How to Podcast with Purpose

Podcasting was still a novelty in 2004, when a former MTV host wrote the code that made the medium what it is today. At the time, a computer programmer in Connecticut told the New York Times that a podcaster’s “potential audience is the entire world.”

“If you have content that has specialized interests, you can pull in 100,000 listeners,” the programmer said. “You can sell targeted advertising. You can have a better relationship with your audience and have a big enough audience to justify your existence.”

As more organizations and businesses discover what it means to be “purpose-driven” (and as purpose-driven organizations gain stature), it becomes more important than ever for organizations and nonprofits to tell impactful stories. More than a decade on, podcasting has shed its “novelty” and retained its storytelling powers. The success of shows like “Serial” suggests that some stories may be best told via podcast.

“Great marketing isn’t about one ad, one piece of content, one moment in time,” wrote FCB Chief Creative Officer Susan Credle. “It is about a relentless and lasting commitment to a brand’s story, and the elation of waking up every day with an opportunity to help write the next chapter.” These days, as next chapters are recorded and then distributed via RSS feed to an audience eager to listen in, a stellar podcasting strategy can be invaluable to your organization’s story.

In September, Ignite will host a detail-oriented workshop focused on some of the finer points of podcast production, from how to interview guests to editing. However, plenty of organizations might feel timid about trying out podcasting. Fear not! We’ve put together a few reasons why podcasting is perfect for your purposes.

Podcasting is easier than you think

“In character, in manner, in style, in all things,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “the supreme excellence is simplicity.” Sure, Longfellow’s time came a century before podcast personalities like Ira Glass. But the populist poet’s emphasis on simplicity has a lot to teach new podcasters.

Over the years, advice from podcast creators and producers has been fairly consistent. In 2011, Mashable published “Seven Tips for Launching a Successful Podcast,” a list that included the following:

  1. Choose a topic you’re passionate about
  2. Brand your podcast
  3. Format and structure
  4. Plan your content
  5. Record, broadcast, and edit your podcast
  6. Grow your audience
  7. Monetize your podcast

Not all of these items will apply to each podcast, of course; your organization’s podcast may be focused on disseminating your purpose and stories of your efforts, rather than monetization. And we don’t recommend broadcasting your podcast before editing.

But Mashable’s list is generally consistent with others like it. Digital Trends’ “How to Make a Podcast” emphasizes many of the same fundamentals, from planning content in advance (determining format, developing scripts, selecting an episode length, etc.) to obtaining a few essential tools (USB microphones, mixers, headphones) to social media distribution.

Many podcasters speak of their work in a way that emphasizes simplicity. “People often ask me, ‘How did you get into podcasting?’” wrote Helen Zaltzman in The Guardian. “The answer is: ‘By not not doing it.’”

In podcasting, the barrier for entry is minimal, and the potential for impact is huge. Much of the technology is easy to navigate, and the material is intuitive. In short: Most organizations already have all the resources they need in order to launch a podcast. The challenge is using those resources to their full effect.

Every organization has a story

What do the most successful podcasts have in common? Here’s a recent list of the 10 most popular podcasts, via iTunesCharts.net, for you to review:

 

The answer: Narrative.

Nearly all of the most popular podcasts rely on narrative storytelling to convey an organization’s mission. Shows like “Science VS” and Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” use narrative to ferry listeners through their respective subjects in order to reveal new perspectives. The “TED Radio Hour” is produced by the same organization that coaches its speakers before they take the stage for Ted Talks. “This American Life” and “Radiolab” set the gold standard for audio storytelling, and “Serial” raised the bar with its first season in 2014.

Podcast episodes can vary in subject and perspective; you don’t need to solve a mystery with every episode (though some podcasts do precisely that). Your organization might speak with team members that are engaged in an exciting project, or produce a series of interviews with your clients. You might tell the origin of your nonprofit, or explain how your organization developed its mission, or emphasize a call-to-action by sharing how a new campaign took shape. But each of these approaches requires that you tell a story—even if that story merely explains how the episode came to be.

Podcasts aren’t dialogues, even if they include dialogues. During an episode, you have the ear of your audience, and you should use that access with care. No one likes a blabbermouth, but everyone likes a compelling storyteller, someone whose unique perspective on their place in the world helps her listeners to reconsider their own place. Narratives allow you to speak honestly and emphatically about your organization’s goals while making room for your audience to imagine how they might help you.

“Credibility and storytelling voice are the keys to narration, for me,” one podcast narrator told the Poynter Institute in 2006. “My initial response is to put up anything you think is interesting, produce it in the most attractive and friendly way you can and learn from each venture.” Your audience will learn with you, so long as you give them a story to hang onto.

Looking for a few other sources of inspiration? Entrepreneur offers a list of business podcasts like “StartUp,” which derives its narratives from host Alex Blumberg’s efforts to create his podcast company. Each episode offers a new way to consider how an ambitious organization might conceptualize material for its podcast. And Whole Whale has a handy spreadsheet of more than 100 nonprofit podcasts worth your while.

Evolving Mission, Evolving Podcast

At a time when most social media platforms emphasize brevity, podcasting might seem intimidating and inflexible. You might worry that your new podcast doesn’t post new episodes often enough, or that one episode is wildly different from the tone or format of another. But those organizations that are fearless enough to wade into the podcasting waters have already learned one of the medium’s invaluable lessons: podcasting is more flexible than you might think.

In 2007, Idealist.org launched its podcast to “share the stories about people and organizations doing amazing work all around the world.” Idealist’s podcasts ran for four years, during which time the organization found ways to adapt its shows to suit its expanding notions of its purpose. The organization’s goal—“connecting idealists…with opportunities for action and collaboration”—was broad enough to support a number of kinds of audience engagement, and podcasting gave Idealist the opportunity to present its concerns to a broader audience, and win over new supporters.

Nonprofit strategist Trina Isakson advises nonprofits in a number of ways. She launched her podcast “Do Good Better” as a way to host conversations with other innovative nonprofit organization leaders. The conversations are wide-ranging but focused, and allow Isakson and her guests the opportunity to appeal to each other’s audiences. Moreover, the podcast reminds her listeners that Isakson is personally curious about and engaged in a field of work she finds to be thrilling and full of possibility.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy has evolved its podcast offerings over the years, from conversations with nonprofit thought-leaders and tips on social media tactics to newer offerings that emphasize cutting edge research and approaches to fundraising. The world of philanthropy isn’t static, and so the Chronicle of Philanthropy adjusts its podcasts in order to remain relevant to its audience.

As you refine your mission, a podcast can document, in real-time, your considerations and reconsiderations of your organization’s work. It can make your nonprofit or association accessible and human—it’s your voice, after all.