So, you want to start a podcast?
Amy Leo was previously the human behind USAID Learning Lab. Now, she’s a Senior Adaptive Management Specialist with Acute Incite’s International Development Practice. This blog post was originally published on the Incites blog on August 26, 2020.
In the USAID Learning Lab podcast studio. Credit: Amy Leo.
If you work in communications, chances are you’ve been in at least one work planning meeting in which someone suggests: “let’s start a podcast!” It's not a bad idea; the number of podcast listeners in the U.S. is only rising. And, the quick shift to virtual work as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has also led to an increased interest in this medium. But, producing a podcast is a time-consuming endeavor and many wonder if it’s worth it.
Since I began producing the USAID Learning Lab podcast in early 2017, many colleagues in the international development sector have reached out for advice on starting their own. So, I thought I’d share some questions that I think potential podcast producers should consider before diving in, as well as snapshots of my journey getting the USAID Learning Lab podcast off the ground.
Will people listen?
The USAID Learning Lab podcast was an experiment in informal learning. Would USAID staff and partners take the time to listen to something work-related?
A common question I've heard from prospective podcast producers is "What is a realistic expectation for listenership?" If the target audience for your podcast is, for example, USAID staff and implementing partners interested in a specific topic, recognize that that is already a relatively small group of people. Then, consider what percent of this population might be interested in listening to a podcast about a work-related topic.
Looking at the numbers, the USAID Learning Lab podcast episodes have a wide range of listens: the first and most listened-to episode has over 2,800 while the least-listened-to episode has around 750. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to know how many listeners those listens represent, or how long episodes were played. So, keep in mind that listen counts are just one part of the picture. Another is anecdotal evidence from listeners that the message resonates with them and the behavior change that may result from what they learn. If your pool of potential listeners is small but the potential impact is high – go for it.
Should you use a podcast to tell your story?
You may not have something new to say, but rather something that you want to say in a new way. The most engaging podcasts have a story to tell or a point to make, and do so in unexpected or creative ways.
Think about the podcasts you listen to. What makes you want to listen from beginning to end and go back for more? Podcasts give people the freedom to tell stories in their own voice. You can hear their enthusiasm, thoughtful pauses, stumbles and hesitation. All of this lends its own authenticity to the medium. My favorite interview for the USAID Learning Lab podcast (and I’m not just saying this to be deferential because he’s now my boss!), was with former USAID LEARN contract Chief of Party, now Acute Incite co-founder Piers Bocock on the topic of collaboration. In it, he describes how good collaboration is like improvised jazz music. You can hear the genuine passion in his voice while saxophones play in the background of the segment, adding yet another dimension to it. A blog post or a report could not have captured his tone in the same way or provided the same sensory experience.
What’s your budget?
The USAID Learning Lab podcast began as a scrappy single-episode experiment with a simple audio recorder in a shared lactation room, and evolved into a heavily edited production in a designated ”studio” (empty office) with entry-level professional equipment.
Money should not be a barrier to starting a podcast – you can do it with a free audio recording app on your phone and free editing software on your computer. It may not sound amazing, but the quick shift to remote work brought on by the coronavirus has lowered the standards for audio quality everywhere, and made disturbances from pets and children a lot more acceptable! If you have some money to invest, a simple $100 USB microphone is a good choice for recording one or two voices. Our most elaborate recording set up cost about $1,000 and included microphones, microphone stands, and an audio mixer. For more information about equipment, I recommend checking out the resources at transom.org.
Time is the more precious resource to consider when creating a podcast. In addition to the time it takes to draft a script, conduct interviews, edit the episode, publish, and promote it, you’ll also need to learn how to use your equipment and software. This was my greatest obstacle – Audacity, the audio editing tool I used, is user-friendly and intuitive but very buggy. Estimate how much time these things might take, and then double it.
Your level of effort also depends on your chosen podcast format. There’s the straight interview-based format in which you publish exactly what you record with maybe an intro or closing added. At the other end of the spectrum is a highly curated and edited format in which you conduct multiple interviews and then weave together the content by topic or a narrative arc. The CLA at USAID series was a hybrid between these two approaches; each episode included three short interviews on a given topic that were edited for length and clarity. For the Leaders in Leading series, the hosts first interviewed seven people and then listened to each interview to identify pull quotes on key topics. Next, I recorded them discussing the topics and edited in the pull quotes. This was the most time-consuming format but yielded more focused episodes on key topics of interest. The content was at the core, not just the people. Your format should be chosen based on the message you’re communicating and the time you have to dedicate to production.
How will you spread the word?
What opportunities do you have to tell potential listeners about your podcast? To give you an idea of reach, the USAID Learning Lab newsletter had over 10,000 subscribers when I managed it, with an average open rate of around 20%. So, around 2,000 people learned about podcast episodes as they were released, and we usually had about 500 listens within the first week.
In addition to sharing new episodes as they are released, do you have opportunities to weave your podcast content into other conversations? For example, the collaborating, learning and adapting (CLA) community of practice used podcast segments in their monthly dialogues, and episodes were referenced in USAID Learning Lab blog posts and during USAID’s CLA training. Our podcast content was “evergreen” (didn’t refer to current events), so we have been able to use and reference it for years. For example, I recently got this feedback from a listener several years after these series launched: “I wanted to thank you and the LEARN team for the Leaders in Learning and Inside Out podcasts. I even re-listened to a few of them and I'm struck by their staying power/shelf-life in our dynamic contexts.” Given the effort you are undertaking to produce your podcast, consider how long episodes may be relevant as they are discovered and revisited in the future.
So, should you start that podcast?
Creating the USAID Learning Lab podcast was one of the most challenging things I’ve done, but unquestionably my proudest and most enjoyable professional accomplishment. One key ingredient to the success and longevity of the podcast was the support of my supervisor, Ian Lathrop, and USAID LEARN project leadership. As I honed the craft over the course of three series, improvements can be heard in the sound quality and content from the first episode to the last. They took a risk by allowing me to experiment with this medium, and, like many endeavors, it took time for me to even meet my own standards. If (when!) you feel this way, here’s a pep talk on this very conundrum from the patron saint of podcasts: Ira Glass.
So, should you start that podcast? Try a pilot episode, see how it goes, and enjoy the journey!