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Nov. 8, 2021, 9 a.m.

The dream of customized audio news isn’t working out (at least not yet)

Google “streamlined” its audio news offerings by ending its algorithm-customized briefing. Who’ll figure out the best way for listeners to discover short audio news?

In 2016, one of the more interesting startups we’ve covered here at Nieman Lab launched. 60dB, named for the volume of a calm human voice, launched on what was still the front edge of the current podcast boom — a year of 2 Dope Queens. Code Switch, and Homecoming. And like all my favorite startups, 60dB was a clear expression of a single idea: People like audio that comes in shorter packages.

Podcasting in 2016 was largely a realm of serialized true crime (Serial had debuted two years earlier), political anxiety, and shaggy two-guy chat chats. Shows were mostly long — 20 minutes on the short side, ∞ on the long. To use a public radio metaphor, podcasting was doing a decent job of replacing weekend shows — single-topic shows, long interviews, a certain remove from the news cycle. But it was nowhere in terms of matching NPR’s weekday flagships, Morning Edition and All Things Considered — shows that were aggregations of lots of shorter stories, a mix of newsy and timeless, chosen and ordered by editors rather than user choice. You didn’t tune into ATC on the evening commute for a specific piece of audio; you tuned in because you trusted the show to offer a smartly assembled mix of short stories.

60dB wanted to be that trusted assembler; it’s no surprise that one of its co-founders was public radio veteran Steve Henn. Its major product was an app that offered “high-quality, short-form stories,” as our Shan Wang wrote back then:

Users open the app, and it take signals from what subjects and types of stories and even people they’ve indicated they like, and 60dB will refine that feed of stories over time. The stories available on the platform will be easily searchable and contain familiar content aggregated from elsewhere, but also plenty of shortform content is new for the platform — emphasis on short.

There are “incredible stories people aren’t getting to hear,” Henn told me, whether because the length of many of the available podcasts “don’t fit into people’s lives,” or because it’s too difficult to discover shorter programming in single place.

Small pieces, loosely joined. It was an interesting idea! Interesting enough that it was only months before Google swooped in to buy it. Google was busy trying to match Amazon in the smart speaker game, and maybe something 60dB-like could be a differentiating factor for people thinking “Amazon Echo or Google Home?”

Google’s version, named Your News Update, was announced a year later and launched a year after that:

“We are combining Google News with the interactivity and voice experience of Google Assistant,” said Liz Gannes, a former reporter for Recode, Gigaom, and AllThingsD who is leading the initiative. The company has spent the past year working with around 130 publishers to build a prototype of a news radio station that customers can control — using voice to skip stories, go back, or stop and dive further into a given topic. It’s built using each story as an individual chunk, rather than a briefing of stories chunked together…

“Imagine if you ask for news and get a quick update on the stories of the moment, then you get stories that speak to your personal preferences and interests. It’s like your radio station,” said Gannes. If you tune in in the morning on your phone, you might get a quick update. If you listen in your car — or anywhere else throughout the day — stories you heard earlier won’t repeat.

Of course, 60dBers weren’t the only folks thinking about this problem. NPR One, née the Infinite Player a decade ago, has seen success serving an analogous function within the public radio ecosystem (though its audience seemed to plateau last year). PRX Remix did something similar within its slightly more adventurous universe of content. But it was interesting to see someone outside the radio establishment — whether a tiny startup like 60dB or a world-crushing megalith like Google — try to pull it off.

It hasn’t worked out as hoped, as 9to5Google’s Abner Li reports:

In November of 2019, Google upgraded Assistant’s “play me the news” capability with personalized audio digests. Google Assistant has now removed “Your News Update” and gone back to only offering standard sources.

For the past two years, Google has offered two “News playlist format[s].” The original “News briefing” dates back to the inception of Google Home and was comprised of short shows that you manually choose to hear and can re-order.

In comparison, “Your News Update” offered a “mix of short news stories chosen in that moment based on your interests, location, user history, and preferences, as well as the top news stories out there.” If you keep listening, Google plays longer-form content, with Assistant introducing “which publishers and updates are next” in between clips.

Fans of Your News Update are now greeted with a message in the app: “Your News Update is no longer available, but you can still get the latest news from your favorite shows by adding them here.” A Google spokesperson called the removal a “streamlining” of “our audio news products to improve users’ experience.” And thus another worthy experiment falls to the wayside.

Audio is hard, from both a publisher and a consumer perspective. You can skim a text story, decide whether it’s worth your attention, and click that back arrow all in a matter of seconds. An audio story is far more opaque; if it only gets really good four minutes in, how will you find out? Podcasts are built around a subscription metaphor because the brand equity of a show is critical in letting the user know whether the content will be good; if you know you like The Daily, chances are good you’ll like today’s episode, and tomorrow’s, and the one after that. But that makes discovering new pieces of audio extremely difficult — which is what makes things like in-app promotion and word of mouth so critical. (How often does a snippet from a podcast episode go viral? It almost always takes someone moving it into another medium — a text story or a tweet.) And all of that is doubly hard for shorter content, which requires the user to make more decisions more often.

From a news perspective, it’s important to figure all of this out. For one thing, most journalism doesn’t lead to multi-year investigations like a Serial or an In the Dark. Most journalism is timely, local, and short — all the things current podcast discovery isn’t particularly good at. The most successful news podcasts, like The Daily, tend to tell a single story at some length rather than several in quick succession. Audio news on smart speakers is a very real thing, but it’s still mostly about an individual brand or an individual show — “Alexa, play NPR,” or “Hey Google, play the latest episode of Post Reports.”

As much righteous anger as society has summoned against Facebook’s, this seems like a situation that cries out for an algorithm. And Google — well, Google knows algorithms. If it couldn’t figure out a way to assemble the sort of audio news packages that users want, that’s a decent sign that we have a lot more hard thinking left to do.

Happily, we still have human-made news briefings like top-of-the-hour news and commercial radio’s “news and weather on the 8s.” And trusted news brands — like public media, national newspapers, and TV networks — will continue to benefit from this de-algorithmed audio web. But it’s a shame that audio news hasn’t brought the same flowering of formats, sources, and energy that the web brought to text-based news. There’s nothing for audio discovery as good as, say, my Twitter feed for discovering text stories. Who’ll try to figure it out next?

Photo by Sayan Majhi.

POSTED     Nov. 8, 2021, 9 a.m.
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