Wahwah.fm offers a social take on pirate radio

Where Turntable.fm offered a new spin on going clubbing, Berlin-based service wahwah.fm is a modern take on the pirate radio concept — with the advantage that it’s more mobile and legal.

The app, which is launching today on iTunes Germany, turns every iPhone into a social radio transmitter: users can create web radio stations based on their iPhone libraries, listen to other people’s stations, message those people and list broadcasts as Facebook events.

And crucially, they can only listen to what the DJ is playing at the time. They can look back through that person’s playlist history to get an idea of what to expect, but they don’t know what’s coming up. This promises a live and serendipitous experience, but it also makes dealing with the music industry a damn sight easier.

“Today technology allows us to have social networking, to know what others are listening to, but when it comes to mobile it hasn’t happened so far,” CEO Philipp Eibach told GigaOM. “This has been the basic observation, but finding ways to do this from a technical and licensing side is tricky.”

Right now, the service is iPhone- and Germany-only. But the app’s reach will expand by region before it goes onto more platforms: the U.S. will get its turn around the time of SXSW, with the UK and France coming next. An Android version will emerge sometime in the second half of the year, and there are plans to address the Windows Phone platform after that.

As any digital music provider will be able to attest (yes, Spotify, that’s you), rolling out across multiple countries is a world of hurt. Record labels like to maintain a complex international web of separate arrangements, and cross-territorial licensing is not in their DNA.

Wahwah.fm hopes to skirt this issue by having partnered with U.K.-based 7digital as its music provider. Tough luck for those hoping to stream their own recordings on their stations – although wahwah.fm hopes to include this functionality in the future, for now the app simply finds what music the user has in their iPhone library and offers up whatever matches 7digital’s thankfully hefty catalogue.

The advantage of this approach is that 7digital, not wahwah.fm, takes over most of the haggling with the labels. Wahwah.fm still has to bargain with a few record companies, but its main dealings are with various countries’ collection societies — and because its streaming is not on-demand, the company considers itself to be a radio service, and it intends to pay royalties on that basis.

“We definitely want to go worldwide as soon as possible,” Eibach said. “Taking the radio-licensing approach makes it easier to bring it to other countries – you don’t have to negotiate with each label for each country.”

The company has had quite a bit of backing from the German old guard. It originally came out of Telekom Laboratories and the company, founded in 2010 by Eibach, got early funding through Deutsche Telekom’s Entrepreneurs Program. Wahwah.fm also completed a funding round in November that was led by the venture capital fund of SAP co-founder Hasso Plattner.

Income, for now, mostly comes from location-based marketing. The company offers labels and music retailers their own stations, along with the opportunity to target users in a specific place when a new album is coming out there.

But more location-based advertising is on the cards, as are in-app purchases that could let users customise the appearance of their channels or send out push notifications inviting people to listen in.

As for future updates, wahwah.fm told GigaOM it intends to upgrade the app with live audio capabilities, so users can provide on-air-style links between their tracks. A gamification element may also be added at some point, rewarding users for broadcasting for a certain number of hours or gaining a target number of followers.

This is technically wahwah.fm’s second app in the iTunes store, as the company briefly tested a “pre-version” last year. But unfortunately for those who enjoyed the way that version used Soundcloud as its music source, that functionality is not found in the new iteration.