Podcasts as a side dish, not the main course

Fighting against boredom is a big part of teaching. One of the struggles I face as a teacher is finding a balance between reviewing the assigned reading (and the assigned viewing, e.g. professional online work) and being too repetitious. Students who avoid doing the reading want the teacher to provide a full regurgitation, which obviously would be a waste of time for the students who completed the reading.

I’ve gone through phases when I tried to review the reading as little as possible during class, in an attempt to force students to read the assignments. That was never very successful. It seemed that less referring to the readings led to fewer students actually doing the reading.

Alan Stavitsky, a journalism professor and associate dean at the University of Oregon, came up with a neat way to solve this problem — and I think it might have a useful application outside the classroom as well.

Stavitsky used to do an in-class review of the assigned readings, which created a big boredom problem in his class (as I can easily imagine). However, many undergraduate students really do need some guidance as to what the teacher expects them to take away from the readings. So Stavitsky started recording a weekly podcast, transferring the repetitive material he used to deliver during class into an optional online supplement — an MP3 file. (All this is documented in an article in the Winter 2007 edition of the academic journal Journalism & Mass Communication Educator.)

Working from an outline, Stavitsky employed a conversational style similar to his lectures to relate the basic concepts of each chapter … The recorded audio file required no additional editing (p. 401).

The audio files ranged in length from 15 to 28 minutes, depending on what the material required. Stavitsky also supplied “brief text notes on the chapter,” which the students could download and use together with the podcast.

A doctoral student conducted a study assessing the results of the first semester’s application of this material, and the students’ response was quite positive. An average of 87.6 percent of the students who responded to the survey (209 out of 249) said they listened to each of the podcasts at least once (p. 402).

The application to daily journalism? It occurred to me that a weekly podcast on a particular topic or beat area could prove very popular with members of a community.

Think of it this way: Local radio mostly gives people the shortest possible news bites. Talk radio expands on certain topics but tends to be long on opinion and short on facts. It’s pleasant and diverting to listen to a knowledgeable person explain to us, in plain language, an issue that we would like to know more about. (It’s really boring to listen to someone read a news story.)

I’m imaging a weekly podcast from the education reporter, or the reporter who covers local government, or the business reporter who covers a key local industry, if you have one (e.g. aviation in Seattle, or military issues in a base town). In part it’s a recap of the news of the week, but that’s not the point of the 15 or 20 minutes served up. The point is to add context, to increase understanding, and to fill in some background and connections that the listener might have missed. Exactly what Stavitsky was aiming at with his podcasts about the week’s assigned reading.

I’ve listened to a lot of incredibly boring and badly produced podcasts from newspapers. I’ve also heard newspaper people say that podcasts failed to attract an audience, so that’s the end of that, and their newsroom won’t be doing any more.

I see a huge connection between those two sentences in the previous paragraph. Huge.

A podcast is ridiculously easy to produce (plug a microphone into your computer) and costs virtually nothing. The content can be supplemental, even valuable, and can enhance what you already do. It can help you build up an audience for a particular reporter, or column, or your newspaper as a whole. Of course, you’re not going to sell any ads on it right away — maybe not for the first year. Get over it already! You need an audience first. If you can create an audience, you’ll be able to attract advertising.

The way to survive — to make sure journalism survives — is to start doing stuff that real people actually value.

Think outside the traditional medium and its delivery methods. Think about drive time, commuting time. Check out these two non-journalism independent podcasts and notice how they are promoted and archived:

  • Coffee Break Spanish: Learn to speak Spanish while you’re drinking one latte a day.
  • SCTRCST (Scootercast): About once a week, DaveM talks about scooters — you know, those two-wheeled vehicles that are smaller than a motorcycle and bigger than a moped.

I’m not saying copy their topics — no! That is NOT what you should do! I’m saying you should think about how your expertise can be leveraged to attract a loyal audience.

Oh, and a P.S. — if you don’t promo the podcast, prominently and continually, forget about it. People are not psychic. They won’t find your podcasts (or understand why they should download one) unless you promote the podcasts.

10 Comments on “Podcasts as a side dish, not the main course

  1. Interesting post. I’ve learned that when you have content, the most effective way as a content owner is to build the full content, and then pre-process it into different size chunks. We employed that at a Fortune 500 I used to work at. When the product managers got together with marketing for a new product, they had to create what we called a ‘chunking doc’ – create a 500 word description of your product, but then also provide the 250 word version, the 100 word version, and the 20 word version. That way when marketing had to mention your product in a set of materials they could grab the version that fit the circumstances. But the cutting/editing was done by someone who actually knew the product and could create meaningful short versions, rather than some marketing person semi-randomly cutting out words for a result that sounded ridiculous to folks that knew the product.

    The same should translate to journalism. Have a 30min talk show segment, and then also produce a 10min pod cast, a 2min filler audio, a 15sec news blurb, and a website story and website teaser. The work really is in creating the long version, since it has the most content. Cutting down isn’t easy, but it’s not all that much work if you’re getting used to it.

    Doing it this way, the consumer has choice. The consumer can pick the version that fits his time budget and that fits his medium preference at the moment of consumption.

    CNN for example is making a mistake by offering some of their headlines only as video. When I’m at work, I may have 30 seconds to scan an interesting headline, but while multi-tasking in meeting I can’t watch a video segment. By not offering a text version of the story, they missed the opportunity to serve me, and not only is it’s a missed opportunity, they annoyed me as well for lack of customer connection.

  2. Mindy thanks for the blog. I read it all the time. I’m currently at a newspaper that is dabbling in audio, and I’m trying to make the case that we need to archive our stuff in a place where readers can find it, as well as promote it in the daily newspaper so people know to visit the Web site. I am also working on getting site metrics (to satisfy my personal curiosity). Considering we don’t promote that we even have audio anywhere on the site except on the page where the story is located (not even in a link to the story), I would be surprised if it’s more than 30 per podcast.

    Anyway, what do you think is a good way to archive podcasts? (When I say podcast, I mean a supplementary audio piece that is tied with a news or feature story.) For a news organization that has never done this in its history what are some good first steps? Granted I am just a reporter who is trying to push for positive change in her newsroom. But I am hoping some of my advice and persistence filters through.

    Thank you.

  3. @Kate: I like the way the two I linked (Spanish and scooters) use a traditional blog format to organize their podcasts, because it’s chronological (most recent podcast at the top) and tagged (easy to search for older ones); it gives you a convenient format for a text summary; it allows listeners to post comments.

    The link on the text story that appears someplace else on the Web site can link to the blog post, so the person who clicks the link doesn’t get chucked into some unexpected experience like seeing iTunes open. If you provide the podcast in multiple formats, you can link to each one of those in the blog post.

    In the sidebar of the blog you can provide links to how-to guides for all the brand-new listeners.

    If your news Web site is enlightened and uses permanent URLs, you can even link to the text story from the podcast post.

  4. Mindy,
    Thanks for mentioning SCTRCST (scootercast). When I started podcasting I kept hearing two things, “talk about what you know, with passion” and “content is king”. Although I don’t always hit the mark, I try to keep this in mind each time I sit down at the microphone. I also found that I miscalculated the technological learning curve when it came to producing a quality MP3 and promoting my blog. It takes work. Like you said, anyone can “plug in a microphone”, but this does not translate to attracting an audience (if you just put it out there, people don’t beat a path to your site). Success in this medium is a combination of finding your own voice, establishing a relationship with an audience and connecting with other blogger/podcasters. I have had what might be consider by most traditional media and some new media outlets minimal success. But I consider my audience and the dialog we have a very satisfying reward for all my work. BTW, since starting in January 07, I am up to 3000 downloads/month and over 6000 visitors/month to my blog. I guess you could call that a nice little niche.

  5. @DaveM: A lot of people would want to ask you if you’re making money from your efforts. But I’m interested in your overall satisfaction — what rewards do you enjoy apart from income generated from the podcast?

  6. “How do you monetize your Podcast?” seems to be a big question for many podcasters, but I haven’t worried about that. My motivation is different, I started podcasting because I wanted to communicate with other scooterist and had ideas I wanted to share. My content is not everyone’s cup of tea, meaning some people want the show to be just “technical”, other like the variety, so I first try to satisfy myself, to make the best show I can. This means listening to the feedback I do get and measuring each show by my own internal standard. I can tell when I miss the mark. It’s like in school or work…you know you didn’t give 100%.

  7. I’m a few days late to the conversation, but I’m a huge advocate of the weekly/bi-weekly podcast. We’re doing them at HeraldTribune.com, and a couple a very popular with readers:

    >> Harold Bubil’s Real Estate Today podcast
    >> Latisha R. Gray’s Word on the Street podcast

    They different in tone and approach, but they work for their respective audiences. Each will get comparable, if not exceed, average story page views.

    I think the key is to find that niche that will grab listeners attention and keep it.

    I’ve also learned that by doing audio podcasts, we’ve educated our readers about this multimedia product and we get lots of practice producing them. Then, when it comes to breaking news, we can quickly record, edit and post an audio account and readers, who are now used to our audio product, look for that type of update.

    Audio is much quicker to record, edit and post than video (I can get a reporter/photographer/editor on the phone to record audio and have it posted way, way before the video could ever get to us).

    Now for the dark lining: With cutbacks in staff and added responsibilities, it’s increasingly difficult to maintain, let alone start, these programs. But you are correct, they are relatively easy to produce.


    We archive our podcasts in two ways. We have a main index page that pulls up the latest podcasts, and we have a list of previous podcasts at the bottom of each individual “story page.”

  8. Pingback: Supplement or substitute? A look at the use of podcasts « All the News: The Companion Blog

  9. Pingback: Teaching Online Journalism » RGMP 5: Listen to podcasts

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