Podcasting in 2019: An Introduction for Museums
AbstractWant to explore the booming medium of podcasting at your museum? This session will cover the minimum skills, knowledge, and costs needed to produce a podcast in-house. Podcasters and museum professionals Hannah Hethmon and Ian Elsner will go step-by-step through every aspect of podcast production, including developing a concept, equipment needed, recording and editing, and marketing. Participants will leave with an understanding of everything that goes into podcasting and the knowledge needed to start their own. During the session, the speakers will provide the opportunity for participants to handle and compare the equipment needed to start podcasting. Ian Elsner is the host and producer of the popular podcast Museum Archipelago, which explores the "rocky landscape of museums." Besides podcasting, he develops software and technology for interactive media in museums. Hannah Hethmon is the host and producer of Museums in Strange Places, a podcast that explores the world through its museums. She is also the author of Your Museum Needs a Podcast: A Step-By-Step Guide to Podcasting on a Budget for Museums, History Organizations, and Cultural Nonprofits.
Keywords: podcasting, technology, communications, storytelling, engagement, marketing
This is a paper about podcasts and how to create one at your museum. But, before we get started, the most important thing to know is this: you don’t have to follow our advice. Podcasting is a medium that was born out of ordinary people’s desires to share radio and video stories outside the official channels created by broadcasting corporations and public radio. From the start, it has attracted experimenters and genre-defying creators. If you find a better way to do things than we suggest, then do it that way.
The medium of podcasting has evolved and grown considerably since the term was first used in 2004 (Hammersley, 2004), but the core definition is still the same (and it’s still incredibly broad). A podcast is a protocol; it is serialized audio files delivered over RSS in much the same way as text delivered over RSS is a blog. There is no gatekeeper. Unlike almost any other publishing or broadcast medium, you don’t need permission or a network to start a podcast. In fact, thanks to a growing field of software and Internet startups dedicated to podcasting, creating a great podcast is easier than ever. It’s possible to create a podcast with a as little equipment as a recording device (like a smartphone), computer, and an Internet connection.
What has changed over the last fifteen years? For one thing, there are a lot more listeners. In 2018, data from Edison Research showed that 44% of Americans have listened to a podcast, just over a quarter of all Americans listen on a monthly basis, and the number of weekly listeners grew by six million from 2017 to 2018. There is also a lot more competition for listeners’ ears. When Apple added podcasts to iTunes in 2005, they touted a library of 3,000 shows; last we checked, the number has grown to over 500,000 shows and more than 50 billion downloads (Kerris and Neumayr, 2005; Heater, 2018).
To Podcast or Not to Podcast
We’re in the midst of a podcast boom, but why should museums care about podcasting, beyond awareness of the medium? What particular advantages does podcasting offer to museums? The answer, as we see it, is threefold: organic reach, intimacy, and an audience that favors museum-friendly content.
While the rest of the media landscape has embraced algorithms, podcast subscribers get their episodes as they are released, instead of only getting what the algorithm determines is most relevant or popular. If you follow an account on Twitter or Facebook or subscribe to a channel on YouTube, there is no guarantee that you will get every tweet or video published by those accounts. This offers a huge competitive advantage for podcasts in the modern media ecosystem. It has become harder and harder over the last few years to organically connect with followers, particularly on Facebook, where paid posts are often the only reliable way to actually reach audiences. It is unlikely that podcasts themselves will face this invisible paywall in the near future. Podcasting is a slow medium; you will never see the same quantity of interactions that you can generate on social media, but you will see deeper engagement. In a recent survey, 80% of monthly regular podcast listeners said they listen to all or most of every episode they begin (Winn, 2019). This isolation from algorithms is already a rarity and offers a huge humanistic advantage for podcasts in the modern media ecosystem—and allows creators to not have the algorithm in mind while producing content.
We know people listen to podcasts, but what experience are they having while listening? More than any other medium, podcasts allow listeners to connect emotionally with the voices of their favorite shows. As Noelle Acheson wrote a few years ago, “Podcasts fill in the gaps in your days with intimacy. Of all the media available at the moment, podcasting is the most like a relationship.” (2016). This is one of the biggest commonalities between the huge diversity of podcast sub-genres. Whether you are listening to long-time chart topper Marc Maron ramble on about his cats on WTF with Marc Maron, breathlessly waiting for the plot reveal in your favorite audio drama, visualizing land art with the MoMA’s Raw Material, or joining the hosts of The Whitest Cube in calling out the exclusionary history of art institutions from the perspective of people of color, podcasts are a comforting voice in your ear, filling your day with new information, strategies for activism, humor, drama, empathy, and more. Having only audio available, listeners are given more room to exercise their imaginations to fill in visuals. The podcaster speaks, often in a informal tone, directly into the ear of the listeners, helping them pass the time in traffic, doing dishes, or even while they are working. The podcaster often speaks to one person, recording by themselves with a listener avatar in mind. This creates, in a sense, a two-way connection between the podcaster and the individual listener. It’s a common phenomenon among podcasters to hear from listeners who feel personally connected to them, as if they know them. What museum doesn’t want their visitors to feel that they matter to the museum and have a personal connection to the museum’s content and mission?
We’ve said that podcast listeners favor museum-friendly content, but what does that really mean? Take a look at the chart-topping podcasts. You’ll find a lot of true crime, “deep dives,” and “untold stories.” Thanks in part to the mainstream success of Serial, which launched a new wave of listeners whose first taste of podcasting was investigative journalism, fans are hungry for content that goes beyond the news, Wikipedia entries, and popular history—beyond what can fit in a museum exhibit. At the least, they want to hear new perspectives and new sides of stories that interest them, at the most, they want strategies for changing the way things are. Museums are well-positioned to provide this kind of content. Our institutions are packed with stories, real stories about real, complicated people, and museum people are skilled at telling those stories. Why aren’t we using this medium more?
There are reasons not to start a podcast at your organization. These usually boil down to time and money. Great podcasts can be created internally on a small budget (under $500) with a significant time investment, or you can pay to outsource the work. The relationship between the time and money investment in podcasting is an inverse one: the more time you can put in, the less money you need to spend, and vice versa.
Podcasting also requires a long-term commitment. Creating five episodes and never following up won’t give you much return for your investment. The real benefits of podcasting come from cultivating a dedicated listenership over the course of many episodes or seasons. The more marketing reach you currently have, the less this principle applies, but listeners expect most shows to continue beyond a few episodes. Like with television, most shows continue on to their natural conclusion in seasons or with only minor breaks, but a few shows are released as mini-series. Don’t begin a podcast “just because” or with a “why not?” It is also important to keep exceptions realistic. Because of the lack of algorithmic effects, it is unlikely your podcast will encounter explosive growth. But podcast listeners report a deep connection and intimacy to the podcasts they listen to. Know what goals you want to achieve (i.e., a deep connection with a relatively small audience) and whether the medium of podcasting is the right tool.
Wanting to start a podcast means you’re a fan of podcasts. Being a fan of podcasts means you know just how many shows there are. However, the vast majority of podcast feeds contain fewer than three episodes. To have a goal to get beyond three episodes, you need a fully developed concept, a strategy and production plan, and specific equipment and software.
You need to start with a fully developed concept, a clear focus. A good rule of thumb is to be specific rather than broad. Don’t start a podcast about Star Wars; start a podcast about Ewoks. In this example, it’s safe to assume that a big Star Wars fan community already exists. But the fans of one specific aspect of the fandom (Ewoks, for example) are an underserved market. The same applies to museum podcasts. We recommend against making a podcast for the average visitor to your museum. That market is already well served by radio. Likewise, “all our visitors” or “anyone who likes history” is not your audience. Instead, think about the super-visitors or the fascinating question that your institution receives only a few times a year. It may seem counterintuitive that a more specific topic and a more opinionated host would lead to a more successful podcast, but niche subject matter is what separate podcasts from radio broadcasts and more mainstream media. It might seem like a broader approach is better for a museum, but media consumers reject content that isn’t tailored specifically to them; as Internet culture in the last few years has shown us, niche subjects generate fiercer “fandoms” and intensify the commonalities listeners can identify between themselves and the podcast creators. Additionally, podcasting networks and established media corporations may be able to find listeners for a broad topic, but museums simply don’t have the entertainment heft to earn new listeners based on their brand alone. The concept has to stand out from the herd and carve out a new space in the “podiverse.”
With your concept in place, start planning your strategy. A good strategy fully supports your main concept. Can your main concept be distilled into specific, episodic portions? Will it be serialized, with one episode leading to the next, or will each episode stand on its own? Whatever type of podcast you choose, plan out the first 10 episodes as a list. If any fewer than ten episodes come to you, maybe your concept is not suitable for a podcast. If you have no trouble populating the list, your idea is in good shape.
We strongly recommend producing your first three episodes before releasing any. This is the best way to figure out how long production really takes. You can also use the content from those three episodes to produce a short trailer, which will help you generate buzz for your podcast before it launches. Once you have produced your first three episodes, give yourself some time to evaluate the process. Is your schedule too ambitious? What is involved in producing the episodes? Are you happy with your work? Send those episodes to a friend or colleague outside your organization to get honest feedback. Because you haven’t released anything, you are under no obligation to publish those episodes. Reevaluate your plan.
The How-To Section
Before getting into the specifics of the tools to use, remember that all the technology is in service of the intimacy described above. Because you’re not asking permission on your podcasting journey, it’s most important to exercise your sense of taste, knowing that you will probably be ultimately unsatisfied with your work. This difference between your taste level and your skill level is what broadcaster Ira Glass calls, “the Gap” (Popova, 2014).
For a detailed look at equipment, we recommend the chapter “Equipment and Software” in Your Museum Needs a Podcast: A Step-By-Step Guide to Podcasting on a Budget for Museums, History Organizations, and Cultural Nonprofits. But basically you will need a microphone and way to record. A favorite recording tool of ours is the Zoom H4n Pro Handy Recorder. If you are recording in a “studio,” you can also record directly into your editing software.
If you run an interview-based show, prepare to spend time booking guests and setting up interviews. If your show addresses a different topic each episode, like Museum Archipelago, have a pool of potential interviewees and their contact information ready for episodes several months into the future. If your podcast has a different focus each season, like Museums in Strange Places, plan your whole season’s interviews ahead of time, even if you don’t schedule them all at once. Sometime before the interview, contact the interviewee, introduce them to your podcast, and ask if they would like to be interviewed. In these solicitations, it is important to communicate that you’re interested specifically in their voice—most people can smell a cold-call a mile away. Reference their work and even include a few thoughtful questions that you’d like to ask them.
You are responsible for recording the interviewee, and the less work they need to do, the better. If the interview is in-person, use a professional-looking microphone with the Zoom H4n Pro Handy Recorder. If the interview is over the phone or over Skype, record the call using Tape-A-Call Pro or Skype Call Recorder. If possible, treat the recording made over the line as a backup. For the main audio, try to record on both ends (in broadcasting, this is called a double-ender). A double-ender is a type of recording where each party records their own audio in person. This allows for the cleanest sound possible, removing the unwanted issues over the line. Usually, this is as simple as asking your interviewee to use the Voice Memo app on their phone and place the phone on a table in front of them, then transferring the audio file after the recording has ended.
There are a number of great options available for editing your audio and turning your raw “tape” into a story. Hethmon uses the free open source tool Audacity to edit, and Elsner uses the iOS audio editor called Ferrite to edit on his on iPad. Editing will be the most time consuming part of podcasting. You can hire an editor to do this part for you if you don’t have the time or ability. Both of us record scripts that help us frame our interviews and transition between the best bits. It’s during this stage that we add our “theme,” a few lines about the show and a bit of music.
Once you finish your first episodes, you need to share them via an RSS feed. The simplest way to do this is to use a hosting service like Libsyn or Blubrry. These platforms host the MP3 of your episode, create a custom RSS feed for you, and push it out to any listening platforms you want. It’s important to make sure your podcast is available on every podcasting platform, but you don’t have to do this manually. Once your show is on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts, most other listening apps and websites will pull your feed from those primary sites.
You will have to market your show. Like with most things, putting it online is not enough. Make sure you have compelling cover art, an attention-grabbing title, and a description that lets your audience know why they should listen and what they will get out of tuning into your show. Create a dedicated homepage for the podcast on your organization’s website where you can post “show notes” for each episode. Show notes may include pictures, transcripts, further reading, or anything else you want. Show notes posts are helpful for sharing individual episodes. Use your existing means of communication to share each episode with your existing audience.
Make sure to set goals for your podcast project before beginning, otherwise you will have no way to measure its success. Keep in mind that the download numbers may seem small compared to video views on Youtube or Facebook. The only publicly available number for comparison are the monthly numbers released by Libsyn. Since they host a large percentage of podcasts in the US, their numbers are a good benchmarking tool. As of August 2018, if you have over 142 downloads of an episode in 30 days, you’re doing better than 50% of all podcasts on Libsyn. If you have 1,200 downloads, you’re doing better than 80%; 3,300 brings you into the top 10%, and only the top 1% of podcasts get over 32,000 downloads for each episode in the first 30 days.
The authors, both podcasters themselves, see a world in which museums embrace podcasts as a way to forge deeper connections with their listeners and as an antidote to algorithmically-driven, gatekeeper-controlled mass social media. Podcast fans are bucking the trend of constant distraction by listening loyally to entire episodes from their favorite shows, not flipping through channels to find something that catches their attention. In a world of near-constant distraction, where else can museums find a quiet moment in their audience’s day and share it with them?
What would you say if you could speak directly to your target audience for 30 minutes every week without any interruption? Once you have the attention of your audience, anything is possible. You can create super fans who will go out of their way to visit and support the museum. The proof is in the podcasts that are already out there. The big museums with marketing departments and eyes on the future of media are already podcasting or trying to get into the medium. From the SF MoMA to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. to the British Museum in London to the Australian Museum in Sydney, the power of podcasting for cultural institutions is not a hypothesis anymore. We recommend acting on the podcast boom’s potential and claiming your audience now, rather than waiting until the market is more saturated and the medium more standardized.
For more help, we recommend Hannah Hethmon’s book Your Museum Needs a Podcast, Jessica Abel’s Out on the Wire, the podcast HowSound from Transom.org, and the AASLH technical leaflet called, “How to Make a Podcast.”
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Hethmon, Hannah and Elsner, Ian. "Podcasting in 2019: An Introduction for Museums." MW19: MW 2019. Published January 15, 2019. Consulted .