Is a podcast a good idea for your charity? And if it is, how do you start one up and get it to your audience?
In light of COVID-19, it’s likely that your organisation’s approach to interacting with your audience has fundamentally changed - so right now, there’s a chance you’re thinking “how do we go about starting a podcast?” Well, this blog post will help you answer that question. Buckle up, it’s going to be a wild ride.
First off, here’s some creds. I’m co-founder of Tech for Good Live, which runs a popular podcast about #techforgood. I also worked in (local community) radio for five years.
The design agency I founded, Reply, recently worked with a major university to develop a podcast training course and we’re occasionally commissioned to develop podcasts and podcast ideas for clients.
Podcasts can be a great way to connect with an audience. And if members of that audience subscribe, even better! That means they’ll automatically receive new episodes; your content, appearing like clockwork on their smartphone. And for a blessed 30 minutes or more, you’re speaking directly to your audience. Uninterrupted bliss. It’s just you and them. Their undivided attention focused on you during their daily commute (assuming they’re not also doing the countless other things we all tend to do when listening to a podcast).
It’s not uncommon for people to ask for podcast recommendations from their friends. Word of mouth can help grow your reach. So far, everything's coming up roses.
Let's check the numbers
Sadly, we need to do a bit of a reality check and dig into some stats.
Podcasts are everywhere. And, it feels almost like every dude on Twitter immediately started their own unique-hot-take-on-lockdown podcast in March 2020.
In terms of how many podcasts are out there, a reasonable estimate is that there’s approximately 1,000,000 active podcast shows on Apple podcasts right now, with over 30,000,000 episodes. That’s a lot.
The majority of listens happen outside the home, and – according to Nielsen – a growing number of people are familiar with what a podcast is (75% of households).
Audience sizes are growing too. 21% of respondents to Statista in 2019 said they listened to a podcast on a weekly basis, rising to 24% this year.
When you break those numbers down though, you begin to get a picture of why podcasts are still pretty darn niche.
A fair share of 26-35 year olds listen to podcasts on a weekly basis, but numbers decline in older demographics.
Reliable statistics on UK-specific podcast trends are few and far between, but using the US as a guide, podcast listeners are most likely affluent, white, smartphone users, and active on social media.
The likelihood of success
Here’s a true statement: just because you’ve created great content, doesn’t mean that anyone is going to find it.
It’s hard work to create a successful podcast. You need a good idea for your show, you need to be engaging - and to be honest, it’s helpful to be funny (the most popular podcasts by far are comedic). But, most of all, you need an audience.
Unfortunately, creating a great and engaging podcast won’t bring you an audience by itself; it’ll simply get lost in all the noise. You’re going to have to devote time, energy, and budget to marketing.
If your organisation, or you personally, already have a large audience, that’s a great starting point. The more engaged they are, the better. For a lot of charities, this may well be music to your ears.
Let’s also consider what success looks like for you. We don’t all need to be the next Serial, Marc Maron, or Kermode & Mayo podcast. What level of reach and engagement are you happy with? If your podcast is for a smaller crowd, and you’re able to reach them – that’s great!
Please remember those typical demographics of podcast listeners though; just because your charity has a large following, doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll convert to being a podcast audience. Be cautious about not leaving people behind.
How to do it
Here’s some great news: in terms of production, making a podcast these days is pretty simple. At Tech for Good Live, we use a fabulous physical studio in the Federation. We have a producer (Producer Paul), we have pretty mirrored walls, professional microphones, sound proofing, branded beer mats, and a decent audio rig. The pandemic scuppered that, and we’ve had to move to remote podcasting for the time being. It’s not ideal, but we’ve adjusted, and it has shown us just how easy it can be.
If you’ve got access to a computer, headphones and a microphone (which could just be your usual phone headphones), you’re pretty much all set. We’ve used Zoom for our remote podcasts, because we have up to five people on each show. Hangouts can do a job too, and there’s purpose built tools such as Squadcast.
If you are able to splash out a bit, a decent podcast microphone can make a world of difference to quality, and a recording tool such as a Zoom H4n recorder can make a world of difference. (I don’t know why I don’t get commission for how often I recommend this thing.)
If the sound quality is terrible, if it’s hard work or unpleasant to listen to, even your best friends won’t make it through a full episode. Spend a bit of time on testing to see what your output is like.
Let’s get podcasting
There are three main stages of podcast production:
Let’s go through it...
We’ll assume you’re not just making a podcast for the sake of making a podcast. You have an idea, you have a goal, you’ve got the gear and your setup is sorted, and now it’s time to make it a reality.
You need to think about your audience. Consider first, your starting audience, and then think about what areas you want to expand into as you increase your reach. Of course, you want to be proud of your podcast, and enjoy making it, but you need to focus it around what your audience wants. I love gabber as much as the next classy human being, but if I played that all day long, my husband and five cats would probably move out of the house and take up refuge in a tent in the garden.
Look, what I’m saying is, everyone in the studio might be having a great ol’ time, but that’s not always good content to those who are listening in.
You also need to think about your format and genre. Is it comedic, is it serious? A little of both? Is it educational or news-themed? Perhaps it’s more of a documentary-led and investigative angle, such as Serial or The Dropout? Is it a roundtable discussion (Tech for Good Live), or a one-on-one interview style (WTF with Marc Maron)? Pick a format that you’re comfortable with, and that you can realistically deliver.
In terms of wider production, you need to think about any narrative structure you may want to develop, and how much writing you’re going to do up front, and how much will be off-the-cuff.
You’ll want to consider how you’ll market the podcast, and how you’re going to pay for any production or hosting costs.
Story time! Tech for Good Live started out as a bunch of mates in the pub who talked too much about tech for good. We thought that it might make a good podcast, so we moved from the pub to a table with a bunch of mics around it (thankfully one of the team is a production hero and had some gear). The first episode we recorded was a LOT of fun. We ordered pizza, got some beers, and then recorded a 40 minute episode of pure gold.
Listening back though, it’s absolute trash. If we’d released it, all of my friends listening in would have had a great time! The problem though, is that I only have five friends and they were all on the podcast with me. It was objectively terrible content and it was to be expected because most of the team were new to radio and podcasting.
It was a great learning experience. Once we listened back to the rough edit, we decided not to publish the pilot. Instead, we recorded again the following week. It was tight. It was focused. It was super successful. Now we’re four years in and being invited to record live at international conferences, and we’ve got an engaged global audience. I’ve sat across the table from some of my heroes in the design, charity and campaigning sectors for our “Making Friends With” series. I feel very fortunate, but our team has worked their asses off too.
Like with our doomed pilot, expect some bumps in the road, and be ruthless with yourself over your content. Like any form of content, rewriting is great for quality.
If you’re doing a story-based podcast (Welcome to Nightvale), or a documentary approach (Catch and Kill), your planning will most likely include a very specific script, and cues for various set-ups to pre-recorded clips. If that’s the case, practice reading aloud, over and over. Get it to feel natural, so it sounds more casual to the listeners. Make notes in the booth to adjust your part of the script to suit your own personal quips and terminology. We have a writer at Tech for Good Live who tries to make sure they’re adjusting the tone for whoever they’re writing for, but the golden rule is that the speakers all practise and tinker to make just it feels right for them.
If you’re doing an interview, prep your questions, and follow-up questions. There’s plenty of guides online to good interview techniques. Crucially, don’t feel the need to stick to a rigid script. Follow the interview down whatever route is interesting and relevant. Be personable, and use your notes to keep it on track.
If it’s a roundtable discussion, be very cautious about making sure you don’t talk over each other. Have a diverse and interesting team, and make sure everyone has opportunities to have their voices heard. Make sure someone is in charge to keep everyone on track, to follow the episode agenda, and to keep an eye on timings. If your podcast is a 30 minute show, make sure it’s a 30 minute show. Remember, be ruthless with this stuff. Constraints are your best friend!
These constraints can make you help good planning decisions around your genre and format. If you’re short on time and editing is going to be a rush-job, or you’ve not got much editing experience, then record in a live format with minimal edits, and definitely don’t do a documentary format! What talent do you have on hand? If you’ve got someone who is great at reading out loud, then scripting is your friend. Use those skills! Maybe your team has a lot of experience in conducting interviews? Great – use them!
Oh – and make sure you press record. Seriously, we’ve made that mistake [glares furiously in Ben’s direction]. Double check that stuff.
Behind every successful writer, musician and podcaster, there is an editor.
If you’re a one-person team (and let’s be honest, you work for a charity so that’s probably the case) you may be your own editor. That’s fine. It’s very common in fact. Audacity is a free tool that can work wonders for you. If you’re a Mac user, Garageband can even do a job.
Depending on your format, you may not need to edit much. Most Tech for Good Live shows now involve sticking on the intro and exit jingles, cleaning up some levels, and cutting out some of Greg’s more enthusiastic swears.
A documentary format can be a bigger job. For some of our special series, we’ve pieced together a lot of field interviews, in-person debates and scripted components. Think of editing there as being similar to a script supervisor. You have a lot of involvement in the overall narrative, and you might need to call people back in for re-recordings. Enjoy this delicious and well deserved power.
A final, but often overlooked aspect of editing, is feedback. If you’re editing a podcast and there are other people involved in the team, make sure you have feedback loops established for what you’re having to correct regularly and issues you’re running into.
If people are talking over one-another, let them know. It’s not always obvious in the booth, because you may often use visual cues when talking, but those cues are invisible to the listeners. People may be moving away from the microphone when talking. Let them know. Build good habits. Shave off the rough edges. We run a retrospective after each season, because you can never have too many Stop, Start, and Continue exercises, right?
Keep at it. You’ll get better and better over time.
Well, there’s some admin to do. You need to set up your RSS feed and choose a podcast host, and make sure you’re pushing your feed out to all the relevant podcast players. For now, maybe just use something free such as SoundCloud. We use podcast.co.
You’ll want to make sure you’re on Apple Podcasts, and Spotify, to ensure you’re getting decent reach. You’ll need a name for your podcast. You’ll need “album” artwork. Maybe even episode artwork if that’s your jazz and you have the time. You’ll want to do podcast descriptions and transcriptions to make sure your content is accessible.
And then again, it all comes back to marketing. Because if no-one is listening, did the podcast even happen?