This Startup Wants to Bring Netflix-Style Radio to Amazon Alexa

Jan 18, 2017

For something that has been around such a long time, radio seems to have been surprisingly unaffected by digital disruption. Sure, there are podcasts, but lots of people still listen to the radio the old-fashioned way—in their cars or at home.

A startup called 60dB is now hoping to change that, and smart-home appliances are one way it aims to do so.

The company, which wants to serve as a Spotify or Netflix-style platform for audio, said Wednesday it is launching an integration with Amazon's Alexa platform, which will allow users to use voice commands to listen to radio-style shows and other audio content played from their Echo or Dot devices.

This Alexa "skill" allows a universe of podcasts, shows, and even audio clips from news stories to be pulled up at home in a hands-free way, said 60dB co-founder Steve Henn. Just like radio used to be, but with a lot more customization and added features.

All a user has to do is say: "Alexa, play stories from 60dB," and shows can be resumed using the iPhone app if a user has to leave home.

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Henn is a former NPR and Planet Money reporter who moved to Silicon Valley and then got to know two former Netflix (nflx) staffers who were looking for new challenges. John Ciancutti helped develop the personalization engine that quickly became one of Netflix's killer features, and Steve McLendon was a marketer who helped grow the company from just 40,000 customers to 40 million.

The three men launched 60dB a year ago, to try and take some of the lessons they'd learned from Netflix and apply them to the disruption of traditional radio and audio.

Some people might think that radio has already been disrupted because podcasting is popular. But Henn said that this is a drop in the bucket for the world of radio. "Podcasting is still pretty small," he said in an interview with Fortune.

"It's maybe a $200 million advertising market. But radio is massive—it reaches about 93% of the public, and the top shows are information, magazine-style shows."

CBS Radio brings in more than a billion dollars in revenue from about 50 million listeners, Henn said, and the public radio universe generates about the same amount of money from pledges and donations, as well as advertising and grants.

Radio, Henn said, is "also super simple to use—you just press a button and that's it."

The idea behind 60dB, which got its name from the frequency of the average human voice, is to make audio of all kinds that are easy to consume anywhere you have a mobile device or a smart-home appliance, the founders said. (The company isn't integrated with Google Home yet, but it hopes to be soon.)

"The idea was to create something as easy to use as radio, but use some of the personalization expertise that John developed to customize it to you, instead of serving everybody the same thing," Henn explained.

"A few years ago, to get into broadcasting, you had to produce a show and then sell it to stations around the country, but now with a laptop and a mike, you can create a show and then have 60dB help you reach people you might not otherwise reach."

In addition to traditional shows from NPR and other mainstream radio sources, Henn said the company makes it easy to stream other forms of audio too, including the audio stream from video clips and interviews. A number of publishers supply that kind of content to 60dB, including audio from the TV show Late Night With Seth Meyers.

"Radio is only just beginning to change, now that Bluetooth integration is really working in cars and so on," Henn said. "But the other thing is Alexa and Google Home. Voice as the next big computer interface is going to be huge. And the killer apps in those spaces are going to be apps that are really useful when people's hands are busy."

As the service learns about what you like or don't like to listen to, it will start recommending shows and audio it thinks you might be interested in, said Henn. It also hooks up to your Twitter and other social media accounts to learn more.

"If we do our jobs right, you won't hear the same story that I do. And ideally, we will soon be on every Internet-connected speaker," he added.

At the moment, the service is free, Henn said, and it is trying to attract publishers to provide their content by offering data about who shared or listened to a clip or show.

"Right now, we're just thinking of it as a public beta," he said. "But if you look at the background of my co-founders, there are hints there about where we're going to aim when it comes to monetization."

In other words, a subscription model similar to Netflix could be in 60dB's future, if enough users decide to adopt the service.

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