Announcing Scout FM: a native podcast listening experience for smart speakers

Why we believe voice assistants hold the key to mainstream podcast listening.

Two incredible things happened at the end of 2014.

First, on October 3rd, 2014, the first episode of Serial aired on This American Life. “The Alibi” had the perfect combination of dramatic story telling, a compelling cliff-hanger, and the high production values you would expect from the This American Life team. At the end of the episode, Ira Glass directed listeners to the next episode that was available immediately, as a podcast. A nation was hooked. Years later, Serial is still the gateway podcast for many new listeners.

Second, Amazon shipped it’s first Amazon Echo. Their previous hardware project, the Fire Phone, was a total bomb and the company needed to redeem itself. While Google and Apple were focused on smart phone domination, Amazon released the Echo and quickly found it’s way under Christmas trees and into people’s homes. The Echo was more successful than anyone could have expected, including people inside of Amazon. Two long years later Google to came out with their own smart speaker, and eventually Apple followed suit.

Fast-forward to 2018. Where are we today?

Between 2014 and 2018, the percentage of Americans who listen to podcasts weekly went from 10% to 17% — a large increase, but still not mainstream. The money brought in by advertising has reached $300M and is still climbing. More importantly, all of that money and the ready user base has attracted industry professionals who make tightly edited, narrative audio stories with high production values. Every week, there is a hot, new show brought to us by professional journalists like The New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and ESPN. Podcast networks, like Gimlet and Wondery, have raised money to fuel experimentation with new formats and hire great talent. And a slew of startups (including ours) have taken venture capital to innovate in the space.

Meanwhile, 18% of Americans now own a smart speaker. If you didn’t already know that, pick your jaw up off the floor. The adoption rate is faster than for smart phones. There are more than 40,000 Alexa skills (like apps, but for Alexa), and 74% of Alexa owners use Alexa weekly. Amazon has almost 80% market share, but no one is counting Google out just yet. Just last quarter, they surpassed Amazon in smart speaker sales as international sales ramp up.

Scout FM started as an experiment.

When we started Scout FM (codename: Subcast) in 2017 we knew three things:

  1. We were in a Golden Age of Radio.
  2. Despite podcast growth, not enough people were listening to them.
  3. Smart speakers were going to be huge, and they were perfect for listening to audio.

76% of smart speakers owners used them to listen to music. Nearly 50% used them to listen to the radio. To us, smart speakers were the reincarnation of the home radio, but without the limitations of terrestrial radio. Meanwhile, podcasts filled a gap left by minimal talk radio offerings, particularly in between the coasts, which was exactly where smart speakers were starting to proliferate. We started to wonder if podcasts could ride the coattails of smart speakers right into people’s homes. We started to experiment.

Our first Alexa skill was Game of Thrones Radio. It debuted three weeks before the season finale aired. We took the RSS feeds from ten different Game of Thrones podcasts and strung the episodes together. When users said, “Open Game of Thrones Radio,” Alexa would welcome you, and then play hours and hours of Game of Thrones podcasts.

Game of Thrones Radio was a modest success. When you searched “Game of Thrones” in the Alexa skill store, it ranked second. It had 500 users in the first week. What was more remarkable was how people were listening. They would binge for hours on shows they had never heard before. This behavior was promising.

Since that first skill, we’ve launched another thirty skills for Alexa and accrued more than 1.5 million minutes listened. We’ve experimented with formats, topics, genres, voices, intros, skill store optimizations… some things worked, and others were total disasters. The most effective improvements have involved incorporating real humans into the experience. We hand-curated stations, hired voice actors to record bot interactions, and wrote Alexa-friendly episode descriptions to replicate how a radio host would introduce each upcoming episode. We then layered in a recommendation engine so listeners can benefit from personalization. Listening each month went up 20% per month on average, with Alexa session times that were twice as long as in our apps.

We also started to get to know our listeners. We played an audio ad asking people to visit our website to join a paid study. We got respondents from all over the country. Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Jessica is a 21-year-old who moved to Florida for the sun. She works as a project manager for a sports team. Her Alexa was a gift. Every morning, she listens to music or “something nerdy” (our History station) while getting ready for work. She listens again before bed to unwind.
  • Nathan is a 47-year-old farmer from northern California. He bought an Alexa to control his sprinklers. He listens to our Daily News or Science stations after he does his chores in the morning. Note: farmer’s mornings start at 3:30am. I asked what he listened to before he found our stations on his Alexa. “Nothing,” he said.
  • Bobby is a 54-year-old music instructor from Oklahoma. He listens to Brain Food at home, and while driving between lessons. I asked what he listened to before our stations. “I hate to admit this, but Rush Limbaugh.” He explained that he didn’t actually like Rush, but there weren’t many options where he lived.

What do each of these listeners have in common? Prior to getting their Alexa, they didn’t listen to podcasts. Now they do.

Scout FM is launching today, but is just the beginning.

Scout FM, launching today!

Today, we’re launching Scout FM on Alexa: the first voice-first podcast listening experience. It’s not just a way to access podcasts via a smart speaker. It’s a podcast listening experience designed specifically for a voice assistant world. Instead of having dozens of stations, there will be one — Scout FM. Its mission: to find you something good to listen to. It’s simple with limited options and nothing memorize. Because Alexa skills need to be simple. The smarts and complexity are behind the scenes.

Scout FM rolls up all of the learnings from our Alexa experimentation, and this is just the beginning. We plan to keep experimenting, learning, improving our recommendations, evolving as the platforms evolve, and being wherever voice assistants are — which we predict will be everywhere.

To learn more visit scout.fm, and we’d love for you try Scout FM for yourself: Alexa | iOS | Android