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Pandora Founder Tim Westergren Wary Of Facebook's Approach To Sharing

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LAS VEGAS -- Internet radio site Pandora was one of the first companies to embrace Facebook's instant personalization push, a controversial feature that outraged privacy advocates and allowed websites to tap into personal information users had shared with Facebook.

But Pandora now seems to have had a change of heart when it comes to Facebook's approach to sharing.

The social networking site recently unveiled a "new class of social apps" that, once approved by a user, will automatically publish all of his or her activity on the app to Facebook -- every article read, every song listened to, every television show watched. While other music streaming services such as Spotify, Rdio and Slacker have launched apps that take advantage of these capabilities, Pandora has so far steered clear of Facebook's latest move to increase the information its users post on the site.

Pandora founder and chief strategy officer Tim Westergren told The Huffington Post that he thinks there is a limit to the type of information individuals are comfortable sharing on Facebook, and that Facebook's new apps risk alienating the company's users.

"Music, on the one hand, is a very social thing. We listen to music together, we go to shows. But I think there's also a very private dimension to it. Many people are self-conscious about what they listen to," Westergren said. "We've surveyed our listeners and a small percentage of them want people to know what they're listening to all the time. And we start with a fundamental respect for what our listener wants and what's in their comfort zone, not how we can grow or how we can increase referrals."

Westergren acknowledged that Pandora's earlier partnership with Facebook had caused headaches for the company, which was criticized by users and privacy advocates alike for tapping into personal data.

"We got some blowback. When that [instant personalization] came out, there were some upset people and that was a lesson learned for us," Westergren said. "Some said that it was great, but there were some listeners who said, 'Wait a minute, maybe Faceook says that's okay, but what are you doing?'"

Pandora's Jessica Steel, executive vice president of business and corporate development, added that while Pandora has not yet embraced Facebook's new sharing apps, the company has not ruled out plans to do so. Pandora's size -- it attracts more than 47 million listeners each month -- and the diversity of its userbase requires the company to carefully consider the implications of integrating Facebook's sharing technology, Steel said.

"I can see it being a really impactful early growth mechanism for companies that are just getting stared. I think it would have a different nature for us at our size and scale," she said. "We have an open dialogue with folks at Facebook and consider them a friend, but as Tim points out, we care most about what our customers want."

Pandora's holdout is notable in light of Facebook's aggressive push to attract more partners, from media companies to automakers, that can help it to grow its platform. Facebook preaches the power of social media and insists that nearly any industry can be transformed by integrating social features into offerings. Indeed, some companies, such as Yahoo, which launched a news reader app on Facebook, have praised the site's "frictionless sharing" apps for growing their readership and increasing referrals.

But Pandora's reluctance, especially given of its previous enthusiasm for pushing the boundaries hand-in-hand with Facebook, suggests the social network's ambitious plans may hit speed bumps due to partners' privacy concerns and fears that overly aggressive integrations will estrange users.

Pandora's most pressing concern is conquering the car, which the company sees as the next frontier for growth. At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, an annual consumer tech tradeshow, the internet radio company was keen to show off technology that allows users to play Pandora playlists from their car stereo systems. The move into the automobile marks Pandora's efforts to take on what it sees as its biggest competitor: traditional radio stations.

"We believe that it [the car] will figure really prominently in our listening and engagement story over time," Steel said. "It's a story that will play out gradually, but ultimately people will wake up and say it's just Pandora in cars these days, and FM radio I hope will be in people's memories at some point."

Traditional FM radio stations, and even satellite radio services such as Sirius, offer more than just music, however. To compete, Pandora will have to continue growing its listening options. The company has already launched a comedy site that archives clips and allows users to create playlists of gags from stand-up greats including Chris Rock, George Carlin and Mitch Hedberg.

Westergren said Pandora is considering how it might apply its Music Genome model, which indexes music based on a host of attributes, to other categories.

"Certainly we think about how we want to play in news, talk, weather and sports, and how we do it in a unique fashion, much as we've done with comedy," Westergren said. "We're not there yet, but we think about that."

Westergren, himself a former composer, is also particularly excited about Pandora's potential power to support artists. The company pays royalties to musicians and publishers through its licensing deals, and Westergren said that independent musicians, who make up 70 percent of the artists in Pandora's catalog, are seeing a meaningful cut.

"I think Pandora is going to be part of a renaissance for musicians," he said. "I think we're going to help build a musicians' middle class. That's something we think a lot about and are beginning to work on."

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