With Alexa, NPR’s Ha-Hoa Hamano Is Changing How We Listen to News Radio

Kellie Garnett Feb 11, 2021
Women of Voice Inspiration Spotlight

What do backseat babies, Alexa, and independent news radio have in common? Just ask Ha-Hoa Hamano.

A University of Michigan graduate with a degree in communication media studies, Hamano started her career as a communications specialist for a non-profit organization. Soon, however, her childhood fascination with technology reasserted itself—and Hamano spent the next 12 years in product development for various tech companies, from startups to large global brands. When she landed a position at National Public Radio (NPR) to lead a team of engineers and VX designers, she knew she’d found the perfect marriage of communications and technology.

Since 2015, Hamano has pushed the boundaries of voice programming at NPR—engaging listeners with newsfeeds and stories that they can interact with and control via voice and changing the way people get their news. As the Senior Product Manager of Emerging Platforms, Hamano, with her team, delivers innovative, quality voice programming for NPR listeners in a way that makes it more engaging than ever before. This includes development of the NPR skill for Alexa, which has accumulated more than 27,000 reviews and boasts 4.3 stars in the Alexa Skills store.

“We were there at the Echo launch with the NPR News Now flash briefing and shortly afterwards developed our on-demand news skill in 2016 and said Hamano. “We might have been content with those skills and called it good. Instead, we keep pushing forward to make our voice programming more engaging than ever.”

From Backseat Babies to Reaching New Listeners

When Hamano joined NPR, she was a relatively new listener herself. However, she quickly recognized the importance of offering broadly appealing programming, no matter the demographic or how experienced the listener might be with NPR content. Hamano says voice is the ideal medium for delivering content of varying formats to appeal to all types of listeners—whether it is a two-minute breaking news story, a 30-minute feature, an episode in a series, or something completely new. And with over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices in consumers’ homes, hands, and vehicles, NPR is able to reach more listeners than ever—including those who might not have tuned in otherwise.

For example, many long-time listeners are what NPR likes to call “backseat babies” – kids who ingested NPR programming while riding in the family car with parents who kept the radio dial tuned into the station. Nowadays, even in vehicles that don’t yet have Alexa “built-in,” listeners can take the NPR skill with them on their mobile devices for a seamless experience on the road. Others, Hamano says, are introduced to NPR news programming who were not familiar with NPR before, thanks to Alexa.

Hamano recounts an elderly woman telling her that listening to NPR programming via her Echo Dot is now such an important part of her day, because she can’t get a good radio signal where she lives.

“The technology products I’ve worked on are cool, of course,” said Hamano. “But what excites me most about voice technology is how it furthers NPR’s mission to create a more informed public. With Alexa, we can do that wherever a listener may be, in their home or office, on their mobile devices, and even in their car.” 

Where Voice Programming is Going: Giving Listeners What They Want

Hamano says providing news and storytelling via Alexa skills and Alexa-enabled devices was just the beginning of what voice technology made possible for NPR. Her team tracks skill metrics—not to mention direct feedback and suggestions—to further innovate and provide more engaging experiences for NPR’s listeners. These insights led Hamano and her editorial colleagues at NPR to add more daily updates, mix local content into the programming, and allow listeners to pause, go back, jump ahead, and otherwise fully personalize their content playback experience.

“NPR may be radio, but we have a strong business case for voice programming,” said Hamano. “Our listeners set aside time for the news each day. We’re always finding new ways to fulfill their appetite for great audio storytelling and news in a way that makes sense to them—and keeps them coming back.”

Another key factor that fuels Hamano’s continued innovation is listeners’ strong desire for more interaction with NPR’s voice programming—and the steps they’ll take to engage with the company. One popular example of how Hamano’s team delivered such interaction was the 2019 trivia skill, Wait Wait Quiz, based on NPR’s popular Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me call-in radio show. Instead of calling in by phone, they gave the Alexa skill a new twist: listeners take the quiz by voice, receive a code from the skill, and enter it online—all for a chance to hear their name read out loud on the air.

“Our Alexa audience has grown so fast we’ve had to hire a second team to keep up with all the requests from NPR leadership,” said Hamano. “It’s exciting to give our listeners what they want in a voice-first experience that’s convenient, accessible, and always fresh. We’re firing on all cylinders to always bring new fresh energy into our voice programming.”

Voice Trend Prediction

“What’s exciting about where the voice technology trends are headed in 2021 is moving from transactional call and response to meaningful and delightful conversational experiences. We’re seeing it across demographics – young and old – that these have enabled companionship in ways especially in the pandemic that have made folks feel more connected to the world. It really hits at NPR’s mission to ‘create a more informed public, one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas, and culture.”

- Ha-Hoa Hamano, Emerging Platforms, NPR

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