Swell Launches A Personalized App For News Radio Listening

Swell, a smartphone app launching today, is quickly becoming my favorite way to listen to spoken-word content.

There are other apps focusing on that kind of content — for example, when we wrote about Stitcher’s growth last year, we said it was starting to sound like “the Pandora of talk radio.” Stitcher, however, actually follows more of an on-demand model — you choose what you want to listen to (although there are also content recommendations). Swell, on the other hand, is closer to the Pandora experience, where you just open the app, hit play, and interesting content should immediately start streaming.

The startup behind Swell, Concept.io, is led by co-founder and CEO Ram Ramkumar, who was previously founder and CTO at image recognition startup SnapTell. (Amazon subsidiary A9.com acquired SnapTell in 2009.) Ramkumar told me that the team has been focused on making the experience as simple as possible — you can start listening to Swell at the beginning of your commute, and as you drive, you only need to interact with it if you want to skip a program.

Swell says that it has partnered with NPR, American Public Media, and ABC News, and it also includes podcasts from the BBC, CBC, Comedy Central, TED Talks, and others. As you use the app, it should begin to understand what your tastes and interests are. Ramkumar said there’s an element of human curation, so that only high quality content makes it into the app, and it also looks at the response from a larger user base to figure out what’s resonating.

Beyond just listening and skipping, users can tell the app that they’re currently looking for content around a certain topic, such as technology, and they can bookmark programs for listening later (which can be useful if you find something interesting that you’re just not in the mood for at the moment). There’s also a WiFi-only mode, where you download the content when you’re on WiFi and then listen while offline, which could be appealing for people who want to go easy on their data plans or who don’t have reliable cell signal during their commutes (like if they take the subway).

I tried the app out last night, and the experience was as seamless as Ramkumar promised. Even though I hadn’t done much to personalize the experience, I still thought there was a nice mix of content, starting off with some of the day’s big news and then moving into less obvious programs about business and culture. It balanced different topics and different program lengths pretty effectively, too. I don’t think Swell is going to replace my subscriptions to my favorite podcasts, but it could become my go-to app whenever I don’t have a particular podcast in mind, but I want to catch-up on the news or hear something thoughtful.

The app is free. Eventually, Ramkumar plans to make money with advertising and premium features. I also asked about whether he’s paying for the content, and it sounds like the answer is basically no, since these podcasts are available for free in iTunes, though the company is currently “in discussions” with some of the content providers.

“It’s a new product, and the business model is evolving,” he said, adding, “We respect content provider’s wishes. We don’t alter the content, and we’re giving it additional distribution.”

Swell is launching for iOS today, with plans to add Android soon. You can see a quick demo of the app in the video below.