In the smartphone era, many music fans are abandoning downloads and even broadcast radio in favor of subscription-based streaming services. You can just press Play on Pandora, Spotify, or Apple Music and you’ll hear an endless stream of songs tailored to your interests.
What’s strange, then, is that there’s no Pandora or Spotify for spoken-word audio—that is, for the huge volume of news, talk, and information that goes out over the airwaves every day.
Except, now there is.
Last October, a Silicon Valley startup called 60dB introduced an audio platform that co-founder Steve Henn calls “a Facebook feed for your ears.”
The 60dB service, which has been available up to now via an iOS app and an Alexa skill for the Amazon Echo, plays a personalized selection of short audio stories from organizations such as NPR, ESPN, the BBC, PRI, Bloomberg, Panoply, and Vox.
“We want to create an experience that allows people to listen to it like a magazine show that’s made just for you,” says Henn (pictured above). “What we want to do is replace radio.”
That doesn’t mean killing off the radio business, which, after all, generates most of the audio content that 60dB aggregates. Henn is talking about liberating short-form spoken-word audio from the appointment-based radio channels where it airs first.
“I could have a wonderful story, and if it airs at 6:00 a.m. and you turn on the radio at 8:00 a.m., it’s lost forever,” says Henn, who speaks from painful personal experience: for many years he reported on technology for public radio programs like Morning Edition, Marketplace, and All Things Considered. “The world doesn’t have to work that way. No other medium in the digital age is still stuck in that linear environment.”
Now, to get radio stories unstuck and help more people find them, 60dB has released a redesigned version of its iOS app, and introduced an Android version to match. Both apps will feature a new, souped-up visual design tailored for at-home use.
The previous version of 60dB was utilitarian, with huge text and buttons, because the company originally thought people would use it mainly in the car and wouldn’t need or want to spend much time looking at it. “One of the things we saw in our data was that more than half of our plays come from Wi-Fi, which was an indicator to us that people were often using the app at home,” says Steve McLendon, another co-founder of the company. “So the new design is much more forward-leaning in terms of visuals.”
But while the app has a more polished look, more important changes have been made under the hood. One is the addition of a personalized recommendation system modeled on practices at McLendon’s previous company, Netflix.
“At Netflix we had this notion of viewing cohorts, meaning that when you see popularity, it’s actually popularity among folks who have watched stuff like your stuff,” McLendon explains. “So what we’re rolling out is a way to say, ‘If you’ve listened to this show, we recommend this other show that other people who have listened to that show have listened to.’ These are things we couldn’t do in October because we didn’t have enough users on the platform, but now we are able to start doing it.”
Another feature of the revised app is a simplified “onboarding” process designed to provide new users with some personalized content, without spooking them with too many questions.
60dB remains focused on short-form audio content, meaning radio segments up to 15 minutes long. The company also publishes its own stories, often consisting of 3- to 10-minute interviews between 60dB staffers and outside journalists about stories they’ve just published.
But the overhauled app also includes tools that make it easier to find podcasts, which are typically longer than 15 minutes, and may or may not have aired as radio programs. (Full disclosure: I make a longform podcast.)
“We had a thesis early on that our audience would not necessarily be the podcast audience, but in the early adopter audience they’re very podcast-forward, so we wanted to make it easier for people to get to the audio content that they expect and listen to,” says McLendon. That may put 60dB in a position to capture more of listeners’ time, since 60dB users who also like podcasts won’t have to go to competing apps like Apple Podcasts, NPR One, Stitcher, or RadioPublic to find them.
It’s fair to say that the release of the improved app represents the end of 60dB’s beta or shakedown period.
“A lot of those things are under the covers, but our hope and expectation is that the experience will feel much more rich and robust,” McLendon says. “It’s really reflective of the things we’ve learned over the last six months as we’ve had consumers using the app.”
The name 60dB is a reference to 60 decibels, which is roughly the volume of human conversation, Henn says. “We wanted to create the perfect place for lots of different ideas and thought and conversations,” he says. “Not shouting, not music, but, you know, human ideas.”
The impulse to capture and share the ephemeral ideas flowing past in appointment-based terrestrial radio was what brought together Henn, McLendon, and their third co-founder, former Netflix engineer John Ciancutti, in 2016.
Henn says the trio saw a lot of companies designing new “podcatchers” that help people find and subscribe to podcasts—apps like Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, RadioPublic, and Overcast (see “50 Podcasts You Should Be Listening To—and 5 New Ways to Find Them”). But they felt app builders weren’t paying much attention to short-form content.
“I think there’s this dawning recognition in the industry that you don’t have to create an hour-long podcast to reach an audience,” Henn says. “We’re seeing a lot of creative institutions adopt this short-form format. We work with Fox. We work with the Atlantic and the Washington Post. We’ve also seen the New York Times create The Daily, which is 20 minutes long. We saw NPR launch a short news podcast, Up First. A lot of those shorter digital shows have been successful.”
Henn says most podcatchers don’t handle this short-form content well because they’re designed to help audiences find and consume longer programs that come out less frequently.
“I want a technology that’s going to connect all of those for me seamlessly without me having to make a thousand little choices,” says Henn. “That’s where I think we come in.”
60dB is being cagey so far about how it plans to turn its audio platform into a revenue-generating business. Subscriptions are one possibility, according to McLendon.
“Our focus right now is on getting the product to be one that is delightful for our listeners,” McLendon says. “Obviously, monetization is a big deal, and a huge opportunity in this space that needs to be addressed. You can imagine that given our backgrounds at Netflix, subscriptions are high on the list of things that we’re interested in. But it’s premature to talk about it right now.”