As a former journalist for National Public Radio, Steve Henn has lived and loved the radio and podcasts for years. But he wanted to find a way to combine the best of each format.
Henn liked the on-demand nature of podcasts, but he wished they came in shorter lengths than their typical hour-long format. He also liked the concise nature of radio stories, but wished the format allowed customization beyond the listener simply changing the station.
In 2016, Henn set out to marry the digestible nature of short-form radio news and sports with the convenience and personalization we’ve come to expect from on-demand podcasts. Henn teamed up with two longtime Netflix leaders, Steve McLendon and John Ciancutti, founded 60dB to do just that.
A year later, the 60dB skill for Alexa delivers today's best short audio stories—news, sports, entertainment, business, and technology—all personalized to each individual’s tastes.
Making Radio Personal for Customers
Ciancutti, a product engineering leader, and McLendon, a product marketing leader, shared Henn’s vision for a customizable radio-listening experience.
“It's not that we are not fans of podcasting,” says McLendon. “It's just that we feel like it addresses only a small portion of what people want to listen to, and certainly not how they want to listen.”
Most people listen to the radio during their daily commute. On radio, they can hear shorter stories about the topics of the day, often in five- to 10-minute segments. But while listeners can pick which podcast they play, it’s the broadcasters who pick the stories they hear on the radio.
To fix that, 60dB created a backend infrastructure that sources content from existing terrestrial radio—think public radio and ESPN—and also sweeps public RSS feeds for daily short-form podcasts from outlets like The Wall Street Journal. On the front end, iOS and Android apps let customers specify the kinds of stories they’d like to hear, then deliver them a variety of personalized audio feeds of short, relevant stories.
The 60dB team wants to reach listeners where they are. That’s why the Amazon Echo and other devices with Alexa were the next logical step for 60dB—even before porting the app to other mobile platforms.
“We wanted to be in all the places where people want to listen, and listening at home is a big use case for us,” says McLendon. “Alexa was a really exciting innovation as it brought direct internet connectivity to the consumer listening experience in their home.”
A ‘Super Easy’ Development Process
Baq Haidri is the primary engineer who developed the 60dB skill using the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK). Haidri is an experienced developer, but this was the first time she had created an Alexa skill.
Haidri made two big decisions right from the start. First, to keep the voice interaction simple, the skill would deliver content only from the main feed configured in the mobile app. (Usage metrics showed most app users listened only to this feed.) Second, the skill had to deliver the personalized experience apps users were used to.
Haidri credits a mature SDK (the Alexa Skills Kit) and other Amazon resources for making her development “super easy,” including:
For personalization, the skill uses 60dB’s existing backend infrastructure to monitor how a user interacts with their content feeds. It records what the user plays, what the user skips, which stories the user completes, and more. All that information gets swept into algorithms that tailor future feeds, making the 60dB listening experience even more enjoyable.
Customers ‘Excited’ to Listen to 60dB on Devices with Alexa
If 60dB’s co-founders are happy to have brought a personalized radio-like experience to listeners, its listeners are even more enthusiastic. McLendon says people started asking for a 60dB Alexa skill as soon as the company launched its iOS smartphone app last October.
“They’re excited they can listen to 60dB on their devices with Alexa. We're looking to add in features like search and switching to other feeds, but we're really happy with the reception,” he says.
To experience personalized radio, enable the 60dB skill and just say, “Alexa, play 60dB.”
Build a Skill, Get a Shirt
The Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) enables developers to build capabilities, called skills, for Alexa. ASK is a collection of self-service APIs, documentation, tools, and code samples that make it fast and easy for anyone to add skills to Alexa.
Developers have built more than 12,000 skills with ASK. Explore the stories behind some of these innovations, then start building your own skill. Once you publish your skill, mark the occasion with an Alexa dev shirt.