Mention African-Americans in radio and the first thing that comes to mind is likely the deluge of brown artists who’ve left an indelible print on American music, followed by the Black disc-jockeys who made them famous. Next, some might recall the handful of entrepreneurs, like Cathy Hughes, who steered vast urban radio empires.
But there is one Black radio entrepreneur, who by the nature of technological innovation, finds himself in a league alone.
His name is Ayinde Alakoye. And even if that fails to ring a bell, chances are you know his work.
In 2007, he created the mobile app that Clear Channel turned into iHeartRadio, the broadcasting giant’s flagship Internet radio platform that boasts 70 million users.
And in 2010, after a stint writing speeches for President Obama, he launched Hitch Radio, the first mobile application to merge social media and music, effectively connecting people from around the globe to radio stations around the globe.
Before the age of 40, this tech entrepreneur, with a knack for divining the future, created two of the most significant radio innovations of the last decade. But before he set about retooling an industry, he was a boy coming of age in D.C. during the era of the cassette tapes and walk-mans. Like most music lovers of his generation, his cultural life centered around the boombox.
“I grew up in a single parent household,” says Alakoye, whose father was murdered when he was seven. “Donnie Simpson in Washington D.C. used to get me off to school each day because he was the male voice I would hear.”
In spite of the tragedy that haunted his formative years, he still waxes nostalgic over better times spent bonding with family and friends over music.
“When we were kids, we would call each other up when one of our favorite songs came on, like ‘Roxanne’ or whatever,” he remembers. “We’d call each other up a say ‘Hey, turn on the radio!’ And you’d hear the song playing in the background. Somehow, when you listened to radio together, the same song, it made it more special.”
The musical seeds were sewn early on, but Alakoye, who graduated from Juniata College with a marketing degree, would play professional beach volleyball for several years before trading in his shorts for a suit. As a media sales professional, Alakoye quickly climbed the ranks at WTOP in his native Washington D.C. before moving on to Clear Channel and CBS.
And then, just as his career began to crest, in classic entrepreneur fashion, Alakoye left corporate America to pursue his unique vision for radio.
“I realized that the radio industry hadn’t evolved,” he says. “And that you could have content on your phone but people weren’t doing it for some reason.”
In 2003, he started a company called Thumb Radio, which sought to make every local station in the country accessible via mobile phone. Today, that concept is ubiquitous, but in 2003, Alakoye was early to the party. Thumb Radio debuted four years ahead of the iPhone, and five years before Apple launched its app store, which coincided with third party app development.
In 2007, Alakoye approached Clear Channel with his novel technology. At the time, the radio giant had nearly 1100 local radio stations streaming live on about 1100 different websites.
“I went to Randy Mays, one of the owners of Clear Channel, and I said ‘All of your radio stations should be on one property and you should stream them on mobile platforms’,” he says.“He loved the idea and we formed what is now the basis of iHeartRadio back in 2007.”
The partnership was momentous, but even in 2007, the tech world was ill-prepared for streaming on a mobile platform. The costs were so exorbitant, carriers refused to foot the bill.
Clear Channel ultimately rebranded and launched iHeartRadio in 2008, but by then, Alakoye was waist deep in a new radio venture. Having witnessed radio survive the digital era, and the migration from cassette to CD to mp3, he was ready to up the ante.
In 2010, he introduced an application that would do for radio what Instagram did for photography—make it social. Hitch Radio, as he describes it, “makes it ridiculously easy for you to share live broadcast radio with your friends.” The mobile app allows users to access some 33,000 live radio streams from all over the world from a search bar. Users can also instant message songs as they play, using a unique ephemeral messaging technology— the message containing the song only lasts for its duration.
This would be the new-school equivalent of dialing a friend and saying turn on the radio. In many respects, Hitch radio preserves a radio tradition that is inextricably linked to America’s on-going love affair with the automobile, and the ubiquitous experience of driving while listening to terrestrial radio.
Hitch employs the car analogy to relay the experience of listening to the radio with someone else at the dial. Followers are “hitchers” who can ride solo, with a friend, a perfect stranger, or even a celebrity like Melanie Fiona or Sinbad, both of whom have profiles on Hitch.
With streaming services like Spotify and Pandora digging into the terrestrial radio share, Hitch shows promise among listeners seeking the classic local experience. A promising venture, Alakoye raised over $2 million for Hitch, and recently inked a deal with Google.
His advice to aspiring entrepreneurs of color is to mine their own community for seed money before tapping traditional sources of venture capital.
“I would advise anybody to start in your community,” he says. “We’re the only community that goes outside of our community first to raise money.”
The magic for Alakoye may also lie in mining his own passions, as cliche as it sounds. He began listening to radio as a kid, and never stopped. Even as the Internet upended the music industry, he found a way to remain true to radio, all the while remixing the platform for the 21st century.
Music aside, Alayoke says his ultimate inspiration will always be the woman who raised him.
“I think my mom showed me entrepreneurship at a young age,” he says. “She had her own Amway business and we used to sing motivational songs together. I got the bug at a very young age because she taught me about freedom. She taught me about living the life of your dreams.”
Hitch Radio is available for download on both iOS and Android devices.