What does breaking news sound like? Circa, the popular mobile news app built on brevity, thinks it can name that tune in one second.
Circa News 2, which launches today, is the latest rethink of how news is written, delivered, and consumed for people on the go, CEO Matt Galligan says. The company touts a study which claims more than 55% of U.S. smartphone owners consume news while mobile. So Circa is targeting them with new features on Android and iOS 7 today–new breaking news alerts that don’t just show up in reverse-chronological order but are ordered by quality, plus new interactive ways to follow news. Key to the new approach is mastering the misunderstood art of push notifications.
You know them well. And you probably hate most of them. In your iPhone’s Notification Center or your Android phone’s settings, you turn most of them off, allowing only email, texts, and maybe Facebook or Twitter to ping you.
“Push notifications can’t be abused, because the user is essentially granting you a way into their personal space,” Galligan says. “You have to be respectful of a user’s environment.”
In its new edition, Circa limits push notifications to the highest levels of breaking news but allows users to opt in to being notified each time a story incrementally develops. We’re not just talking about a bubble that shows up on your lock screen. If that’s all push notifications were, they wouldn’t be so intrusive and valuable, and they wouldn’t be able to get your attention if you weren’t already looking at your phone. Push notifications are all about sound–including vibrations, which are really just low-level sounds.
Galligan’s big thinking behind Circa’s new interruptions is: The sound of breaking news shouldn’t suck; it shouldn’t be one of the default sounds on your phone (most of which you never change or customize); it should make you curious, stand out from other services’ sounds, and it should make you feel something in an instant. “Sound evokes emotion,” Galligan says. “It’s one of the most powerful things that you can have a reaction to.” So he and his team, with the help of one of the world’s most respected digital music artists, BT, went to great lengths to make sure Circa’s sound of breaking news struck a chord.
For most of his young life, Galligan, now 29, had been a fan of BT (Brian Wayne Transeau), the 41-year-old Grammy-nominated composer who pioneered the trance and intelligent dance music that paved the way for today’s EDM craze. He’s produced records for Peter Gabriel, Tiesto, ‘N Sync, Tori Amos, and others and composed original scores for The Fast And the Furious, Monster, and other films. Galligan had developed a friendly relationship with Transeau, but he still thought asking the artist to work with his news startup was a hail Mary.
“I sent him a text message that said, ‘Hey, we have this idea, this feature, and we’d really like to have an iconic sound associated with it. It’s a long shot but would you be interested?’ And 30 minutes later, he was, like, ‘I’m in. This sounds so exciting.’ And that’s it. That’s how it started,” Galligan says.
Then came the hard part. Galligan presented Transeau with a massive sonic challenge, even for the artist and producer who holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for the song with the largest number of vocal edits (6,178).
“I gave him what I felt like was a pretty big task,” Galligan says, “which is to say, ‘We want something that’s going to evoke emotion, something that has a sense of urgency but not interruptions. I want something that’s going to be synthetic but inviting.’ I gave him a laundry list of things. And I said, ‘By the way, it needs to be done in a second or less.'”
Transeau, who’s used to producing music on two-hour-long albums and films, says this is the shortest piece of music he’s ever worked on, but the limitations and deep expectations made him want to tackle it. “I really like the format of taking something that is technically very sophisticated and getting that into something that is very palpable and easy to understand quickly. It’s something I’m constantly trying to do compositionally,” he says. “It was a lot harder than I thought it would be.”
The resulting sound does immediately trigger a feeling. It’s simultaneously ascending and descending. It sounds like tapping and refining a signal–a central theme in Circa’s approach to breaking news. There’s a whoosh to the sound, which adds a sense of velocity. All told, there are about 50 tracks of synthesized or digital sounds packed into that one-second sonic signature, Transeau says, adding that they’re “lovingly crafted by hand and pretty esoteric sound-generation platforms.”
Getting from that first text message from Galligan to the final sound you’ll hear today took about four weeks–“a lot of this happened on airplanes,” where Transeau is often most productive, he says.
Galligan envisions scenarios where several Circa users in a space all get a push alert at the same time and realize they’re part of the community–or maybe make people around them curious enough to hop on the app, too. “It allows for a lot of expansion,” Galligan says of the new sound. “It’s unreal just how much is going on there. You listen to it once, and it’s a nice sound; there’s no question there. But the more you dig into it, the more you hear. There’s so much nuance and interesting bits to it that I think are really fascinating.”