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Rokkus Radio is more than a radio station, it's a community with bucket loads of personality, a lot of heart, and a dedication to trans-media storytelling. Rokkus Radio follows the story of a once-famous rock radio DJ named Rey King and his wild life running an online radio station as told through the interactive medium of a Ning community and bolstered by social channels including Facebook, Twitter, SoundCloud, ReverbNation, and YouTube. Instead of listening to radio, fans choose which character to follow, what story to dive into or what show to listen to, and Rokkus provides music and entertainment 360 degrees around them.
We caught up with John Starr, founder of Rokkus.com, at SF MusicTech this year and were intrigued by the story, so we invited John to discuss his creation in greater depth. John has all the charisma you'd expect from the creator of "Spinal Tap for online radio," and we're grateful he took the time to tell us a bit about the operation and his community of Rokkhounds.
The narrative reality radio station highlights great rock music and Rey King shares the airwaves with strange and funny cohorts including "a paranoid mall cop, a teenaged android, a real-life pirate crew, an alien from outer space masquerading as an old blues man, a punk rocker who lives in the dumpster behind the building, and a beautiful young woman with a strong scent of brimstone."
Warm up to Rokkus Radio and its colorful cast of characters by listening to the hilarious snippets embedded below.
Tell us a bit about your community.
It started in late 2011 and I run it with a little help from volunteers.
What made you start a dedicated online community?
I started Rokkus.com as part of an alternate reality storytelling project I was developing. My background is in screenwriting, acting and media production but I have also help run 2 tech startups and have managed networks for some large non-profits. I started this project as a way to bring those two parts of my life together.
It started out as a story about a guy who runs an online radio station. So I started researching online radio and I saw how easy it was to run a station online, I thought that instead of a book or movie, I would script a radio station. Use a station full of characters to tell their own story, in real time, over a bunch of platforms. That way I could tell a story in real time by having them interact during their broadcasts. In playing around with the storytelling, I found I needed a more dynamic way for the characters to talk to each other. I originally had a website with discussion boards. Then I got a little funding and decided to use a Ning community to further develop the characters. I figured that eventually fans would want to talk to them directly and have an effect on the story, so I wanted a dynamic community.
What others tools does the Rokkus machine run on?
We use Ning, Live365, Weebly, ReverbNation, MusicXRay, Facebook, YouTube and increasingly Twitter. And a lot of Google Docs.
What other options did you consider?
I am pretty much a one man band on the tech side of things. I contract some stuff out and have a bunch of folks who pitch in on audio projects. But the web stuff is almost all on me. I needed something more robust than chat rooms, so I began to learn Drupal in order to build the site of my dreams. But I have a LOT of other hats to wear and to be honest, Rokkus.com would not be here like it is if I had to learn a CMS and build it myself. When I found Ning, I literally dropped what I was doing and signed up.
Have you achieved your original objectives?
Absolutely. Ning has allowed me a way to manage content, flesh out the characters and maintain a community. My goals for the site were different, I think, than a normal community manager. I am using Ning as a canvas, so almost all of the content on the site is generated by me or other actors. We are creating content that future audiences will come and explore. But the story must have the element of time, so we have been planting storyline seeds in content for a while. All of this while we built the 24/7 radio station. We now have 7 shows on the air, we have a network of artists involved and we rock
This summer we're beta launch-ing and doing some live events. We have an IndieGoGo campaign rolling out next month. We've got some other things set up that should get us noticed. We are looking at a big influx of members in the coming months so the community will start to grow and form. It's gonna be cool.
How do you measure success or the ROI of the time and effort you put into cultivating your community?
As the community grows I'll better be able to answer that question. Much of the creation of Rokkus is in upfront sunk costs that will amortize over the lifetime of the property. So it will ultimately be valued based on it's popularity in the future. Hard to tell, but I think the production costs through Ning are negligible.
You’ve got a pretty large following on Facebook, as well. Do you have advice for managing a complimentary Facebook page for your community?
OK, first off it helps to have no life and spend too much time on Facebook and other socials. It also helps to have a wife who does the same thing. I manage my page /ourmanstarr and /rokkusradio. Each of the characters has a page -- and I am the online curator for /localmusicvibemarin.
It also helps to have popular friends who send traffic your way. I have been lucky enough to attend the San Francisco Music Tech Summit for the last three years and I have made great connections with companies that later became partners. When someone like ReverbNation puts in a good word for you, it really helps.
I think it also points to the popularity of the idea. We have continuous built Facebook with nothing but word of mouth marketing. When I tell people that I am building a comedy, parody radio station and they hear about the characters and the music, they fall in love a little bit. They get excited. I've had people thank me without having ever listened to the station. Probably later regretted it, but they said it, so it counts. It is the story of a plucky band of misfits trying to save rock and roll, so anyone who loves the underdog takes to it.
A big part of Rokkus Radio's structure is that we can deliver the story to other platforms like Facebook and Twitter as channels. So using Ning, with it's ability to cross post to Twitter (and then on to Facebook) lets me cover all the bases from one location.
Are the DJ’s and listeners interacting with each other in the forums? How do the DJ’s like having that closer relationship with their fans?
As of right now, the production hasn't fully launched, so we haven't seen a lot of interactivity. There have been some users who were very active and had fun with the DJs. Once we have a larger membership and listenership I see this closeness being a big attraction for us.
Any tips or lessons learned for running a live radio show?
Haven't really done a live show, but I have had to so some announcing in the past. I would say: Say as little as you need to until you get comfortable and watch your "Umms" and "You knows"
What features of the Ning Platform are most important to you and your members?
Right now, the most important feature for me is the ability to post music. Most of my members are bands and they post their own music and I post music from bands that have submitted with host introductions. It is the best way to get to know the hosts and a fun way to hear new music.
Do you have any advice for other people similar to you who are considering building an online community?
I don't think I am sucessful enough using it as a narrative medium to dispense advice!
What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned by creating Rokkus Radio?
How active the rest of the world is in Rock music. A big number of my listeners and members come from non-english speaking countries and the music from those countries Rocks! Some of it is in English, some of it is in their native language, but it is the real deal. The tradition of rock music has gone global and the next stage in it's evolution is worldwide inclusion.
Favorite Rokkus moment?
We accept in submissions from anyone through ReverbNation and MusicXray. We play a lot of music from bands that are great, but have never been given a chance by anyone else. I had spent the better part of my Christmas vacation reviewing around 3,000 submissions from bands. I selected about 9%. That's a lot of chaff. My friends and family got used to hearing me grumble about bad music, weak vocalists and endless song intros. When I was done, I sent out a mass email to the bands that had been accepted. It was just a quick not to tell them when they'd be on and what Rokkus was all about. Then i went to bed, glad I was finally finished with that load of submissions.
When I woke up, I grabbed some coffee, sat down, checked my email and started deleting the non-delivery notices and the out-of-office auto responders. In the middle of it all was an email from one of the performers. He had written back less than an hour after I sent out the mass email. He wrote the most heartfelt note, thanking me for accepting his song. He told me of how hard it was to get music played on the radio, how impossible it was to get an agent or record contract if you live in the mid-west and how much trouble he had keeping his spirits up. Then he thanked me for believing in him. This was such a wonderfully heartfelt note, I am not ashamed to say tears came to my eyes.
That's when I realized I wasn't in the "online radio" business, or the "transmedia entertainment" business, I was in the business of hope. Of helping dreamers. Of supporting dreams. Forget the phony DJs and the stories and the games -- this is the heart of Rokkus Radio. Reaching out a helping hand to artists, musos and bands.