Podcasting startup WaitWhat raises $4.3M as interest in audio content explodes

WaitWhat, the digital content production engine behind LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman’s Masters of Scale podcast, has secured a $4.3 million Series A investment led by Cue Ball Capital and Burda Principal Investments.

Launched in January 2017, WaitWhat will use the cash to create additional media properties across a variety of mediums, including podcasts.

Investors are gravitating toward podcast startups as consumer interest in original audio content skyrockets. Podcasting, though an infantile industry that hit just $314 million in revenue in 2017, is maturing, raking in venture capital rounds large and small and recording its first notable M&A transaction with Spotify’s acquisition of Gimlet and Anchor earlier this month. The music streaming giant shelled out a total of $340 million for the podcast production platform and the provider of a suite of podcast creation, distribution and monetization tools, respectively. It plans to spend an additional $500 million on audio storytelling platforms as part of a larger plan to become the Netflix of audio.

WaitWhat, for its part, dubs itself the “media invention company.” Founded by June Cohen and Deron Triff, a pair of former TED executives responsible for expanding the nonprofit’s digital media business, WaitWhat is today launching Should This Exist, a new podcast hosted by Flickr founder and tech investor Caterina Fake.  Fake will interview entrepreneurs about the human side and the impact of technology in the show created in partnership with Quartz.

“People don’t just transact with content; they want to feel connected to it through a sense of wonder, awe, curiosity, and mastery,” Cohen said in a statement. “These are contagious emotions, and research shows they stimulate sharing. Where many media companies aim for volume — putting out lots of content with a short shelf life — we’re building a completely distinctive portfolio of premium properties that are continually increasing in value, inspiring deep audience engagement, and creating opportunities for format expansion.”

Other investors in the round include Reid Hoffman, MIT Media Lab director Joi Ito and Liminal Ventures. WaitWhat previously raised a $1.1 million round from Victress Capital, Human Ventures, Able Partners, all of which have joined the A round.

Twitter’s latest test changes ‘Retweet with Comment’ so it looks more like a Reply

Twitter’s new prototype testing program isn’t the only way it’s working to fix conversations on its site. The company confirmed it’s currently running another public-facing test focused on making Twitter “more conversational” — but this time with Retweets instead of Replies. The test involves using a thin line to connect a quote-style retweet to the person commenting on the tweet, instead of placing the quoted tweet in a box as before.

Here are some visual aids.

Today, when you comment on a tweet you’re reposting, the original tweet is boxed in like this:

The new test sees Twitter eliminating the box entirely, and connecting the comment to the tweet using the same sort of line that is used today with Replies.

For example, here is a before and after of the change. (Click through to the tweet to view the images larger). You can see the original look on the left, and the update using the line on the right:

We asked Twitter if this was a permanent change or just a test, and a spokesperson confirmed it was the latter.

The test was available on Android on Tuesday of this week, but began rolling out to iOS users yesterday.

Despite the launch of the new testing program, the company said it would continue to A/B test various conversational features and other changes within its public app.

“The fact that we’re doing this [Twitter prototype testing program] doesn’t mean that we don’t do regular testing – like we do with all our development processes in our regular app all the time,” Sara Haider, Twitter’s director of product management, noted in an interview at CES in January.

The prototype program, meanwhile, serves as more of an experimental testing grounds where Twitter users are able to directly influence the development process with their feedback and opinions.

Twitter had learned over the years that some of the best ideas come from the community itself. Many of its products — including @ Replies, the hashtag (#), tweetstorms (now “threads”) and Retweets (originally “RT”) — were developed in response to how people were already using Twitter. Now, Twitter hopes to tap into the hive mind to build whatever else is coming next.

But not all of Twitter’s changes are community-driven. (After all, I’m not sure anyone was really all that concerned about how Retweets were displayed.)

That means you’ll still see Twitter testing smaller changes like this one in the public app.

Whether or not the lines will eventually come to replace the box for Retweets still remains to be seen, however. While it does make the comment seem more like someone is continuing a conversation, the update arguably makes it easier to confuse a Retweet with a Reply, too.

“We’re working on updates to Retweet with Comment as part of our efforts to make Twitter more conversational,” a spokesperson for Twitter confirmed to TechCrunch. They also hinted we’d see more tests of this nature in the future, as well.

Trump calls for 6G cellular technology, because why the heck not?

We’ve been covering the battle for 5G between the U.S. and China for some time. The White House has made 5G technology a national security priority, and industry leaders have followed up that charge with additional investment in the fledgling technology.

What 5G exactly is though remains mostly a mystery. Is it new bandwidth? Edge computing? Decentralized cloud processing technology? Autonomous vehicles? Something else? I get pitched a dozen stories a day about the “5G revolution” and no one can tell me exactly what’s in it for me other than long presentations in hotel ballrooms about bandwidth (ironically, often without any cell reception).

So imagine my surprise this morning when Trump tweeted that U.S. companies need to work harder and faster on building out the tech behind 5G, but also in the process called for …. 6G technology.

I want to just say that no, 6G isn’t a thing. I have only received one PR pitch for 6G in the last few months, which said: “Waveguide over copper runs at millimeter frequencies(about30 GHz to 1 THz) and is synergistic with 5G/6G wireless. A type of vectoring is applied to effective separate the many modes that can propagate within a telephone cable.” No, not a thing.

But it could be a thing. Maybe the government is secretly pioneering the next generation of the next generation of telecom technology. Or maybe, just maybe, our president, branding expert that he is, realized that if you are going to sell 5G, you might as well inflate the number to 6G and really get people’s taste buds salivating.

No comment from cleaning supplies company Seventh Generation, but if I were them, I’d be getting worried.

Loop acquires ScreenPlay to build its streaming library

A new streaming startup called Loop Media is announcing its first acquisition — a 30-year-old company called ScreenPlay.

While you may not have heard of ScreenPlay, the company has licensed a library of 200,000 music videos and movie/game/TV trailers, which it broadcasts in thousands of venues for partners like Hard Rock Cafe, Norwegian Cruise Line, Yard House, Buffalo Wild Wings and Caesars Entertainment.

This announcement comes just a week after Loop officially came out of stealth — and in fact, co-founder and CEO Jon Niermann (previously an executive at EA and Disney) said he’s always seen ScreenPlay’s content library as the foundation for Loop’s business.

It also sounds like this deepens an existing relationship, with Loop previously making a minority investment in ScreenPlay. The idea is to preserve and even grow ScreenPlay’s existing business — bringing video to out-of-home locations — while also introducing new technology into the mix, including a mobile app for short-form video.

“[ScreenPlay] is a company that generates millions in top-line revenue, it’s profitable,” Niermann said. “As technology has evolved and been updated, we want to come in with our team and really help them grow that.”

There are plenty of other mobile apps featuring short videos, but Niermann said Loop can now take advantage of ScreenPlay’s content library, and also connect the venue experience with the app. In addition, he said Loop is building “a very streamlined, slick app” that offers better curation than most video services, as well as “a strong social component.”

The acquisition was for an undisclosed price, combining both cash and stock. Niermann noted that “the ScreenPlay team remains intact,” with founder and chairman Mark Vrieling joining Loop as its chief content officer.

He added that existing ScreenPlay customers will not experience any interruption in their service. The plan is to launch the Loop app and an improved ScreenPlay screencast system in the next six months.

“[The business] is going to be a hybrid,” he said. “We wanted to continue to have the business roots, so to speak, but everybody’s mobile, everybody’s viewing everywhere. The question for us is, how do you create something that’s unique, that truly is a seamless experience?”

Daily Crunch: Samsung unveils Galaxy S10 lineup

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 9am Pacific, you can subscribe here.

1. Here’s everything announced at Samsung’s Galaxy S10/Galaxy Fold event

Samsung announced five new phones, some new earbuds, a virtual assistant and a watch.

And one of those phones is foldable. Folded, the handset sports a 4.6-inch display that only takes up about three-fourths of the front. Unfolded, it turns into a 7.3-inch tablet. Pricing starts at $1,980.

2. Lyft reportedly plans to debut on Nasdaq next month

Two reports, one from Reuters, the other from WSJ, indicate Lyft plans to list its shares on Nasdaq next month. The WSJ, citing unnamed sources, reported Lyft may make the filing public as early as next week.

3. Clutter confirms SoftBank-led $200M investment for its on-demand storage service

There’s plenty of speculation right now around apparently disgruntled investors in SoftBank’s Vision Fund, but the drum continues to beat and the checks continue to be written.

4. Highlights & transcript from Zuckerberg’s 20K-word ethics talk

Zuckerberg said it would feel wrong to charge users for extra privacy controls.

5. Companies including Nestlé, Epic and reportedly Disney suspend YouTube ads over child exploitation concerns

Days after a YouTube creator accused the platform of enabling a “soft-core pedophilia ring,” several companies have suspended advertising on the platform. Other advertisers, including Peloton and Grammarly, said they are calling on YouTube to resolve the issue.

6. Trump calls for 6G cellular technology, because why the heck not?

6G isn’t a thing. But … maybe it could be?

7. Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Patreon

TechCrunch’s media consultant Eric Peckham spent dozens of hours interviewing Patreon’s management team and investors, as well as poring over data, in order to write this deep analysis of the company and the lessons learned. (Extra Crunch subscription required.)

Google Cloud’s speech APIs get cheaper and learn new languages

Google today announced an update to its Cloud Speech-to-Text and Text-to-Speech APIs that introduces a few new features that should be especially interesting to enterprise users, as well as improved language support and a price cut.

Most of these updates focus on the Speech-to-Text product, but Cloud Text-to-Speech is getting a major update with 31 new WaveNet and 24 new standard voices. The service now also supports seven new languages: Danish, Portuguese/Portugal, Russian, Polish, Slovakian, Ukrainian and Norwegian Bokmål. These are all in beta right now and extend the list of supported languages to 21 total.

The service now also features the ability to optimize audio playback for specific devices. That sounds like a minor thing, but it allows you to optimize a call center application for interactive voice responses and another application for use with a headset.

As for Cloud Speech-to-Text, this update focuses on making the service more usable in situations where developers have to support users on multiple channels — think a phone conference. For this, the company introduced multi-channel recognition as a beta last year; now, this feature is generally available.

Similarly, Google’s premium AI models for video and enhanced phones launched into beta last year with the promise of fewer transcription errors than Google’s other model, which mostly focuses on short queries and voice commands. This model, too, is now generally available.

In addition to the new features, Google also decided to cut the price for using the Speech-to-Text service. The company decided to cut by 33 percent the prices of the standard and premium video model for transcribing videos for those who opt-in to Google’s data-logging program. By opting in, you allow Google to use your data to help train Google’s models. The company promises that only a limited number of employees will have access to the data and that it will solely use it to train and improve its products, but chances are not everybody is going to feel comfortable opting in to this, even if it means there’s a discount.

Thankfully, the regular premium video model is now also 25 percent cheaper without having to log in to Google’s data logging. Like before, the first 60 minutes are still free.

Google makes it easier to find prescription drug disposal sites

In an effort to combat the opioid crisis, Google will begin labeling places where people can safely dispose of their prescription drugs. Now, users can find clearly labeled drug disposal sites directly from searches for things like “drug drop off near me” or “medication disposal.”

Those locations include a network of hospitals, pharmacies and government buildings where people can drop off medication they might have left over from a surgical procedure so that it doesn’t fall into idle hands. As the company noted in its announcement, more than half of all prescription drug abuse cases begin with medication that people find through friends and family.

Google worked with Walgreens and CVS as well as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on the new tool as part of a broader examination of what role tech can play in stemming the opioid epidemic. The idea grew out of an HHS hackathon to develop “data-driven solutions” to stem the flow of opiate abuse and dependence in the U.S. The pilot also coordinated with seven state governments to pool data on disposal sites.

The new pilot expands on a previous initiative between Google and the DEA that encouraged people to get rid of their leftover prescription drugs on two designated days a year rather than letting them linger in the medicine cabinet. Popularizing drug disposal and making it easy is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to the opiate crisis, but it’s a significant one as tech figures out what role it can play to address one of the most devastating public health crises in the U.S. today.

Google’s ‘Digital Wellbeing’ features hit more devices, including Samsung Galaxy S10

Google’s latest effort to help users monitor and control their screen time, Digital Wellbeing, is making its way to more devices. Initially available exclusively to Pixel and Android One device owners, Digital Wellbeing’s feature set is now rolling out to Nokia 6 and Nokia 8 devices with Android Pie, as well as on the new Samsung Galaxy S10.

The site NokiaPowerUser was first to spot the addition to Nokia devices, which was picked up by XDA Developers and noted on their blog. XDA also noticed Digital Wellbeing was available in the Samsung Galaxy S10‘s device settings, which makes it the first non-Pixel or non-Android One phone to ship with Digital Wellbeing installed.

Digital Wellbeing, by way of background, is basically Google’s version of Apple’s Screen Time, and one of the key ways the company is addressing consumer concerns over device addiction.

This has been a hot topic in the tech industry in recent months, as people have become more aware of unhealthy behaviors with regard to use of smartphones and their apps. In fact, a number of those involved with mobile apps’ creation have since come out to say that they were complicit in building apps that exploited weaknesses in the human psyche for the sole purpose of addicting users.

One former Google exec, Tristan Harris, kicked off a whole movement focused on this problem. He also created the Center for Humane Technology, which encourages the implementation of new design principles that help put users back in control of their technology.

In the meantime, companies are rolling out features to give us control over our behaviors around existing technology.

For example, Facebook last year changed how its News Feed operates to reduce time spent on its site in favor of well-being. And Facebook-owned Instagram introduced a time well spent feature, by informing users “you’re all caught up” instead of offering an endless scroll. YouTube lets you schedule reminders to take a break.

We also have OS-level features like Apple’s Screen Time and Google’s Digital Wellbeing for more comprehensive control and monitoring.

Specifically, Digital Wellbeing allows you to track your device addiction in several ways, including how often you check your phone, how many notifications you receive, how often you use apps and more, and allows you to set limits on usage, and configure settings like a nightly “Wind Down” mode and Do Not Disturb settings.

Announced at Google I/O 2018, this feature set first debuted on Pixel devices last year as part of Android Pie. It later came to Android One devices last fall.

According to the standalone Digital Wellbeing app’s release notes, it exited beta on February 19. However, the note didn’t indicate it was coming to non-Pixel, non-Android One devices.

Google has not yet responded to a request for comment about the expansion of Digital Wellbeing.

Google ends forced arbitration for employees

Google is finally ending forced arbitration for its employees. These changes will go into effect for both current and future Google employees on March 21.

While Google won’t reopen settled claims, current employees can litigate past claims starting March 21.

For the contractors Google works with directly, it will remove mandatory arbitration from their contracts. The caveat, however, is that it won’t require outside firms that employ contractors to do the same. Still, Google says it will notify suppliers so that they can see if that approach would work for them.

This is a direct response to a group of outspoken Google employees protesting the company’s arbitration practices. Last month, a group of Google employees took to Twitter and Instagram in an attempt to educate the public about forced arbitration. That came about one month after this same group of 35 employees banded together to demand Google end forced arbitration as it relates to any case of discrimination. The group also called on other tech workers to join them.

Forced arbitration ensures workplace disputes are settled behind closed doors and without any right to an appeal. These types of agreements effectively prevent employees from suing companies.

Following the massive, 20,000-person walkout at Google in November, Google got rid of forced arbitration for sexual harassment and sexual assault claims, offering more transparency around those investigations and more. Airbnb, eBay and Facebook quickly followed suit. Despite some progress across the industry, the end of forced arbitration across all workplace disputes is not widespread.

Since getting rid of forced arbitration for cases relating to sexual harassment and assault, Google said it has been exploring the issue and ultimately decided on implementing a blanket change.

Baidu’s video site iQiyi adds 37M subscribers in 2018 amid mounting losses

China’s Baidu, which is often compared to Alphabet’s Google, is showing no signs of slowing down its pace of betting on video content as its core advertising unit feels the squeeze from rivals. The company’s latest financial results show its video streaming business iQiyi posted a net loss of 9.1 billion yuan or $1.3 billion in 2018, compared to just 3.74 billion yuan in 2017.

Not long ago, iQiyi announced raising $500 million in convertible notes to fuel its spending spree. The video site, which filed for a $1.5 billion U.S. IPO last February, aspires to be the “Disney of China” with a Netflix-style production house and a plan to merchandise a library of intellectual property. Baidu also felt the heat as content costs from 2018 jumped 75 percent to $3.42 billion mainly on account of iQiyi expenses.

The cash burn appears to be paying off. IQiyi added 36.6 million subscribers last year, bringing its total users to 87.4 million. 98.5 percent of them were paying, a promising ratio given Chinese users were long used to getting free content in a country with rampant online piracy. IQiyi’s most serious contender Tencent Video had 82 million users as of Q3.

2018 also turned out to be the first time Baidu has crossed the 100 billion yuan earnings mark as the firm pocketed 102.3 billion yuan ($14.88 billion) in total revenues, an increase of 28 percent from 2017.

In Q4 alone, Baidu’s total revenues grew 22 percent to $3.96 billion at a slower rate compared to the previous quarter. Online advertising from search results, news feed and video content still made up the majority of the company’s income despite the considerable resources the behemoth has poured into autonomous driving and other AI-focused efforts.

Meanwhile, Baidu’s lucrative advertising business is facing heightened competition from ByteDance, the fast-ascending new media company with a suite of news and video apps that are proven popular with marketers. The Beijing-based firm that’s also unnerved Tencent was expected to achieve $7.4 billion in revenues last year, Bloomberg reported citing sources.

To fend off attackers, Baidu has broadened its advertising inventory beyond the web to include the likes of elevators. In another move, Baidu paid $133 million in cash prizes luring users to its namesake search app on the eve of Chinese New Year. But its search service has over the years been a repeated target for criticism on issues ranging from false medical ads to more recently the subpar quality of its search results. Baidu has nonetheless held onto its commanding position in a market where Google is absent and smaller players like Bing and Sogou remain the underdogs.

On the AI front, Baidu made a total of 13 investments in 2018 that made it the most prolific corporate venture capital focused on the realm, according to a report from CB Insights. Microsoft’s M12 venture and Google Ventures followed closely behind.

Though Baidu’s AI business is far from achieving mass commercialization, the segment has scored some notable landmarks. Over 200 million devices now use DuerOS, the company’s answer to the Alexa voice assistant. Baidu’s autonomous driving open platform Apollo has accumulated 135 original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) including Volvo, which is working with its Chinese ally to deliver level four self-driving passenger vehicles that can operate on pre-mapped roads with minimum human intervention.