Casting Your Net Into Another Pool

December 15, 2006       Marla Nobles      

Ghana native Berenice, 19, discusses her life, dreams and aspirations as she embarks on her first year at university. Youth reporter Jordan from Ireland talks to young people and reports on how sports can help both children and nations. Young survivors in Aceh, Indonesia, create diaries documenting their lives post-tsunami.

These are just some examples of how UNICEF is putting radio equipment in the hands of young people so they can tell their stories, their way.

It’s called podcasting, a method of distributing multimedia files, such as audio programs, over the Internet using either the Real Simple Syndication (RSS) or Atom syndication feeds. They’re meant for playback on mobile devices, such as Apple Computer’s iPod music player and personal computers. Visitors to the UNICEF Web site, for example, can choose to listen to the podcasts as-is or download them and listen on the go.

Part of a growing assortment of Web 2.0 technology — or, more explicit, “Participatory Web” technology — podcasting showed up as early as 2000, and has since entered the mainstream consciousness. Researchers at the Diffusion Group last year predicted the U.S. podcast audience will climb from 800,000 people in 2004 to 56.8 million people by 2010.

Another survey, completed by Forrester, projected less booming participation, concluding a comparatively modest 12.3 million by 2010. But while influential media giants NBC, ABC and National Public Radio (NPR) all create podcast programming, it has not yet seen widespread use.

“The means of mass communication formerly controlled by governments and corporations are now potentially in the hands of every man, woman and child on the planet,” said Stephen Cassidy, chief, Internet, Broadcasting and Image Section, UNICEF. “And whatever possible platforms exist, we feel like we need to be a part of it.”

The New York City-based international development organization launched its podcast project during June 2005, and has since created hundreds of shows documenting the personal stories of children throughout the world.

“We do basically two approaches,” Cassidy said of the types of podcast shows that UNICEF creates, “for lack of a better phrase, breaking news, which run about one or two minutes long, and then we do our in-depth programs.” Cassidy said the lengths of the latter are determined by the story. “But we also recognize that it’s a hurry up, go, go world, that people don’t have all kinds of time.”

As of this past October, UNICEF reported a staggering 32 million downloads of its podcast shows, up from 19 million just three months prior. Despite the data, Cassidy questions the accuracy of the tally, saying it most likely isn’t representative of the actual number of listeners. “You’ve got the long-tail phenomenon that’s occurring in the multi-platform world,” he said. “Stuff gets passed along.”

Hosted by Blue Chevigny with UNICEF correspondents from around the globe, including Dan Thomas, a former BBC producer, the UNICEF podcasts report the unique stories of young people from places such as Lebanon, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the U.K., oftentimes first-hand.

“The technological part of it is easy,” said Cassidy, who said practically anyone can create a podcast. UNICEF offers a downloadable version for on-the-go users owning a mobile device, or for PC listening. For users who don’t have iTunes, an MP3 player or the like, the organization also posts its podcasts on odeo.com, a one-source solution for finding, subscribing to, and publishing audio content.

Story, story, story

There are challenges to podcasting, however. “It’s absolutely extraordinarily hard to create a podcast show,” said Cassidy. “Everything is driven by story. You need to have something to say, and then you have to be able to say it well.”

Imagine stepping into the fertile depths of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest and experiencing a journey of sound and history. Or, visualize joining citizen scientist Kate Trainer as she counts the frogs and toads along her route for the very last time.

“Content is king,” said Jonathon Colman, senior manager of digital marketing at The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in Arlington, Va., regarding creating episodes for the organization’s latest Web 2.0 venture, Nature Stories. “It’s paramount to have engaging content that gets the listener engaged in your organization, in the nonprofit’s mission.”

TNC launched its Nature Stories podcast (www.nature.org/podcasts/) this past February, with two main objectives. “We wanted to reach out to new audiences,” said Colman, “and to give people who already visit The Nature Conservancy a different sort of introduction to our organization.” A side goal, he added, was to use the podcast to build buzz for an upcoming radio series, “Stories from the Heart of the Land,” to debut during 2007.

“I think nonprofits in general are a few steps behind,” said Colman, referring to the slow pace at which nonprofits embrace newer technology. “In terms of the latest and greatest, a lot of nonprofits, especially large, distributed ones like The Nature Conservancy, are still stuck on questions of: What is my Web site; What is its mission; How do I reach out to my membership or to supporters; How do I build my constituency?”

Another roadblock is promotion. “Not every nonprofit has the chance to get the technology together to do a podcast in the first place,” said Colman. “And then promoting the podcast in a market that’s just so saturated with such great audio content can be very, very difficult.”

Partnering with Atlantic Public Media and Public Media Exchange to provide the production and content, with funding from Visa, TNC has so far spent about $5,000, mostly on promotion. Nature Stories was made “very, very findable,” said Colman, by promoting it on the nonprofit’s Web site and “on just a ton of different online venues.” According to Colman, TNC also invested in heavy Search Engine Optimization.

Colman estimated that as of late July, Nature Stories reached 30,000 downloads. During August and September, the podcast’s visitation was up 24 percent, due in large part to the growing visibility of Nature Stories on the Web. By early October, it claimed more than 100,000 unique visitors. “The Conservancy operates an active presence on Care2.com and other Web 2.0 online social networks,” said Colman, who said benefits of these networks are brand-building, new audience engagement, promotional, and soliciting new links to the podcast and TNC’s general Web presence.

The podcast episodes run between eight and 15 minutes, and cover an array of topics, from ice cutting in New England to the philosophical questions of wealth, happiness, and development on the island of Vanuatu in the South Pacific.

“In general, it’s at a point where it’s fairly simple to create a podcast,” said Colman, who cited odeo.com as a vehicle for individuals who want to publish. “But if you’re looking for professional sound mixing, there is an investment up front for the recording software, the actual hardware. And you can’t get subscribers without having an RSS feed in place, which is sort of what makes a podcast a podcast.”

Colman said that while a nonprofit will be facing technology, audio and production, and staff time costs, the most substantial investment — and one not to be overlooked — is marketing and promotion. He recommended partnering with like-minded entities, including public media broadcasters, to lighten both the financial and production loads. At this point, there are no fundraising objectives with the podcast, added Bridget Lowell, a spokeswoman for TNC.

The Cary-Trout Valley, Ill.-based nonprofit Giving Real Opportunities to Women (GROW) this past May announced a partnership with the Mobile Broadcast Network to make the organization’s podcast available to cell phone users. Along with UNICEF, NPR and TNC, GROW Founder and Executive Director Erika Huber’s Parenting Podcast is one of the few other nonprofit-produced podcasts making any real noise.

After weeks of urging by husband and “podcast junkie” Mark, during November 2005 Huber launched the parenting and child advocacy podcast (www.womengrow.org/podcast). Just months later, the podcast placed third out of 8,000 entries in Podcast Pickle’s 2006 edition of its Cast Wars, which ranks podcasts of all types. The world’s first podcast and vodcast (or, video podcast) directory and community, Podcast Pickle lists more than 10,000 podcasts (as of September 2006).

Like most other nonprofit-run podcasts, there’s no direct fundraising goal associated with Parenting Podcast. “But really good fundraising comes from forming relationships,” said Huber. “And, the podcast community is a community unto itself.”

According to Huber, exchange is the name of the game in the podcast community. “What it did for us was to create another networking source,” said Huber, who explained that by working with and learning from other podcasters she was able to create Parenting Podcast for free. “And not only that, but I started to reach people who I wouldn’t normally reach,” said Huber, who’s first podcast entry was targeted to fathers, because the podcast audience at the time was predominantly male.

From there, Huber expanded her podcast. At first purely informational, the seven-minute entries were supplemented with shorter Q&A segments at the behest of Huber’s growing audience.

“The most amazing thing about this (podcast) was — and I still think it’s the most amazing thing — our Web site was getting maybe 200 hits a year. My Web site gets like 9,000 hits a month now,” said Huber. The numbers started growing after the first episode, “but it wasn’t until we hit the fourth episode that it really just started spiking,” she said.

One-man show

Podcast junkie Corey Pudhorodsky, a database consultant for nonprofits, created the 501c3Cast (www.501c3cast.com) in July 2005, to provide an online venue “where nonprofit professionals can share information and resources to help them do their jobs better.”

Welcoming all “Do-Gooders of the world,” Pudhorodsky, Pud for short, described his podcast as a cross between “a project of passion, a hobby and a public service project.” And while occasionally others contribute, the vast majority of 501c3Cast is a one-man show.

“During the day, while working with (nonprofit professionals), I always found that I was hearing really interesting stories, resources and information that I thought would really be applicable to others in the sector,” said Pud, who added that podcasting provides a way to share that information.

The growth of the 501c3Cast, said Pud, has been congruent with the growth of podcasting in general. “It initially was a little slow, and then it got a big burst as the media started picking up on podcasting more,” added Pud, who credited Apple iTunes with making podcast shows more accessible to the public.

One of the biggest misconceptions about podcasting, said Pud, is that it’s expensive. To create the 501c3Cast, Pud utilizes widely available – and free – resources such as Audacity, open-source software for recording and editing sounds, applicable for Mac OSX, Microsoft Windows, GNU/Linux, and other operating systems.

Pud said he also uses Google Analytics (formerly Urchin), a free analytical service, for number crunching. Since its inception, the 501c3Cast has experienced an approximately 10- to 20-percent increase in hits each month.

“What nonprofits don’t realize is that there are a lot of tools that make podcasting almost as simple as saving a Word document,” said Pud. In addition to interviewing leaders in the sector and covering hot news topics, Pud said an objective with his podcast is “to provide resources that someone may not be aware of initially.”

Addressing another misconception — that podcasting might as well be broadcasting — wrote one podcaster, “What makes it different is the combination of the available files, the standardized packaging and the automated handling on the listener side — being able to approach something kind of like TiVo for audio. It’s hard to overstate how much different it is when you connect up that last yard.”—NPT