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Tuning into local music scene from computer screen

Justin Zupnick

Justin Zupnick '12 is one of the designers of MegsRadio. Photo: Jeffrey C. Lu.

Justin Zupnick '12 knows his way around the world of music as a performer and publicist, researcher and reporter. Now you can enlist his help to navigate your local music scene from the convenience of your computer.

The communication graduate is one of the designers of MegsRadio, a personalized, regionalized Internet radio system, like Pandora or Spotify, designed to cultivate interest in an area's local music scene. It already has attracted more than 1,500 users since its Ithaca launch in August.

Users can create "stations" based on artists or genres they like. MegsRadio then throws relevant local artists into the mix. Zupnick's blues music might appear on a station created by an Eric Clapton fan, for instance.

"The idea behind MegsRadio is that it contextualizes local artists through more well-known artists," Zupnick says. "If you just see in the local newspaper, 'Check out Justin Zupnick, he's a blues guitar player,' it might not mean anything to you."

The site can also help users preview music by local and visiting artists who are scheduled to perform nearby, by creating playlists based on venues or events, such as Ithaca's Porchfest.

The website -- -- features an intuitive, interactive interface, which Zupnick helped achieve as "user experience designer." It currently works only on desktops and laptops; a mobile version is in development.

It belies a complex backend system featuring a set of machine learning algorithms developed by Cornell computer science professor Thorsten Joachims and Ithaca College assistant professor Douglas Turnbull.

The program they developed uses audio analysis to annotate music with tags related to things like genre, emotion or instrument, and to calculate a rough estimate of music similarity between artists. It boasts more than 8,000 artists with more than 2,000 tags. Soon, local artists will be able to submit their own songs and create their own tags.

"With Netflix you watch a movie, it's like a two-hour thing. But with music, within an hour you need 20 recommendations," Zupnick says. "Most local artists have a relatively small online presence, so machine listening is particularly important."

Turnbull, an Ithaca native, came up with the idea while he was an undergraduate researcher at Princeton in the late 1990s. He now employs his own team of student researchers from Cornell and Ithaca College as part of a project funded by the National Science Foundation. The site is named after his wife, Megan.

For Turnbull, it's a great community-oriented project that could help stimulate the local economy and arts scene. He hopes eventually to roll it out to other communities.

"Ithaca is a natural testing ground for MegsRadio since there is such a large and diverse local music scene. Once we get it dialed in here, we can imagine lots of other places like Austin or Brooklyn where MegsRadio could do well," Turnbull says.

For Zupnick, who previously worked in marketing at Atlantic Records and as a writer at The Cornell Daily Sun, it's been the perfect way to meld many of his interests.

"I started out studying media, and then during my last year at Cornell I did this extreme pivot and started studying human-computer interaction and user experience," Zupnick says. "Working on MegsRadio, I got to combine the two."

Andrea Alfano is a student writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Related links:


Thorsten Joachims' project site

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