My dusty Amazon Echo Dot on my dusty old desk.

How to create a Flash Briefing for your local publication

Using the Amazon Echo to deliver your local news headlines directly to your community

So far, my favorite Amazon Echo feature is the Flash Briefing. All you have to do is subscribe to a selection of available publications, and Alexa will stream pre-recorded audio files from those publications through your speakers on command. The briefings are updated periodically — some update on the hour, while others update daily — and provide listeners with a snapshot of the latest news and information from your favorite publications.

You can arrange the briefings so they play in whatever order you want, then all you have to do is sit back and relax while Alexa reads you the latest news headlines and updates from around the world. It’s basically the audio equivalent of refreshing your news feed, and it’s one of the coolest advances in audio delivery technology that I’ve come across in a while.

Right now I only subscribe to four “channels,” for lack of a better term: WNYC, NPR, Newsy, and the weather, in that order. Whenever I’m bored or I need a distraction from whatever I’m working on, I just ask Alexa to read my Flash Briefing and I’m instantly brought up to speed on the latest headlines and news items. It’s also an enjoyable way to annoy my roommate while he’s watching TV.

The concept seems so simple — record audio, queue up said audio, and have Alexa deliver it upon request. I had to see if I could create and distribute my own Flash Briefing on behalf of the NJ News Commons. As it happens, creating your own Flash Briefing channel seems to be about as easy as publishing an article on a WordPress site.

All you need is a microphone, Audacity (or some comparable audio editing software), an Amazon Developer account, and an RSS feed where you can upload your audio files (I used our SoundCloud account, and I’m hoping that does the trick).

Amazon has a step-by-step list of instructions that walks you through the process of creating an Amazon Developer account. In the meantime, download and familiarize yourself with Audacity, go create an account on SoundCloud, and write up a few news summary blurbs using the headlines and basic information from the latest stories published on your local news site. Then take those blurbs and use Audacity to record them. I used the text from our daily news roundup, which I write every day and send out in our morning newsletter. Here’s an example of what our newsletter looks like.

In the end, you should have something like this:

Once you have a few decent tracks, export them as MP3 files (you might need the MP3 encoder and corresponding library if you’re using Audacity), create a SoundCloud playlist, and add the audio files to that playlist — preferably in reverse chronological order. Then go to the Settings page of your SoundCloud account and click on the “Content” tab at the top of the menu. Fill in the required fields, as I did in the image below, and don’t forget to check “Include in RSS feed” under the “Upload Defaults” section.

You’ll want to make sure your audio files meet the criteria below, as per Amazon.

Your audio content:

Should contain a HTTPS URL to audio content
Should be 256kbps mono or stereo MP3
Should not exceed 10 minutes in length
Should have the program loudness set at -14 dB LUFS/LKFS. Alternatively, if not using LUFS or LKFS, loudness should target a Total RMS value between -15 to -13 dB. The true-peak value should not exceed –3 dBFS

Once you’ve set up your SoundCloud account, set up your RSS feed,* and added a few audio files to your playlist, log in to your Amazon Developer account to begin the process of creating your own Flash Briefing skill.

Follow the steps in this walkthrough from the Amazon help portal, enter all the necessary data and information Amazon asks for in the entry fields along the way. Add your publication logos and contact info, choose the phrases and commands you want to associate with your particular skill, and make sure you double-check your information for typos or inconsistencies.

Once that’s done, you should be all set. Go ahead and click the yellow “Submit for Certification” button at the bottom of the last page, and wait for Amazon to let you know if they approved or denied your new Flash Briefing skill.

I’m still waiting for Amazon to get back to me about the skill I created for the NJ News Commons, but if this is truly as easy as it seems, it could open up some very interesting new pathways for local publishers to reach their communities directly.

No word yet as to how publishers might be able to monetize the Flash Briefing, but we all know it’s only a matter of time before NPR starts working their pledge drives into the mix.

• • • • • •

EDIT (01/04/17): IT WORKS! You can now download and use the NJ News Commons Daily News Roundup skill on your Amazon Echo and Echo Dot!

*This used to say “tweaked your RSS feed” but I changed the language to “set up your RSS feed” on March 1, 2017 in order to avoid confusion. Thanks to Steve Earley of the Baltimore Sun for pointing that out!

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