Podcasting as Digital Storytelling: Behind the Scenes Look

Submitted on Mon, 10/31/2011 - 4:08pm
In its most rudimentary form, a podcast is simply a digital audio recording delivered to listeners who can hear it at their convenience. But a podcast can be a vehicle for storytelling, if you make the effort to infuse it with a narrative.

Recently, I had a conversation with Annaliese of NTEN, and a couple of Community TechKnowledge (CTK) staff members. We were talking about the “askDeborah” podcast, which is now a feature in the NTEN:Change quarterly journal. Annaliese pointed out to us that podcasting is usually not perceived as digital storytelling, and we agreed that this is an idea worth discussing.

Of course, in its most rudimentary form, a podcast is simply a digital audio recording delivered to listeners who can hear it at their convenience. But a podcast can be a vehicle for storytelling, if you make the effort to infuse it with a narrative.

In the case of the “askDeborah podcast,” the narrative began even before the recording sessions. After the CTK team and I had compiled a list of frequently asked nonprofit technology questions, I started emailing and calling some of my favorite colleagues. I'd explain, “It's sort of like Car Talk, except that I'm not two Italian-American brothers. But real nonprofit professionals will submit real questions about their technology challenges. The running joke is that I never know the answer, but that I know whom to call, and in this case it's you. We'll discuss the question, and we'll have a little fun, but we'll also give practical answers and advice. Are you interested?”

Fortunately, in almost every case, my nonprofit technology buddies were interested in participating. Armed with the back story (“Deborah is stumped by the specific question, but sees the big picture and always succeeds in wheedling useful information out of her more knowledgeable friends”), we started recording.

But the back story wasn't sufficient in itself, and Community TechKnowledge's media manager was crucial in providing a frame for the narrative. He did this by:

  • Scripting a short introduction that kicks off each episode. This intro explains the purpose of the podcast, and sets expectations for what listeners are about to hear.
  • Urging the guest experts and me, as we recorded each episode, to have fun and to be conversational. He did this assuring us that he would edit the resulting podcast into something that made us sound smart.
  • Effectively editing down our long and wide-ranging conversations into tightly focused short episodes.
  • Crafting a sign-off that put the podcast in context as part of CTK's educational outreach to nonprofit professionals.

All of these tactics helped us shape a recording of a conversation between friends into an educational podcast segment with a recognizable narrative arc. Our goal was to create an audio episode that provides a useful, amusing, and brief answer to a pressing technology question. We didn't want to create a podcast long enough or tedious enough to require our intended audience to make an effort to set aside time for it. If we've done podcast segments correctly, then our listeners go to an episode because they can't afford to do without the information; once they've found that it's delivered in a quick and engaging style, we hope that they'll browse around and listen to some more. The expenditure of time and the meticulous effort of wading through content for something compelling should fall on CTK and on me, rather than on the listeners.

Any digital audio material can be offered as a podcast, and in many cases, it can be quite appropriate to send out an unedited recording. That's because some stories tell themselves. However, most stories need help in the form of careful editing and strong production values.

Here are some questions that your nonprofit organization should ask if you are thinking about using podcasts to tell your story:

  • Are we prepared to make a substantial commitment to allocating money, acquiring the requisite skills, and dedicating time to transforming raw material into a podcast that offers a coherent narrative?
  • Can we use free and inexpensive social media tools to create and test a beta version of our podcast?
  • Who will serve as the voice of our nonprofit organization in our podcast?
  • What sort of internal approval process will we need before a podcast is made available in the name of our organization?
  • Is each podcast segment going to tell a self-contained story, or will the narrative unfold over a series of segments?
  • What are our intended audiences, and how can we elicit input from them about what they want, even before we start production?
  • What is our intended outcome, and how will we evaluate whether we have achieved success?

If you can gather the necessary consensus and resources, you’ll find that podcasting is an extraordinary medium through which to communicate your message. Not sure what to talk about? Think about when you urgently need or want to know something – what makes it compelling? Let your own experience as a listener be your guide.