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Scout.fm turns podcasts into personalized talk radio

Scout.fm wants to change the way people listen to podcasts. Instead of scouring through the over 500,000 available shows available in your current podcast app, this startup’s new curated podcast service will just ask you a few questions to find out what you like, then create a podcast station customized to you. The experience is primarily designed for use on smart speakers, like Amazon’s Alexa-powered Echo devices, but is also available as iOS and Android applications. The company was founded just over a year ago by Cara Meverden (CEO), previously of Google, Twitter, Indiegogo, and Medium; along with Saul Carlin (President and COO), previously Head of Publisher Development at Medium, and before that, Politico; and Daniel McCartney,  (CTO) previously an engineer at GrubHub, Klout and Medium. At Medium, Meverden explains, they saw an explosion of people creating great written content; but now those publishers had begun to create great audio content, as well. But unlike on Medium, which helps to guide readers to topics they like, people today have to seek out new podcasts for themselves. Scout.fm wants to offer a better system, and hopefully bring more listeners to podcasts as a result. “We want to take  podcast listening mainstream ,” she says. “W e think the key to that is making podcasts as easy   to listen to as the radio –   and we think that’s even more critically important, a s we enter the smart speaker era .”  The Scout.fm service began as a series of experiments on Alexa. The company launched over 30 Alexa skills, including a “Game of Thones”-themed podcast radio that was popular while the show was airing on HBO. The goal was to test what worked, what topics and formats drew listeners, and gain feedback through calls-to-action to participate in user surveys. The result is Scout.fm, a curated podcast service that’s personalized to your listening preferences – and one that improves over time. Here’s how it works on the Alexa platform. You first launch the app by saying “Alexa, open Scout fm.” The app will respond (using a human voice actor’s voice, not Alexa’s) by explaining briefly what Scout.fm does then asks you to choose one of three types of talk radio stations: “Daily news, brain food, or true stories.” The first is a news station, similar to Alexa’s “Flash Briefing;” the second, “brain food,” focuses on other interesting and informative content, that’s not day-to-day news; and the last is a true crime podcast station. The voice app will then ask you a few more questions as part of this setup process to find out what other subjects appeal to you by having you respond, on a scale of one to ten, how much of a history buff you are, or how much you’re interested in culture, like art, film and literature, for example.

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Amazon opens up in-skill purchases to all Alexa developers

Amazon today launched in-skill purchasing to all Alexa developers, along with Amazon Pay for skills. That means developers have a way to generate revenue from their voice applications on Alexa-powered devices, like Amazon’s Echo speakers. For example, developers could charge for additional packs to go along with their voice-based games, or offer other premium content to expand their free voice app experience. The feature was previously announced in November 2017, but was only available at the time to a small handful of voice app developers, like Jeopardy!, plus other game publishers. When in-skill purchasing is added to a voice application – Amazon calls these apps Alexa’s “skills” – customers can ask to shop the purchase suggestions offered, and then pay by voice using the payment information already associated with their Amazon account. Developers are in control of what content is offered at which price, but Amazon will handle the actual purchasing flow. It also offers self-serve tools to help developers manage their in-skill purchases and optimize their sales. While any Alexa device owner can buy the available in-skill purchases, Amazon Prime members will get the best deal. Amazon says that in-skill purchases must offer some sort of value-add for Prime subscribers, like a discounted price, exclusive content or early access. Developers are paid 70 percent of the list price for their in-skill purchase, before any Amazon discount is applied. Already, Sony’s Jeopardy!, Teen Jeopardy!, Sports Jeopardy!; The Ellen Show’s Heads Up; Fremantle’s Match Game; HISTORY’s Ultimate HISTORY Quiz, and TuneIn Live, have launched Alexa skills with premium content. To kick off today’s launch of general availability, Amazon is announcing a handful of others who will do the same. This includes NBCU’s SYFY WIRE, which will offer three additional weekly podcasts exclusive to Alexa (Geeksplain, Debate Club, and Untold Story); Volley Inc.’s Yes Sire, which offers an expansion pack for its role-playing game; and Volley Inc.’s Word of the Day, which will soon add new vocabulary packs to purchase.

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Alexa will soon gain a memory, converse more naturally, and automatically launch skills

Alexa will soon be able to recall information you’ve directed her to remember, as well as have more natural conversations that don’t require every command to begin with “Alexa.” She’ll also be able to launch skills in response to questions you ask, without explicit instructions to do so. The features are the first of what Amazon says are many launches this year that will make its virtual assistant more personalized, smarter, and more engaging. The news was announced this morning in a keynote presentation from the head of the Alexa Brain group, Ruhi Sarikaya, speaking at the World Wide Web Conference in Lyon, France. He explained that the Alexa Brain initiative is focused on improving Alexa’s ability to track context and memory within and across dialog sessions, as well as make it easier for users to discover and interact with Alexa’s now over 40,000 third-party skills. With the memory update, arriving soon to U.S. users, Alexa will be able to remember any information you ask her to, and retrieve it later. For example, you might direct Alexa to remember an important day by saying something like, “Alexa, remember that Sean’s birthday is June 20th.” Alexa will then reply, “Okay, I’ll remember that Sean’s birthday is June 20th.” This effectively turns Alexa into a way to offload information you’d otherwise have to store in your own brain, and is reminiscent of earlier bots, like Wonder , which were designed to remember anything you told it, for later retrieval over SMS or messaging platforms. Memory, of course, has also been one of Google Assistant’s more useful features – so it was time for Alexa to catch up on this front. In addition, Alexa will soon be able to have more natural conversations with users, thanks to something called “context carryover.” This means that Alexa will be able to understand follow-up questions and respond appropriately, even though you haven’t addressed her as “Alexa.” For instance, you could ask “Alexa, how is the weather in Seattle?” and then ask, “What about this weekend?” after Alexa responds. You can even change the subject, saying “Alexa, how’s the weather in Portland?,” then “How long does it take to get there?” The feature, says Sarikaya, takes advantage of deep learning models applied to the spoken language understanding pipeline, in order to have conversations that carry customers’ intent and entities within and across domains – like it did between weather and traffic, in the example above. It will also require the customer to enable Follow Up mode , which allows Alexa to continue a conversation even when the wake word isn’t said a second time. Natural conversations are also coming “soon” to Alexa device owners in the U.S., U.K.

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