Escape your news bubble with Random Local News

Listen to headlines from random places in the US with your Amazon Echo

Increasingly, our most ubiquitous technologies have been upending the original premise of the internet. Instead of exposing us to a greater humanity, our ostensibly worldwide networks have only made us more insular. Opaque algorithms only show us posts and articles they think we’ll like — or at least, on which we’ll click “like.” Far from nudging us to widen our perspectives, the internet tempts our most tribalistic tendencies to associate only with people whose values and views hew closest to ours.

Discussions about this pernicious digital parochialism were reinvigorated after the 2016 presidential election laid bare its perils. This project, Random Local News, is my first small contribution to the upswell of efforts aiming to burst our filter bubbles.

Visit randomlocal.news or ask Alexa to “enable Random Local News.”

One of my favorite features of the NPR One app is the local newscast. For a while, even though I was living in Boston, I kept it set to my hometown station, Hawaii Public Radio, just to hear a few minutes of headlines from where I grew up. (Now, living in Wilmington, Delaware, I’ve finally set it to the nearby WDDE.) My peripatetic life has always made me wish that NPR One would support multiple local stations, so I could hear the news from all the places I’ve called home. A few weeks ago, though, I realized: Why stop there? Why not learn about what’s going on somewhere else in the country — somewhere else unexpected?

So I set out to make that happen. I researched how public radio stations distribute their local newscasts, and made a spreadsheet of a couple dozen that I could easily find. (I would love to add more; if you know of others, please let me know.) After that, I knew the rest would be easy — the program would simply need to select a newscast at random from the list I compiled.

At first, I thought about making it an iPhone app (and I’m still considering it), but that seemed like too much initial overhead. Instead, I turned to the Amazon Echo. I knew it had a built-in feature for playing headlines, the Flash Briefing, which on my Echo, I was already using to play NPR’s hourly news summary. Plus, it was an opportunity to experiment with a new technology. The code is open-source and on GitHub.

The end result is simple. You can activate the skill online or by asking Alexa to “enable Random Local News.” Then, whenever you ask Alexa, “what’s in the news?” or “what’s my flash briefing?”, you’ll hear headlines from a randomly-selected local news station. Over time, perhaps these slivers — deliberately non-personalized and unfiltered — can help us gain a wider and deeper understanding of our country.

“Democracy works only if we citizens are capable of thinking beyond our narrow self-interest,” as Eli Pariser wrote in his seminal work, The Filter Bubble. “But to do so, we need a shared view of the world we cohabit. We need to come into contact with other people’s lives and needs and desires.” In our Balkanized digital media landscape, I hope this can be one oasis of cohesion and serendipity.