NEWS-Getting Rowdy: local telco offers Nascar on demand

Forget Blackberry, with its emailing, web-surfing, picture-snapping features. The newest trend in cellphones may be– drum roll, please– Nascar. At least that's what local company Labrador Communications is banking on with its new service, Rowdy, available to 55 million American Cingular customers as of April 23.

"The idea of a phone being a piece of media is a salient concept," says Rowdy co-founder Tyler Sewell, who believes phones should stick with audio, rather than trying to be all things to all people. Sewell came up with the idea for a Nascar news-by-phone service over dinner nearly four years ago. "I literally wrote it on a napkin," he says.

It wasn't long before Sewell had rounded up a few of his former colleagues at on-line games company Kesmai– Tom van der Voort and Rusty Speidel– and a few investors. Finding money, he says, wasn't as hard as finding a corporate partner.

"We talked to Nextel and Sprint," says Speidel, "but for whatever reasons, they didn't work out."

Cingular, however, recognized the Rowdy potential after doing a survey of its own customers.

"They found that a quarter of their 55 million customers said they were Nascar fans," says Speidel. If those Nascar fans are willing to shell out $4.99 a month for the insider sports news, it doesn't take a math whiz to hear the ka-ching. A deal was soon inked, and Rowdy was on the road.

Part of the appeal of the Rowdy service, says Sewell, is the fact that it's "not overproduced. We tailor the concept to be personal." And the 12- to 15-minute daily audio content is supposed to be funny, too.

The hosts of the show are two fictional characters, Reginald "Buck" Fever and Leonard "Bass" Masters, who live in tiny Troutdale, Virginia, real-life hometown of Sewell's wife, Catherine.

Sewell, who plays "Buck" and van der Voort, who plays "Bass," spent months honing the concept they call "Saturday Night Live meets Nascar." In character, the two conduct interviews with real Nascar drivers, read the news, tell stories about life in Troutdale, and banter with other visiting fictional characters. Because Sewell is familiar with the tiny town, "We make references to real places," he laughs, confusing people who wonder whether Buck and Bass might actually exist.

Big name race car drivers and sports reporters also make guest appearances on the Rowdy show.

"You have a former driver interviewing a current driver," says van der Voort, explaining the goal is to allow fans to ask questions that typical sportscasters don't answer for them.

"It's less voice of God," says Sewell, "and more giant watercooler."

In the recording studio inside their downtown offices, Sewell and van der Voort, who has a theater background, slip in and out of character, laughing as they play back some early– and especially rowdy– segments of the Rowdy show, including a few that Cingular deemed far too racy for race fans. Current content is family friendly, says van der Voort, whose flair for the theatric is undeniable.

"I did some voice-over work in New York," admits this one-time advertising director, who says part of the appeal of the Rowdy gig is "the high level of creativity" it affords.

Just 200 Cingular customers currently subscribe to the service, but Sewell says the company hasn't yet begun its marketing blitz. "We're just trying to make sure it works," he says. And he's confident that once the advertising for the service ramps up, the customer base will rev up.

"We found something here," he says, "that works for race fans."

Rowdy guys: Rusty Speidel, Tom van der Voort, and Tyler Sewell calm down for a brief moment