60dB’s founder on why short can win the battle for earbuds

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Steve Henn reported on Silicon Valley for NPR until about this time last year, when he quit in public and rather dramatic fashion — at least, dramatic for the muted world of public media. He didn’t flip any tables or anything. No, he did our cultural equivalent of spitting in the soup on his way out the door — he wrote an earnest Medium post: “Why I Left NPR.”

“The biggest threat to NPR — and the 900+ member stations that are the life-blood of the public radio system — is that this big beautiful crazy system may not get its act together to make the jump into the digital age,” Henn wrote. “I want to help.”

If Henn is right, then help has arrived in the form of 60dB, the app he’s launched with a couple of former Netflix guys. On its face, 60dB closely resembles a product that NPR has already been offering for a long time — NPR One. That is to say, it’s an algorithmically curated stream of spoken audio that responds to your preferences and listening behavior. When Henn appeared on our podcast The Pub to discuss 60dB, host Adam Ragusea asked him to start off by explaining how he thinks the app is different.

Steve Henn: I think what we’re trying to do is create something that is much more diverse than NPR One in where it pulls its content from and ultimately, we hope, who it appeals to. I am a baby of NPR; I grew up listening to NPR in the backseat of my parents’ car, and I love it. But there are millions and millions of people in the U.S. — 90 percent of the public, roughly — that don’t listen every week. So I think there’s an appetite for intelligent conversations in reporting on a variety of topics that don’t just appeal to the core NPR audience. And I think that there’s this appetite that’s largely unmet in the digital space for short-form stories that tell you about your world and what you care about in your world that are intelligent, that take the audience’s intelligence seriously.

What we’re trying to do at 60dB is create this connective tissue that connects listeners who are passionate about a diverse array of things in the world to stories about those diverse things. One of the downsides of a broadcast audience is you have to appeal to 100,000 people at a time. In a digital space you’re just talking to one person, and that person is unique. 60dB right now has over a thousand different producers making short-form stories that roll into our system, and we can create individual playlists for each of the listeners who signs up. Those playlists evolve over time, so we make it really easy to skip stories, to share stories, to like stories, and we learn from that. You can also search, and we learn from that, too.

Adam Ragusea, Current: One of the distinguishing factors here from NPR One is this particular emphasis on short-form content. How short are we talking?

Henn

Henn: We just created sort of an arbitrary cutoff of 15 minutes, but it sort of rolls. If you open up 60dB, you’ll get dropped into something we call “Quick Hits,” and those stories generally, in the beginning, are less than 10 minutes long. If you listen to more than a few of them, you might get a few 15-minute–long stories. We also have an in-depth feed that is a collection of all of your podcasts. If you launch the service on your smartphone, you can download the podcasts you already listened to with a touch, and then we make suggestions. But the primary experience is that short-form feed. The sweet spot, I think — we see this in our data — is five to seven minutes long.

Current: I’ve gone ahead and made an account at 60dB; I simply did that by logging in using the Twitter API. It asked me to identify a couple of my interests, and I said news and music and science and comedy. Now I’m looking at the feed that is created for me — this is the Quick Hits feed — and the very first thing is the most recent NPR newscast. Good guess! Second thing is a one-minute piece of content called “Democrat Manchin approves of Trump’s EPA pick,” and this is from somebody called Newsy. Who’s Newsy?

Henn: Newsy is a commercial news service. Did you listen to the story?

Current: Let’s listen to it right now.

Voice on recording: President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency just received some solid praise from a Democrat. …

Current: One interesting thing that’s happening right now is that where I would normally just see a static piece of podcast art — a little square image of album artwork — I’ve got a video. There’s a video for this thing, too.

Henn: Right. As I was about to say, Newsy is a news service that produces short-form news videos and largely is distributed via YouTube. One of the things we’ve done is we’ve taken a step back and thought, “OK, how do people consume radio?” They tend to do it when their eyes and hands are busy, and we wanted to think about how we could get the most diverse and unique mix of stories and shows and journalism into the system. And so we’re drawing from the open, public RSS feed — iTunes, like what you get in your podcast feed. But we’re sifting through that for things that fit this model of short stories that tell you what’s going on in your world right now. YouTube is another place where we can get stories like that, and, basically, if you think about any television or video program where people are speaking and they’re sitting behind a desk, whether it’s a comedy show or a newscast, more often than not — not always but often — that works as a conversation.

Current: You got tons of public radio stations right now airing the PBS NewsHour as radio, right?

Henn: And the PBS NewsHour broken up into segments is another source that you could find on 60dB. We’re pulling from the podcast directory, we’re sort of curating stories from YouTube, we have deals in place with places like ESPN and WNYC and WBUR and American Public Media for segments of magazine shows that all of those places produce.

Current: The third thing in my feed here is an eight-minute segment from WNYC’s The Takeaway. Are you just pulling that out of their show, or do you have a deal with them that allows you to segmentize their stuff?

Henn: We have a deal with The Takeaway, and we also have a deal with PRI, their distributor, and that allows us to deliver these as segments. One of the things that we can offer back to PRI and The Takeaway is data about how each of these segments perform; we’re just beginning to do that, but it’s pretty fascinating. You can see, if you’re a producer, how do my stories in aggregate compare to other people in my business. If I’m a comedian, I could see how my bits compared to other comedians’. But you can also break that down and be like, “Did the story I did on Tuesday grab people as well as the story I did on Wednesday? Did I lose people in the lede?” It’s fascinating stuff, and it’s something that we’re, if not unique, [we’re] one of the few places people who produce radio stories can go to get that kind of data and insight into how audiences actually react to what you bake.

Current: Any universal conclusions that you have gleaned from that information yet?

Henn: When we started this we had this bet, this idea that there was this unmet need for short-form stuff, and I think that has been borne out. Part of this is the design of the app, but I think more than 70 percent of all the listening in our platform is to the short stories.

Current: People come to your platform because it advertises itself as a source for short-form stories.

Henn: Totally, totally right. There’s definitely selection bias there, but I wasn’t sure we were right when we did this. That was nice that at least for the people who came, we delivered, and it seems to work.

The other thing that I think is universally true is that ledes matter. If you are going to lose someone on this podcast, you’re going to lose them in the first 5 percent of the show, the first minute, 30 seconds. If you’re doing a Marketplace Morning Report story that’s two minutes and 30 seconds long, your first 15 seconds have to rock. You have to grab people, you have to make sure that they’re interested and sell them on the fact that it’s worth sticking around, especially in a platform where you skip with a swipe.

That’s the biggest universal truth. If you have great ledes, your stuff will do better. But it’s fascinating to dig into it story by story. I have a friend, Dan Bobkoff, who worked at Marketplace for a while, worked at NPR. He’s at Business Insider, and he has a little podcast that he just launched called BIQ, Big Interesting Questions. He launched it on our system, and I was sharing the data and going through it, and there were three or four stories … it was early on, and I saw this weird blip in the middle, and you rarely lose people in the middle of a story. So I dug into each individual story, and in Dan’s third story in the series he lost 30 percent of his audience 60 percent of the way through this 10-minute podcast. What the hell happened? He had brought up some music; he had had a pause, the story was describing this town that had voted for Obama and then voted for Trump, and the tone of his voice sounded like an ending. And when he brought up that music …

Current: … they thought it was over.

Henn: Everyone thought it was over. Everyone skipped, and the crazy thing was, I opened my app to see what had happened in that story — and we bookmark the last place you’ve listened in an individual podcast so you can start over if it’s a long show — and I had skipped. I thought it was over, too! And so being able to write an email and tell him, “Hey, that happened …” First of all, he thought it was hysterical. But secondly, in retrospect, if I had been his editor or if I had been listening to that, I’m not sure I would have caught it at the time. Or thought about it, because you can tell yourself, “Oh, this is a nice pause. This is sort of This American Life–y, right? Let’s bring up some music.” But in the context of this short-form feed, we already had trained our listeners: If you hear the music, move on to the next thing. It’s interesting.

Current: Let me look at another item in the playlist that 60dB has generated for me. It’s a seven-minute piece from the Wall Street Journal: “Pro-business stance doesn’t guarantee growth.” Let’s listen to a little bit of this.

Voice on recording: Capital creates light in new places. MorganStanley,com/First Solar. Morgan Stanley & Co. LLC member SIPC …

Current: A couple of interesting things to comment on here. First of all, there’s an ad, so we have something generating revenue, followed by a little piece of strikingly old-school–sounding radio content from the Wall Street Journal. Is that something that they made specifically for you?

Henn: No, that’s a podcast the Wall Street Journal’s putting out on iTunes. That was the interesting thing; we did a massive analysis of what was available on iTunes, and there are actually lots and lots of these short-form timely shows. They don’t tend to be the blockbusters, because they don’t work in a podcatcher, right? If you subscribe to that on a podcatcher, it piles up. The BBC makes the BBC Minute. They do one every half an hour. They’re great; it’s like a global news update in one minute with kind of a dance beat. It’s aimed at a young audience; I’ve been told it’s huge in Africa. But if you listen to that as an iTunes podcast, you’re going to have 48 new episodes every day, and you only care about the last one — that’s the only one that’s valuable.

So there was a lot of content in this free, ad-driven ecosystem that fits that model out there. We’re drawing on that, and over time we’re trying to engage with as many of those creators as possible, to give them this data if they want it, and talk about how we can build this ecosystem in a way that maybe in the future isn’t completely dependent on ads.

Current: But it’s also the case that you have some original content being produced for 60dB and also by 60dB.

Henn: Yeah, that’s right. That’s one of my favorite parts of the job. Spending the last year not doing journalism was probably the only downside of what I’ve done, and beginning to build a team and hiring great people to do this work, work that I’ve loved doing for years, has been really exciting.

Current: What kind of stuff are we talking about?

Henn: We have deals in place with places like Vox and Mic to interview their reporters. Lots of publications, both older publications and online news operations, are interested in podcasting, so a lot of people have hired audio producers: BuzzFeed hired Eleanor Kagan, and Vox has a whole staff of former NPR producers. What we wanted to do with them was to convince them that short-form could also be a really interesting way for them to leverage the reporting they’re doing by doing quick interviews with our reporters.

So we have a staff, including myself, of six sort of host-reporter-producers. We reach out to reporters who we’re partnering with, or are just people who have written things we find fascinating, and we do quick interviews. Ideally, we bring more to it than your typical old-school NPR reporter debrief. We may add sound, we may bring original tape, we may bring archival tape, and we put together a story that takes maybe 20 minutes of time for the reporter who has already written it, but gives them another outlet, gives them a chance to talk about the stuff they couldn’t get into the piece or what it felt like to be in the room when Dylann Roof was sentenced. Often there’s a power to those kinds of conversations that may not come across in a written article, and our goal here is to is to get independent producers and these institutions interested in experimenting in short-form.

Current: You’re obviously paying your people who are doing that work, but are you paying your partners and your contributors?

Henn: I’m not going to talk about individual business deals. Being coached to say that has been one of the learning experiences.

Current: It’s quite an obfuscation for a reporter.

Henn: I did that well, though. I can’t really get into the details of the deals, but I think most of the companies that are interested in working with us are interested in it because a generation ago, or even 10 years ago, to get into audio you had to buy a radio station or pitch a national show, and you had to produce it every day, and you had to produce hours of content or 24 hours of content. It was a huge, expensive undertaking. By working with us they’re able to identify audiences who are passionate about the stories they’re reporting, the stories they’re telling, without having to build the terrestrial radio infrastructure that reaches the world. We give them data, and a lot of these places are basically built on learning from what stories work and what stories don’t. I think for most people, at this point we’re an interesting experiment. We’re not big enough to impact anyone’s bottom line in any real way.

Current: What about your bottom line? How is 60dB going to make money?

Henn: That’s a really important question …

Current: … for you more so than me.

Henn: Maybe, but probably …

Current: But it’s also for your children.

Henn: Fortunately, my children have a talented mother.

I think it’s an important question because how media businesses make money really affects and influences the kind of stories they do. My two co-founders came out of Netflix; it was a subscription business. I think you can argue that by pushing the television ecosystem toward subscriptions that supported scripted high-quality drama, the last 10 years of television have just been dramatically different from the previous 10 years. Reality TV is still a thing, but there were also more than 400 original scripted series, and many of them were great, and they cost money, and they’re making money. They’re making money because people are willing to pay for it.

In the journalism context, the difference between ad-supported media and media like public radio, or a newspaper where a big portion of your audience is actually writing you a check, is that if you’re producing stories where you’re going to ask people to pay for them, or ask people to support your efforts, you’re trying to establish a relationship of trust, and you’re not going to be tempted to write a story with a snappy headline to generate clicks that may not be true or may not actually report facts that are related to the headline. The relationship is different.

I didn’t know this before I started, but CBS Radio is going public; they filed for an IPO. I don’t think it’s happened yet, but they have 60 million listeners. Public radio has in the neighborhood of 30, 35 million listeners. If I just asked you point blank, “Does this private corporation with twice as many listeners make more money, or does the public radio ecosystem make more money?” what would you say. You’d say, “Oh, of course CBS makes money. That’s their whole purpose, and they’re reaching twice as many people.” The truth is that they’re both roughly earning a billion dollars in revenue, and the difference is the pledge drive. Something like $400, $450 million in revenue comes into the public radio system through the pledge drive, and CBS doesn’t have anything like that. So you listen to CBS radio, it has a much higher ad load, it has shorter stories. They have some great work there, but just as a business, I’m not sure ads alone make sense.

Current: It sounds like you’re leaning toward eventually adopting a subscription model for 60dB, similar to, say, Audible.

Henn: We have a lot of work to do, and we’re going to experiment and explore what works. My co-founders and our investors and everyone who works at the company is committed to the principle that that our editorial partners do important work and deserve to be paid for it. So we’re going to work hard to figure out the best way to create a platform that really works for everyone, that isn’t the somewhat typical Silicon Valley play where we go out and steal a bunch of content, monetize it and ask for forgiveness later. That’s not the way we’re going about it.

Current: There’s a couple of things about what you’re doing that strike me as mission-driven. One that we haven’t talked about is that with your design of feeds, you’re deliberately trying to pluck people out of their ideological bubbles.

Henn: That’s true. One of the things that everyone who pays attention to news realized is that if you get your news through a Facebook feed or a Twitter feed, depending on how you curate your Twitter feed and depending on how you behave on Facebook, you end up often in an echo chamber.

As we were going about building this platform that we want to enlighten and inform and entertain, we gave a lot of thought to, how we could avoid just giving people opinions that would reinforce what they already thought? So we gather information about what your interests are. Based on your behavior, we can eventually understand if you’re really interested in cap-and-trade or tax policy or Steph Curry. But that doesn’t mean that if you’re a Steph Curry fan you’re only going to hear reporting from the Golden State Warriors media outlet. We will occasionally give you stories reported from Cleveland.

The same is true politically. One of the shows that was introduced to my feed was this podcast called Three Martini Lunch. It’s a conservative podcast of really bright free-market Republicans. It became one of my go-to listens during the election season because I thought their critiques, and also just their understanding of the Republican Party, was so different from what I heard in my typical public media radio diet. It was informative, and I don’t think I would have ever come across it if I hadn’t been listening through 60dB and if our engineers hadn’t deliberately built into the system what they call “exploratory stories,” things that surprise you.

Current: That kind of mission-driven–ness, reflected by that decision, invites my final question to you, Steve, which is, why did you feel that you had to leave public media in order to do what you’re doing now? Why couldn’t you do this at NPR?

Henn: NPR does a ton of great stuff, and they’re doing a ton of great stuff. They’ve had an incredible year, and they have an incredible product. Your first question was, how is what we are doing different from what NPR is doing with NPR One? I think that basically this is a really hard problem to solve. Building a product or pushing a digital ecosystem for audio in a direction that supports great work is something that a lot of people are going to try to do, and most of them are going to fail. We might all fail. And the more people we have trying more different approaches, the better off we are. Maybe not for a particular institution, but for the goals that that institution serves, for supporting important journalism and informing the world about what’s going on around them.