Testing the Podcast Process

This last week has been enlightening as we’ve tested new aspects of our idea’s likelihood to succeed in the market. It’s been similar to a plane in the blue sky landing on the hard tarmac – I’m relieved to be on firm ground, but part of me misses the view and floating in the air. This is where the rubber meets the road.

This blog post is a continuation in a series that tell the story of our Studio class project. We are working together with the City of Austin to develop solutions to improve civic engagement in Austin. For more details, read my one of my previous post’s on the civic engagement project.

Recap

This past week I tested more assumptions about my project, a public storytelling initiative called Soul of the City. You can read more about it in the previous Soul of the City post. In summary, the goal of this project is to improve civic engagement by creating more empathy and understanding between individuals of higher and lower socio-economic status through storytelling. Stories about a diverse group of Austinites will reveal the authentic, common, human experience that we all share.

My current plan is to tell these stories in the style of “This American Life”, where regular, themed podcasts provide intriguing frames through which individuals’ personal stories are told. I have not decided yet which frame to use, but examples include “A night at the Taco stand” or “East Side in the 80’s”. Through these themes, the listeners get a new view of Austin through the stories of diverse Austinites.

As described in last week’s post, I thought this podcast would be exciting to produce in a crowd-sourced fashion, however I’ll explore in the rest of the post what I’ve learned about the feasibility of this model and why it may need to shift.

Prototyping – Round 2

I mentioned various assumptions in last week’s post. Will residents feel compelled to share their stories? When, where, and how would they be most likely to share their stories? Will people feel drawn to be “producers” ? What kind of platform would enable producers to review, edit, and weave stories together? What about the sound quality? And how would all this be marketed?

My goal for this week was to make a prototype podcast to better understand the process and thereby assess it’s feasibility.

Podcast 101

The podcast I want to model is “This American Life”, since it is very successful in retaining a large audience through telling heartfelt stories of individuals’ lives. It just so turned out that a friend and former AC4D alumna, Bethany Stolle, recommended an online workshop about podcasting and it was taught by the producer of “This American Life”, Alex Blumberg. Thank you Bethany!

I completed this 10-hour course during the week and used it to inform my methods for interviewing and developing the story. I’ll reference these methods throughout the rest of the post. They were invaluable.

Experiment

Will lower- and upper-income Austinites want to participate in the Soul of the City podcast about the people of Austin when given the chance through social media?

Hypothesis:

If I post to Facebook that I am making a podcast about people of Austin, at least 5 individuals who I do not know will agree to be interviewed, even if they did not meet me first in person.

What Happened & Results:

Posting

I decided to start with a theme called “New-comers” and posted in a Facebook group called “New to Austin”, telling them about the podcast and inquiring if they wanted to participate.

As a result, ten individuals I did not know Liked the post, and I reached out to all of them asking if they would like to participate.

    • 6 said they would like to;
    • 1 said she is not “New to Austin”;
    • 1 declined;
    • 2 no response
Audition:

One lesson I learned from Alex’s course is to screen individuals in order to identify those people who a.) have a story to share related to your topic, and b.) have the personality and demeanor to tell emotionally resonant, good stories. Without authentic emotion and revealing stories, this podcast wouldn’t be attractive enough to retain listeners much less move them to develop empathy for other people.

That being said, I next screened the interested individuals for the podcast through online messaging and phone calls. After reviewing all the individuals, I determined for this experiment that I would focus on one person’s story and chose to interview Derek for the podcast.

Interview:

To prepare for the interview, I followed Alex’s methods and identified moments, twists, and turns revealed in the audition conversations which could explore during the interview. I then developed a list of questions aligned to those moments, closely following Alex’s suggestions on what kinds of questions will best elicit the emotional depth and narrative detail that makes for great podcast storytelling.

The time had come, and we recorded the interview over the phone. For ninety-five minutes, we talked about Derek’s journey from Kansas to Austin. Through Boston, Utah, Los Angeles, Thailand and back to Kansas, Derek has journeyed a long way to get here. It was a conversation that at times had me desperate for action, detail, and depth, and then surprised with me more than I knew what to do with.

After the interview, Derek thanked me and I thanked him. He said that the experience was special for him and that he enjoyed it, and I took that as a good omen for the podcast’s likelihood to succeed.

Production:

At this point, I have not yet created a produced version of the podcast in the style of “This American Life”. I will finish the production of the podcast script and then edit the clips together in the following week. For the purpose of this experiment, I arrived at a point that clearly articulated some of the key challenges the Soul of the City storytelling project will encounter. I’ll keep you updated on the prototype podcast’s release with a blog post when it’s ready.

For now, here’s a link to the uncut interview..

Measure of Success:

As far as eliciting stories from strangers through Facebook, the most commonly used online channel between lower-income and higher-income individuals, the experiment was successful. I had more interested participants than my desired quota.

The rest of the experience, which was more of an immersion experience than an experiment,  taught me many other lessons, however, that made me question my model. I’ll discuss those in the next section.

 

Learnings & Next Steps:

This week taught me that there are too many high risk assumptions in my prior model. My prior model assumed that stories would be crowdsourced by users uploading content to an online platform where eager individuals would contribute by voluntarily producing the stories into podcasts. It was then assumed that at least one of those produced podcasts would be quality enough to attract and retain listeners each week.

I believe that the greatest risk here is of quality. It simply takes too much skill in coaxing stories, weaving them together, and producing a quality podcast to create content that will draw, retain, and create deep empathy in the listener for the storytellers. Also, a crowd-sourced creation engine will be more challenging to get going than one where a few skilled individuals interview residents and produce a podcast.

As such, my current plan is to greatly simplify this podcast and use the methods employed in “This American Life” production.

  • Set a theme
  • Find & Screen participants
  • Interview at most a handful of individuals
  • Produce the podcast

There is one assumption that I believe is more risky than any other at this point, and that is the assumption that lower-income individuals will listen to the podcast. According to research by Neilsen and the Pew Research center, podcasts are much more popular with higher-income, more educated individuals than with lower-income, less-educated individuals. Are podcasts the right medium? Though the rate of monthly podcast listening is increasing at a rate of 20% each year, with 50% of US homes considering themselves “fans” of podcasts, if lower-income individuals aren’t listening to podcasts often, this may not be an effective medium to effect change. In the coming week, this will be the assumption that I need to test in order to move forward with the project as planned.