Steve Henn is a co-founder of 60dB, an app that feeds you the best short audio stories about the topics you care about. Before creating 60dB in early 2016, Henn was a reporter at WAMU, Marketplace, and Planet Money. We talked to Steve about his goal of creating a new, better form of radio and how his relationship with audio has changed with his shift from the public to the private sector.
Tell me about your day to day role at 60dB.
My role here is to jumpstart the short-form content ecosystem. We’re doing that in a bunch of different ways — one, by working with institutions like The New York Times, Vox, and others that have incredible newsrooms, and produce content that is really well-suited to a platform like ours, and two, by investing in and working with the great journalists we’ve hired to produce our own content and adapt stories from existing print and digital outlets and to audio. I’m part product evangelist, part editor.
Your entire career prior to starting 60dB was in public media. How have you found working in the private sector?
It’s a challenge, but it’s been good.
Public media tends to be very mission-driven and there’s a lot of talent density. 60dB, while a business, is also mission-driven in that we want to build an infrastructure that supports great work and connects people to great stories — something that is mutually reinforcing with public media.
I’ve been incredibly fortunate in the partners that I’ve had, both amongst our investors and my co-founders (Steve McLendon and John Ciancutti) and the team they’ve recruited. I’m surrounded by caring, smart people who have taught me a tremendous amount. They understand that audio reporting is an important part of journalism, and for it to survive and thrive it needs business models that support that.
In your Medium post explaining why you were leaving your position at NPR, you talked about creating a new and better radio. What new listening behaviors and trends is 60dB responding to?
I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal saying that 36 million people will use a voice-activated speaker in the next year. That’s roughly NPR’s total audience. This move from radio signal distribution to digital distribution creates enormous opportunities to broaden the reach of what have traditionally been public radio listeners — and to reach them at any time of day, with the content that is the most interesting to them specifically.
The other thing that’s really fascinating is that the first round of companies that have done work like this (for example, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube) all used algorithms to boost engagement in crude ways — mostly by mirroring the user’s own interests and tastes, without valuing the diversity of that material. Netflix, which John and Steve helped build, dealt with a different universe in that it didn’t have an infinite number of stories to choose from, so they had to find a way to introduce related content that really suited the user in order to keep them interested. That kind of expertise is especially valuable and important in a news context because it broadens people’s minds.
Has your relationship with audio changed since starting 60dB?
The most revelatory experience has probably been exploring how audiences interact with our content — and where we lose them.
With one reporter we work with, for example, we were able to determine that her ledes were too long, causing listeners to skip her pieces. The ledes were beautifully written and looked great on the page (and I was her editor, signing off on them!), but as she read them, she wasn’t breathing and the pitch of her voice would go up as she ran out of air. Her natural personality wasn’t coming across. So we cut up her sentences, marked her breaths on the page, and made her sound more like who she really is. The sharpness of her writing really came across. From one week to the next, the percentage of users who continued listening after the lede increased five to seven percent.
To be clear: I don’t think you should use data to pick what stories to do, but in terms of analyzing the craft of storytelling and understanding what works and what doesn’t, it’s incredibly helpful.
What time of day do you like to listen for pleasure? What do you tend to be doing?
I’m a creature of habit. I have three kids and a working spouse, so my life is pretty hectic. Usually my wife and I run together in the morning, but if I’m by myself I’ll listen then. Otherwise, I mostly listen at the same times everyone else does — in the little bits of time between getting to work, getting the kids ready for school, cooking dinner, what have you. It’s the media I consume when I’m doing something that doesn’t keep my brain busy, but occupies by eyes and ears.
Do your parents understand your job?
Everyone in my wife’s family is an attorney (including my wife) and everyone in my family is a doctor, so at first it wasn’t natural to them… but by the time I was on national radio shows they definitely understood.
Actually, the adventure that I’m on now was in part precipitated by my mom’s unexpected death in 2015. She was just 75, and I thought I’d have a lot more time with her. When I met John and Steve, and thought about what was going on with the audio industry and what excited me… well, you don’t get endless chances, and you don’t have endless time.
I am very proud of my reporting work, but I knew my departure from NPR wouldn’t critically injure the mission or content of public media. But a digital transition that goes wrong can be devastating for an entire industry. Having independent companies that push industries in positive directions for creatives like journalists is incredibly important. I’m excited to be a part of that.