Discovering the power of the podcast
By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors
Just four short years ago, few people would have recognized the name – or the voice – of Sarah Koenig. Today, Koenig, an investigative journalist, engages millions of people and is among the world’s most-listened-to storytellers.
Koenig’s medium? The podcast, a once-humble and somewhat experimental method of delivering content to the general public.
Koenig is the host of “Serial,” a podcast that tells a nonfiction story over multiple episodes. Earlier this month, Koenig was in Indianapolis as part of WFYI’s Listen Up speakers’ series.
According to Slate magazine, the word “podcast” first appeared in a news story in 2005. But for years, podcasts remained on the fringes, unable to gain traction until smartphones and apps made information easily accessible and a lot more portable.
Matt Shafer Powell, WFYI’s chief content officer, produced his first podcast in 2005. He was working in Knoxville, Tennessee, and a university IT staff person read about podcasts and suggested using this platform to distribute content.
According to Powell, there was an initial flush of podcasting, and then growth seemed to die.
“We were actually kind of talking about it in terms of ‘Yeah, remember when podcasting was such an interesting idea. Boy, those days are gone.’
“And then all of a sudden, there came this wholesale embrace of podcasting from so many of the big players, like “This American Life,” and groups like that. It just exploded and then “Serial” came along.”
And just how has the medium grown? Earlier this year, Chartable, a company that provides podcast analytics and attribution tools, reported that there were 700,000 available podcasts, and that number is growing. Each month, 32 percent of Americans listen to a podcast.
But does that mean that nonprofits have embraced the format?
Bill Stanczykiewicz, the Fund Raising School’s director, knows firsthand what it takes to regularly produce a podcast. In late January 2018, the school launched “First Day,” a weekly 10-minute podcast to provide organizations with the latest information on fundraising and philanthropy.
“I would speculate that the format probably works best for intermediary-type nonprofit organizations. Many of our nonprofits are literally first responders who are meeting needs and making the world a better place as they serve children and victims of domestic violence, promote the arts, clean the environment, endorse animal welfare, all these things. That’s a lot of hard work on a day-to-day basis and to think about setting aside time for podcasts could be a challenge.”
So that’s why Stanczykiewicz’s team has kept the format short, and before the launch of “First Day,” identified its three strategic reasons.
“One is that we believe strongly that podcasts are the medium of now and definitely the medium of the future. More and more people are turning to podcasts for information. I think of college students who tell me they never read the New York Times, but they listen to the NYT podcast every day.”
The Fund Raising School had a multichannel marketing strategy, and a podcast was a seamless fit. It also ensured that the school’s information is accessible, including internationally, for fundraising and nonprofit professionals.
“We know you’re making the world a better place, so it’s 10 minutes in, out, done. Get practical information that you need and get back to work is another reason why we chose that format,” Stanczykiewicz said. In the year and a half of production, there have been only two occasions when the format deviated from the interview format. Typically, Stanczykiewicz said, he is the objective host, and there is a featured guest.
“We tell the guests in advance, this needs to be translated for practical application for frontline fundraisers. We cannot have our very talented faculty and researchers talking about research; it has to be what does this research means for practical fundraising. We wanted it to be quick, right to the point. If you want more information, you can go to our website. We know that fundraisers are busy people, we wanted to summarize, three big points, and then be done.”
And while WFYI’s Powell said he’s not an expert on podcasting, public radio had an early upper hand. In 2005, NPR emerged as a major player with a ready supply of content when it put out shows like “Fresh Air,” “Planet Money” and “Ted Radio Hour” online.
“We were on the air already doing in-depth reporting, and that kind of storytelling, so it was an easier fit to move it over to the podcast realm than maybe some other media entities. In a lot of ways, we’re learning right along with everybody else.
“I think it’s a really exciting time. It’s scary, but being in media has always been scary because it’s in a constant state of change. I think when it comes down to it, people still love, and will always love a good story,” said Powell.
He, like Stanczykiewicz, believes that audio-only content isn’t going away, because it allows the listener to engage in other activities, like jogging or cooking. He said the case for radio over 100 years ago was that it allowed an individual’s imagination to fill in the gaps, and that hasn’t changed.
“I believe that about audio-only content despite the fact that we are going through changes in how it’s delivered. We’ll continue to go through changes, but there’s always going to be a place for good content, good stories and the human voice,” said Powell.
Stanczykiewicz said the format of the school’s podcasts works for them, and urges nonprofits or individuals to have a plan before launching any type of podcasts.
While he has a background in radio, he earned a leadership certificate on social media from the Owen Graduate School of Management at Vanderbilt University. One point that was stressed in that training was to release it on the same time and day or days of the week. So, because “First Day” is released on Mondays, it is aptly named, and while some people have suggested they produce a daily podcast, currently the school doesn’t have that capacity or a plan to increase production.
Powell urged potential podcasters to be realistic about whom you want to reach.
“There’s nothing wrong with doing a podcast that only reaches a small, but selective group of people. Be realistic about who your audience is and what you want from them: Do you want to entertain them, do you want to educate them, do you want to inspire them?” he said.
While the Fund Raising School does not have exact audience listeners, typically the week a podcast is released, Stanczykiewicz said there are 500 listeners. Each podcast is archived, and anecdotally, the school learned that people use the 10-minute segments at staff and board meetings. Over time, podcasts, which Stanczykiewicz said cost virtually nothing to produce, have achieved up to 1,000 listeners.
Powell recommends identifying resources as part of the initial planning, but said that equipment and hosting are not expensive. He cautions that it depends on the final product. From his experience, though, he said it takes 10 times longer than initial projections.
“If you’re talking about the kind of podcast where you’re going out and getting stories and editing these stories and getting music and doing all this other stuff, there’s going to be a pretty financial obligation there unless you got all the equipment and all the time in the world and can do it yourself,” said Powell.
And while podcast audiences are growing, some genres are more appealing. A 2018 report from Nielson examined the broadest popularity types for avid listeners.
The Fund Raising School’s format, for example, requires little editing. Guests are told it’s live to tape with just one take. Liz Jackson, the school’s associate director, manages the program, and this past school year, there was a graduate assistant who did the day-to-day work of scheduling, preparing the guests, uploading the podcasts and tracking usage data. Unlike most nonprofits, the school’s advantage is access to IUPUI’s facilities, which include a video- and audio-recording studio that is staffed. Topic ideas are a standing agenda item at bimonthly team meetings.
“We brainstorm what’s some of the latest research that has come from our faculty or research team, or as we teach, is there a predominate line of questioning that we’re hearing about, a topic that we’re hearing about, or is there something out in the news. For example, we might say there’s been some natural disasters, maybe we need to have something on natural disasters or how does that affect charitable giving or some change in tax policy,” he said.
Podcasts are recorded two to three months prior to air time to make sure there’s always enough in the pipeline, and typically the interviewees are solicited from the two-dozen faculty,10 researchers or external guests speaking at the school.
For WFYI, podcasts have typically been local radio shows that are available on-demand. That was until “The WorkAround” from “Side Effects.” Funding from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting provided the initial funding for “Side Effects,” and in the grant was a deliverable — a podcast. After extensive brainstorming, the team decided to produce 20- to-25-minute podcasts about the difficult and sometimes shocking things that people would do to work around the American health care system. Seven episodes were produced last year.
“It was a learning experience. We totally underestimated how much time and energy it would take. You’d think that that would be a great lesson for us, but we actually have another podcast in production right now called “Sick” that’s going to launch in September,” said Powell.
Some support for this new podcast is provided by Boston-based PRX.
“PRX had this program called “Catapult.” It was designed specifically to (support) public radio stations that had some ideas and some resources available for podcasts, but really didn’t know what they’re doing. I’m happy with “The WorkAround.” It’s good journalism, and I think it came out sounding good, but we had no clue what we were doing, we were totally flying without instruments. We also didn’t know how to market something like this or how do you get listeners?
“And then along comes PRX with its RFP saying, ‘Hey, if you have a podcast idea, we’d love to help you with it.’” WFYI was one of five stations named around the country to be part of the “Catapult” cohort. PRX provided some funding to help with the costs, but it is providing something more valuable.
“The important part is they’re putting us through extensive training on everything from the best way to produce a podcast, to the best way to write one, to the best way to market one. Really more than anything, it’s the intense training that we’re getting out of ‘Catapult,’” said Powell, who’s been with the station for two years.
The reporting and production team are Jake Harper and Lauren Bavis, and they have traveled to Boston several times for boot camp training weeks. PRX has also been a constant editorial presence, offering suggestions to hone the product.
“I’m anxious to see what the output will be in terms of lessons for us going forward,” said Powell.
So if a nonprofit is thinking about tackling a podcast, Powell shared advice that Koenig provided her audience earlier this month — be your true self.
“If you’re just trying to create this podcast, and it’s not something that engages you, people are going to recognize that. It’s a heavy, heavy lift. Koenig, for example, had 42 hours of tape with Adnan Syed that had to be gone through. There’s a long process of editing and reediting and questioning and re-questioning. In that kind of storytelling podcast, you better be prepared to really work long and hard,” he said. “People say, ‘That sounds easy, I can do that.’ But they don’t know what’s involved.”
Stanczykiewicz said that if the philanthropic sector isn’t there yet, it needs to be.
“As more and more people are consuming information through their phones and other technological devices, they’re looking to podcasts now for information more than ever before. And that’s a trend in our opinion that’s only going to continue to increase. This is where the world is going,” he said.
“It will be very interesting to see this moving forward. You know when you write this story three years from now, I think they’ll be even much more extensive than what you’re finding now,” said the assistant dean for external relations.
Editor’s note: After this article ran, the Girl Scouts of Central Indiana shared news of its podcast. Since February, it has partnered with Veteran Strategies, a local public relations firm, to interview Hoosier community leaders. The inaugural “Leaders and Legends” podcast featured former Mayor of Indianapolis Greg Ballard. https://leadersandlegends.fireside.fm/