Alexa, Aural Attention Economy, Daily Updates, Future Ear Radio, VoiceFirst

The NPR Mini Assistant (Future Ear Daily Update 9-5-19)

9-5-19 - The NPR Mini Assistant.jpg

I came across a Medium post yesterday that was very intriguing from Nara Kasbergen, the technical lead for voice and emerging platforms at NPR. In the post, Nara details the process behind creating the ability for Alexa users to stream NPR’s Morning Edition through their Alexa-enabled devices. For today’s update, I’m covering the challenges that Nara’s team had to overcome, the finished product, and how this ultimately builds on the theory that while Alexa, Google and Siri all represent “master assistants” or “routers,” there are lots of signs that we might start seeing a wide variety of “mini assistants” emerge.

One of the biggest challenges that Nara mentions with bringing Morning Edition to Alexa is that Morning Edition is a mix of local and national stories, resulting in 300 versions of being aired in different locations around the country. In order to solve this, the team turned to a new SaaS solution from Triton Digital that allowed NPR to automate and create recordings of member stations’ live streams, which are then all funneled into one big RSS feed. 5 minutes after each show airs, an MP3 file becomes available within the RSS feed to the team to place in Alexa’s AudioPlayer interface. So, they solved their first big hurdle of making the content available for on-demand streaming via Alexa, but the next hurdle was to properly match each Alexa user to their local station.

This is where things get really interesting. The team initially thought that they needed to create a new standalone skill specifically for Morning Edition, which would have resulted in an increase in maintenance burden. Upon researching their options, the team realized that the best route was to actually build Morning Edition into the legacy NPR skill. Here’s Nara’s own words with how this works:

“Thanks to a collaboration with Amazon, the invocation “Alexa, play Morning Edition” is just an alias for “Alexa, ask NPR to play Morning Edition”, which is powered by a PlayMorningEditionIntent in our existing NPR skill. Both station streaming and the on-demand Morning Edition experience live in a single codebase, significantly reducing the maintenance burden for our team. And our users benefit because whether they say “Alexa, play NPR” or “Alexa, play Morning Edition”, they only need to choose a member station once, after which that setting will be persisted across both experiences. In fact, anyone who already used the NPR skill to listen to a live stream in the past won’t have to choose a station at all (as long as their member station broadcasts Morning Edition and has opted-in to making it available on voice platforms); they can start listening to Morning Edition right away.”- Nara Kasbergen

There are a number of things that stand out here to me. First of all, the fact that the user only need to identify their member station once, whether it be for Morning Edition or one of the NPR broadcasts contained in the skill, is absolutely huge for the user experience. That type of UX is habit-forming.

Second of all, creating aliases and masquerading intents is perhaps the key to opening the world of mini assistants. While some users might be aware that Morning Edition actually exists inside of the broader NPR skill, others will likely be oblivious. Therefore, intents that communicate to Alexa that you want a specific piece of content within a skill, without having to actually say, “Alexa, tell NPR to play Morning Edition,” is absolutely critical. The easier it is for the user to call up what they want, the better.

Last week, we saw the BBC announce a forthcoming “Beeb” assistant, which will serve as a central repository for all of BBC’ content. Fellow content hubs like NPR are seemingly building toward a similar offering, as evidenced with what Nara’s team was able to accomplish with bringing Morning Edition to the NPR skill. At a certain point, the skill will be so large and full options for the user, that it might make sense for the NPR skill to function more like a mini-assistant, that helps route the user to what they want inside the skill. In addition, clever uses of aliased intents will allow for Alexa to serve as the “router” as it communicates with the mini-assistant in the background. It’s a win-win, the user can communicate with the mini-assistant, whether they know they are or not.

-Thanks for Reading-


To listen to the broadcast on your Alexa device, enable the skill here

To add to you flash briefing, click here

To listen on your Google Assistant device, enable the skill here 

and then say, “Alexa/Ok Google, launch Future Ear Radio.”


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