bubble of academia but in a coffee shop, huddled close to the people who are anxious to peek into his mind.

Fortunately for us, Tim Westergren likes to get close to the folks who helped land him on Time magazine’s 2010 list of the 100 most influential people in the world. That’s why he’ll be hosting a town hall meeting at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday in Babb’s Coffee House on Main Avenue in Fargo.

For those of you still wondering why Westergren is so important, he’s the co-founder of Pandora Internet Radio – the free streaming Internet radio service that uses complex math to create “stations” that appeal to your personal musical tastes.

Of course, Pandora’s been a hit with music nerds. But with the rise of the smart phone, Pandora has grown beyond a niche product to become one of the most popular, and essential, phone applications on the market. To wit, Westergren says Pandora adds 100,000 smart phone users every day.

His town hall appearances are an effort to stay in touch with those people making Pandora one of the most popular music services in the market.

“We feel it’s an invaluable way to keep the feedback coming,” Westergren says, “and also to cement a relationship with listeners, give them a chance to meet somebody human from the company.”

It’s an interesting turn of phrase because Pandora, and its predecessor the Music Genome Project, has always felt so anti-human. With its advanced algorithms that identify musical similarities and group songs with those qualities, the service kind of feels like the type of artificial intelligence that could make humans irrelevant.

But after talking with Westergren, a Minneapolis native, you quickly realize he doesn’t just view people as potential customers; he sees them as “partners” in his quest to make Pandora exactly what each listener wants it to be.

So where is Pandora going?

Well, Westergren says the free service won’t be disappearing and replaced by its premium subscription version.

“We fundamentally see our business as ad-supported free; we expect that to be permanent,” he says. “The big thing for us now is distribution, figuring out additional ways to make Pandora available.”

Such as working with car manufacturing companies to place Pandora in their vehicles.

“Half of all radio listening happens in the car, so that’s a big focus for us,” Westergren says.

And while some doomcasters predict broadcast radio will soon die a swift death, Westergren isn’t so sure.

He says 80 percent of music heard comes through radio stations. He doesn’t expect that to change. But Westergren does believe broadcast radio will be replaced by Internet radio.

If that happens, again, credit smart phones.

“We really are now in all the places that radio has historically been,” Westergren says.

Tuesday, he’ll be in Fargo mining our brains for any clues that could make Pandora better or more wide-reaching.

Give your ideas. It might make a difference.

If you go

Readers can reach Forum Features Editor Robert Morast at (701) 241-5518

or rmorast@forumcomm.com