Inside Pandora Comedy: Three Years In, the Promise and Limits of Streaming Comedy Radio

“Before I started working here, I didn’t realize there was an entire genre of comedy marketed specifically to truckers,” says Kelly Anneken, comedy curator at Pandora Internet Radio. “Not my cup of tea, comedically, but these guys are everywhere.”

If you’ve never heard of trucker comedy either, don’t worry: you’re not alone. Discovering the charms (or lack thereof) of a new kind of humor is at the heart of Pandora’s comedy mission. The station was launched on May 5, 2011, and over the last three years the online streaming and recommendation service, which famously uses its Music Genome Project to create custom stations for listeners, has continued delving ever-deeper into the pool of recorded comedy.

In doing so, Pandora has potentially engineered a unique way for standup fans, both expert and novice, to discover new performers, as well as giving newer comics the opportunity to be heard side-by-side with established ones. The company has also bet a lot of its time and money on the fact that the system works as well with comedy as it does with music. But three years into the experiment, is Pandora Comedy working?

“Even if you had nothing but a five-minute clip, on Pandora people will notice it,” said Anneken, an Oakland, California-based comic. “It’s this interesting new way to build a fan base that has never existed before. It’s different than going on Twitter or Facebook. You’re actually doing what you do best in front of a potential audience.”

Since launching in 2005, Pandora has amassed about 75 million active monthly listeners, making it one of the top players in the digital streaming world. Earlier this month the company reported listeners spent 1.71 billion hours on Pandora in March 2014 – up 14 percent from the same period in the previous year.

Even before its 2011 IPO, during which the company was valued at $2.6 billion, Pandora had decided to add comedy to its repertoire. The collection now features more than 2,000 comedians and nearly 30,000 comedy tracks, as well as 30 pre-programmed channels ranging from straightforward stations like “2000s Comedy” (e.g. Nick Swardson, John Mulaney) and “PG Comedy” (Jim Gaffigan, Eugene Mirman) to more interpretative combinations like “Ridiculous Relatives Comedy” (Kevin Hart, John Heffron) and “Holiday Cruise Control Comedy” (Iliza Shlesinger, Pete Holmes).

“It was something our listeners were asking for, and the chance to move into comedy programming was primarily prompted by the listeners showing their support,” said Anneken, who joined the company in late 2010 – about six months before Pandora officially launched its comedy offerings. “I know it was definitely affected by the comedy renaissance.

Comedy is booming, and trends on Pandora tend to mirror the broader comedy world. “With certain artists, somebody appears on their Comedy Central Half Hour or releases an album or is on a late night show, and you see the time spent listening to that station increase,” says Anneken. The company couldn’t officially disclose the site’s most popular comedy tracks, but said that, as with music, the most popular acts and tracks reflect Top 40 and iTunes. “This is all working together.”

Pandora accepts submissions from anyone, of any level, and each submission is reviewed before it enters the company’s database. The most common reasons for rejection on Pandora are largely technical, such as poor engineering or recording quality.

As is the site’s policy with music, Pandora tries to provide material without judgment. “Our goal since the launch is just to create the most comprehensive library possible and expand our collection as much as we can,” Anneken said. “We try to stay neutral and that’s where listener feedback comes in.” Comedy stations, like their musical counterparts, evolve with listener feedback. Giving a “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” to a track feeds data to the site’s algorithm, which then recognizes relationships between tracks and determines which track is played next.

With music, influential characteristics on the Genome tend to be things like tempo, melodic patterns, or genre. With comedy, factors include parallel but separate elements such as content, sarcasm level, pace, and profanity. “We look at subject matter and the type of delivery – are they setups and punchlines, or even misdirects?” said Anneken. “Do they do callbacks, impressions, a point-of-view? Women telling jokes for women? Black comics telling jokes for a black population? All of those things go into the hopper and what comes out is comics who are similar.”

It can make for an eclectic listening experience, to say the least. As an experiment, the co-authors of this piece set up individual Pandora stations based on George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television,” arguably the most famous standup track of all time and one we both enjoy. We had hoped that, with our input over time, we’d arrive at perfectly-curated, distinctly different stations that reflected our own tastes.

Instead, after listening and tweaking our stations every day for more than a week, we couldn’t overcome two of the original track’s most objective qualities: the era of the recording and the overt vulgarity. Important as those elements are to the bit, they fail to fully capture what makes the joke a classic. The resulting stations focused heavily on older, cruder material, with the occasional highlight (Bill Hicks blew in like a breath of fresh air) and throwback (Lenny Bruce also waltzed through, given his influence on Carlin’s style). Even then, the number of repeats from seemingly tangential artists like Jackie “The Joke Man” Martling, Pat Dixon, and Chris Rush turned the stations increasingly tedious over time – an ongoing Pandora-wide issue that Anneken says is constantly being improved.

All incoming comedy tracks are pored over by a half-dozen comedy analysts – all of them working comedians – and entered accordingly into the company’s software. “We created this qualifying test to make sure [the analysts] had a pretty broad understanding of the comedy landscape and could speak about different figures in the comedy world, and we had them do a basic analysis of a comedy bit that was similar to what we had in the genome,” said Steve Hogan, Pandora’s music operations manager. “So we were looking for people who understand comedy and also had analytical mind that seems compatible with our [system].”

Once in the system, the track analysis provides building blocks for the recommendations. “The algorithm is able to relate this single piece of music or comedy to everything else in the databases, and we can calculate the distance from this once track to every other track in our collection,” says Hogan. “The genome solves what the engineers call the ‘cold start problem,’ where you have this piece of content but really don’t know anything else about it. The genome helps us figure out intelligent ways to get it started in the Pandora ecosystem.”

“After it’s started, the greater influence turns over to the listening audience,” Hogan added. “You can like things up and down, you can skip tracks, and you can change and create stations. There’s a lot of intelligence around that data to figure out where this track is working and where it’s not. If the genome recommends the song to 50 different comedy stations on Pandora, we have a large enough listener base now that we can learn quickly where we got it right and where we didn’t, and we can be nimble about making adjustments.”

The similarities between comedy and music makes standup more compatible with Pandora than, say, talk radio, sports, news or weather content – other audio-only formats that neither age well nor share the same creative and content-related traits. And in diving into comedy, Pandora is now swimming against every other form of audio-only standup, from terrestrial and online stations like the 24/7 Comedy network to Rooftop Comedy and Sirius/XM. Getting it right is important.

Creating a George Carlin Pandora station in hopes of discovering a formerly unknown genius didn’t work out for us. But that’s largely because Pandora’s goal isn’t to provide the listener with mind-blowingly original content. Rather it’s to find something you’ll comfortably enjoy, that flows from one track to the next in a cohesive and pleasant listening experience. It’s also because no recommendation system is perfect. Even large sample sizes (in our case, a dozen-plus comedy tracks per author, per station, per day) can easily and quickly skew in one direction or the other.

The variety of the content on a given station is often a reflection of the listener. Thumbs-up a track you’ve already heard from a well-known name and you’re likely to get more of the same. Listen all the way through to something new and a little different, and you might get more obscure choices thrown your way. A single thumbs-up or thumbs-down can change the trajectory of your station for dozens of tracks to come. Or not, especially if you’ve chosen a starting-track defined by its iconic traits.

Unlike TV shows and satellite radio, which can makes deals to favor comedians from a certain agency or play content from a particular label, Pandora claims all its tracks are given equal weight. And while podcasters tend to reward their friends, regardless of the compatibility of their comedy, Pandora only cares about pleasing an audience of one. Whether or not it’s a perfect system is beside the point. If discovery is paramount at Pandora, the company’s respect for standup history and its ever-growing comedy catalog are certainly a vote in favor of that.

Photo credit: Dan Dion 

Inside Pandora Comedy: Three Years In, the Promise and […]