Kameel Stanley is senior producer of “The City” podcast at USA TODAY. She previously hosted the award-winning “We Live Here” podcast from St. Louis Public Radio and PRX.
Podcasting is pretty lit right now, amirite? It’s certainly trendy, if nothing else.
The trajectory of listening keeps going up, and just over half of Americans 12 and older say they’ve listened to a show.
I’m lucky enough to be at the party. I made the switch from print to podcast host and producer in fall 2015, after several years as a beat reporter at the Tampa Bay Times.
This will be a breeze, I thought at the time.
In reality, not so much.
I had to change my mindset, question my professional identity and close the distance between me and my audience. So if you still want to be a podcaster — and I hope you do — it may help to know these things:
First, be ready to challenge your own thinking about everything.
Yes, I had to learn what it meant to interview people in a different way. Less verbal confirmations, more nonverbal cues. Writing in present tense. A jumble of new jargon: Ambi! Room Tone! Fades! Butt Cuts!
But more than that, I had to figure out: Who am I doing this for?
That was actually a question in an application for an innovative project called Project Catapult, from podcast juggernaut PRX, which distributes some of the biggest shows we all love (“This American Life,” “Reveal,” “The Moth Radio Hour”).
PRX was aiming to pluck podcast producers from public radio stations across the country and put them through a rigorous talent and show development program. My show in St. Louis, “We Live Here,” got picked to be in the first cohort in 2017.
Our evaluators asked us repeatedly, “Who’s your audience?”
As newspaper journalists, we’re often trained to think of our audience as, well, everyone. Anyone. Someone? That’s if we think of them at all.
Who’s your audience?
Podcasting taught me that in digital media, the audience question is the most important one. Our foundations aren’t firm, our brands are constantly shifting and our consumers aren’t guaranteed. The podcast industry is extremely noisy right now, with hundreds of thousands of shows competing for people’s ears.
What’s more, podcast discovery is still in the dark ages. Unlike television, terrestrial radio or even a broadsheet newspaper, listeners aren’t likely to just come upon your show — they have to get out their phone, open an app, search and find you and then subscribe to keep getting your content regularly.
So you must have someone in mind when you’re making a podcast, especially given all the steps someone will take to get it.
You will have to hunt and gather an audience just like you hunt and gather sources.
It was never my job as a newspaper reporter to woo subscribers, figure out how to keep them happy, market to them and sell them things. All of those are my jobs as a podcaster — in addition to grant-writing and project managing, among other tasks.
In fact, a few months in, I felt less like a capital-J journalist and more like a businesswoman running a startup within an organization. It was weird and wonderful. Becoming a podcaster didn’t turn me into an entrepreneurial journalist (which is how I think of myself more and more). But it did help me realize those skills already inside me — and that I enjoyed them, wanted to cultivate them and that podcasting demanded I do so.
Figure out your why
Similar to the audience question, this is one that can easily get rushed through in our eagerness to execute our “great idea for a podcast.”
Are you doing it because your editor doesn’t see a problem with adding another task to your list? To help support the mission of the organization? To increase brand and marketing loyalty? To engage, repair and build relationships in your community? To satisfy a creative itch? To make a bunch of money for yourself or your employer? (If it’s for money, I wish you good luck. Monetizing podcasts is not simple or easy.)
All are valid. The point is to do the probing — preferably before you begin.
It’s better for the whole team to be on the same page — or at least reading the same book— to minimize friction, keep focus and have a clear sense on how to judge and asses success and failure.
Here’s an option to begin that probing…
How many times have you sat in a news meeting or brainstorming session where people are expected to come up with brilliant ideas out of the blue? It’s almost always torturous. I would argue it’s because we’re starting in the wrong place.
Design thinking is a perpetual process that revolves around your end user.
On the first day of Catapult, at PRX’s Podcast Garage in Boston, we were introduced to design thinking, which our mentors said could be a new lens from which to approach our work. It’s a process that’s long been used in the tech and product industry, but not so much by everyday journalists. There are 5 steps:
In a nutshell, it’s a way to focus on the end user (in this case a podcast listener). According to design thinking, great and sustainable projects don’t start or end with ideas, they start with defining who those ideas are for (empathize). Then figuring out what that audience needs/wants (define); coming up with ways to solve that problem (ideate); trying some things (prototype) and sending them out into the world (testing).
More importantly, however, it’s a perpetual process.
After that first week in Boston, I went back to work terrified and exhilarated. I had to accept that I had a new boss: the community and my audience. That audience — my then-creative partner and I discovered after weeks of deep listening and feedback from current and potential subscribers — wasn’t “public radio listeners,” “younger people” or even “anyone curious about race and class.”
We identified two specific audience members for “We Live Here.” They are:
- SHANICE, a black, 32-year-old transplant to St. Louis who works as a project manager, needs a way to hear non-white voices and stories like hers in a way that makes her feel validated, connected and ready to have a positive impact on her new community.
- DAYMON, a white, 25-year-old college student who loves his hometown, St. Louis, needs a way to understand how race and class affect real people’s lives in a way that makes him feel challenged but not unwelcome.
Impact can become fuzzy, then clear, then blurry again.
There were still aspects that nagged at me. What was happening after we sent the episode into the universe? Downloads offer a good but imperfect gauge of popularity. Awards felt nice, but those aren’t always the best barometer of whether or not you’re making something meaningful to real people.
And then, slowly but surely, I started to realize new things that resonated with the audience: voice, authenticity, interaction. I was suddenly a part of every story whether I wanted to be or not, because people experienced it through my voice, my tone, my humor, the funny way I said certain words.
They weren’t expecting me to strip away my identity, my thoughts or my opinions — they demanded I lean into those, especially as a black woman doing a show about race and class. They trusted my chops as a storyteller, reporter and journalist, but they wanted to know I was real.
Podcasting demanded a level of intimacy I wasn’t used to as a journalist. But podcast fans reciprocated with more engagement and loyalty.
And then one day I had a listener tell me that my show was part of her self care. It felt as weighty as any journalistic accolade from my previous life.
And it’s not always comfortable.
These revelations and changes weren’t easy or quick.
I agonized many nights about no longer being a “real” journalist who was in the mix, kicking ass with front-page bylines. I wondered where I fit in in an industry that seems self-obsessed with being essential (To our communities! To each other! To democracy!) but doesn’t always live up to that in the real world. I didn’t always do a good job explaining my new perspective to colleagues still operating the rhythm of traditional media forms.
It was exciting and satisfying to do something new and different. It was hard to do something new and different.
I was molting.
It was humbling. It was worth it.
Editor’s Note: Kameel Stanley is a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board, a group of industry experts that helps Poynter develop curriculum and assess priorities.