Five Good Ideas

Five Good Ideas about podcasting with a purpose

Published on 29/10/2019

Podcasting is growing in popularity as a tool for reaching and engaging new audiences. But how can nonprofits use it to fulfill their missions? Director of Social Engagement for the Atkinson Foundation, Ausma Malik, shares her experience as the host-producer of Atkinson’s Just Work It podcast. She offers five good ideas for getting your purpose into people’s heads, hearts, and action plans through a podcasting strategy.

Five Good Ideas

  1. Lead with your story. Know your own experiences and beliefs.
  2. Listen closely. Immerse yourself in your audience’s culture and realities.
  3. Choose your collaborators wisely. Balance audience insight, content flair, and technical expertise.
  4. Mine each story for gold. Give your audience something valuable and remarkable.
  5. Love your topic for real. Trust your audience to perceive if you do – or don’t!

Resources

I’ve learned the most about podcasting from the podcasters and podcasts I love. These examples have shown me what “podcasting with a purpose” can sound like.

  1. Uncommon insider perspectives told brilliantly. On Ear Hustle, those who are living life inside prison share their daily realities.
  2. The podcasters are on the same wavelength as their audience. Call Your Girlfriend is a fun and clever conversation between two long-distance friends who riff about politics, feminism, and pop culture weekly.
  3. Dominant narratives are interrogated. The Secret Life of Canada is about “the country you know and the stories you don’t” and makes being a history buff cool.
  4. Engages complexity and facilitates reflection. On Being holds the ultimate and messy questions that animate our lives, and offers a platform for answering them at your own speed.
  5. Tunes into the voices of people and the moments that define them. Every episode of Tell Them I Am is pure storytelling gold. Host Misha Euceph has created an excellent “How to Make a Podcast” guide.

Podcast


Full session transcript

I’ve been given the assignment today to talk about one big idea, and that is that a podcast can have a social purpose as well as, but not only, a commercial one. And to offer you five good ideas to inspire your podcasting strategy. For those of you who are a little bit more familiar with podcasts, I’m going to ask you, and please do feel free to shout out, what are some of your favourite podcasts? Let’s crowdsource a good list for those of us who are just getting into the medium or even for some of our avid listeners, can we have a couple? What are some favourite podcasts?

The Daily, okay, that’s a fantastic one. And it does what it says, right? It’s the daily. What else have we got? Yeah? (voice in crowd) – All CBC. (Ausma) – Okay, you’re a fan of the CBC platform. That’s fantastic. They’ve been doing a lot of work, so a great place to begin. And how about one more? One more podcast. (voice in crowd) – On Being. (Ausma) – On Being, that’s great.

Thank you for those recommendations, and there’s going to be more and more that I’m sure we’re going to add to our list as we keep thinking about podcasting with a purpose. I’ve been listening to podcasts, in earnest, since 2013. I travelled a lot that year and I enjoyed the company of NPR hosts who were leading the transition from radio to podcasts with shows like Planet Money and This American Life. And I jumped really hard on the Serial bandwagon a year later. Does anyone remember Serial? It feels like very much a podcast beginning for me. And it quickly became a cultural phenomenon and set the standard for the unsolved mystery genre.

When I discovered the political comedy podcast, Politically Reactive, hosted by comedians Hari Kondabolu and W. Kamau Bell in 2016, it was official. I was hooked. And it didn’t take long to figure out why this medium was becoming so powerful. A voice is, literally, in your head, anywhere, any time of day or night. Carefully crafted stories, delivered with music and other audio details, made this both an intimate experience and one that just had to be shared. Before long, I became that person. My conversations with my family and friends would be peppered with insights from my favourite podcast shows. And we were passing on episodes that made us want to laugh, cry, re-think, or do something.

One time, the hosts of Politically Reactive asked for someone to explain Canada’s healthcare system. And I, of course, mounted a Twitter campaign to get them to call my friend, Doctor Daniel Raza, who some of you might know. And it earned me a shout-out on the show. The bottom line being, that these hosts are really real, and the medium is all about community. Just like the non-profit sector at its best. Real, values-driven leaders, who are all about inclusive, resilient, and healthy communities.

The cross-over between my private passion and my professional interests happened when I got to the Atkinson Foundation. My co-workers were podcast listeners too, and intrigued by the potential power of the medium to deliver on our mission to promote social and economic justice. We knew it was a medium of choice for a growing number of millennials, an audience that is key to Atkinson’s strategies to strengthen movements for decent work and a fair economy. We also suspected it could help us build relationships with millennial community organizers, and encourage them to engage others in making the connections to decent work across racial, gender, indigenous, and environmental justice concerns.

Now, before we get to today’s five good ideas, there are five strategic reasons we decided to focus our podcast experiment on this audience. And I think it’s really important to share those five reasons with you. So, here we go.

The first reason was that the millennial generation is between a rock and a hard place in the workforce. As Elizabeth so eloquently quoted our live event, both woke and broke is one way of putting it. But the truth is, our work-related concerns are often misunderstood and/or ignored entirely.

The second reason is that narrative storytelling is essential to building a social movement. And there are very few channels for telling the decent work movement stories of challenge and opportunity.

The third reason was that young people are effective social movement builders. They are needed in much greater numbers to identify with the cause of decent work.

The fourth reason was that it was the right time for us at Atkinson. We’d started investing in digital engagement strategies in 2014. And in 2017, we were ready to take work to the next level.

The fifth and final reason was that younger audiences help keep the Atkinson brand relevant. As a foundation celebrating its 75th anniversary that year, we knew that a podcasting strategy would help keep our brand on the radar of a millennial generation.

Those were our five strategic reasons for focusing on a millennial audience. So, what happened next? The idea of Just Work It, a platform for podcasts and live events about our generation’s relationship to decent work was hatched in August of 2017. By March 2018, it was live on four podcasting platforms. And by August 2018, we had recorded and released two series made up of 16 episodes, running an average of 20 to 30 minutes each. We hosted our first live episode for 400 people in downtown Toronto in January 2019, just at the beginning of this year. Today, Just Work It has more than 20,000 streams in total. We’ve averaged about 518 listeners per episode. Shortly, we’ll be dropping two compact conversations on inclusion, tech, and power in the future of work with three more to come after that. We’re trying a 10 to 15 minute format for this new batch.

When Markus asked me to share five good ideas about podcasting, I’ll be real with you. I wondered if we could scrape together one. And that’s because podcasting is a labour-intensive project, especially if you do it with our purpose and goals in mind. We haven’t had much time for reflection or making meaning of this experience as we’d like, because we’ve been so busy.

In our first year, Just Work It was produced by an in-house team of three, supported by an external production crew of two, and was recorded in the Toronto Star’s radio room. In this second year, we’ve done everything in-house with the help of an external audio editor. Production involves, and this is just a few of the things, doing research, chasing and scheduling guests, writing and re-writing scripts, recording and re-recording audio, listening for sound quality, figuring out dissemination and distribution channels, creating social assets and communications collateral, such as websites and promotional items, contracting music compositions, and licensing music, preparing show notes, and, probably most importantly, interacting with listeners.

We know that lots of organizations contract out the hosting and production functions, acting as client and not maker. But very deliberately, we decided we wanted to learn the ins and outs of podcasting and have a close relationship with content creation process, our guests, and, ultimately, our listeners. This was, for us, more of a community organizing strategy than a communication strategy. We wanted an authentic dialogue between our listeners and the foundation, a way to get to know each other better. Mostly, we wanted this work to serve grass roots organizers and policy innovators who lead the decent work movement, as opposed to just being a new vehicle for promoting and advertising the foundation’s activities.

I can’t emphasize this next point enough: the project success for us is not measured as much by the number of clicks and downloads, as it is by the quality of the conversations we got to have with people through the podcasting experience, online and offline. For example, our first series resulted in an invitation to host a live podcast episode at the annual workplace representatives conference for AMAPCEO, a union that represents workers in Ontario’s public service. A brand new experience for both them and me.

We used a millennial lens to take a close look at what makes work decent in the public sector. On the stage with me was the chair of AMAPCEO’s young workers caucus, Sarah Hoy, and a powerhouse millennial organizer, Fatmida Kamali, who was building a community of Muslim workers in the public sector. Last year, we fielded a team called the Just Work It Players for a bowl-a-thon organized by the Ontario Employment Education and Research Centre, the OEERC as you might know it. And, I have a little prop here, our team got to wear these snazzy t-shirts and we have a few for you out there if you’re interested to be a bit of a brand ambassador. The team was made up of friends, listeners, boosters, and producers. We were an IRL, in real life version of our amazing digital community, and together, we exceeded our fundraising goal.

We’re still discovering how this tool can introduce us to younger activists and advocates and enlist them in the fight for decent work and a fair economy. But at the moment, we’re excited about what we’ve been learning. So, here they are, our five good ideas.

Our first idea is: lead with your own story, know your own experiences and beliefs, and, for an authentic podcast voice, you have to start with your own story. I mean, the story of your organization and your host story. For instance, for me, I dug deeper into my first job, how I came to understand the economy, and the fears and hopes that shaped my relationship to work. We had to go there. We learned that podcast audiences want to know who you are and what you believe. This is the first step in forming any relationship, so it’s no different with this medium. We came at the issues at the centre of our purpose, through our own lived experience, before we drop a lot of information on our audience. We think that that makes our episodes more relatable and engaging. That makes sense, right?

That brings us to our second idea: listen closely and immerse yourself in your audiences’ culture and realities. Our millennial audience has perfected the art of a memorable hashtag, meme, and animated “jif” or “gif”, depending on which side of the debate you’re on, but that is my personal favourite. It loves popular culture and so do we.

At Atkinson, the Gen Xers and Boomers are down with the millennials driving the creative process. In fact, they’ve leaned in to learn and listen, but they also help us make the connection between our generation’s voice and aspirations and the timeless ideals of the decent work movement. We work really hard at getting the balance right between the Atkinson brand and the millennial experience.

It helps that Joe Atkinson, one of the first publishers of the Toronto Star, was the first to bring radio broadcasts and colour comics to 20th century newspaper readers, along with other, edgy, audience-grabbing innovations during his long tenure. Which is really an inspiring example to be able to draw on in knowing your audience.

That takes us to our third idea: choose your collaborators wisely, and to balance audience insight, content flair, and expertise. So, I’m going to ask you to do something that I know you might want to right now, or that you’ve been doing very discreetly, and that’s to take out your phones.

Go ahead, there’s no trick. We can all take out our phones, I got mine here as well. And we can take a look at it, all right? Everyone’s got their phones in front of them now? Well, I’m going to ask you to do a few things, now that you’re there. So, we’re going to go through a few different activities together. So, Elizabeth introduced the idea of listening to your podcast on a particular podcast provider. For most of us, it’s iTunes or Spotify. I also like to use Google Play and Stitcher. But open up your podcast provider. It might be iTunes, it might be Google Play, it might be Spotify. But the one thing you have to do on there is search Just Work It. And what should pop up is something that looks like this. Yeah, have some of you got it? And that’s our logo. And what you’re going to do, which is going to feel so good, is that you’re going to press subscribe if you don’t already. All right?

So, now that you’re on your phone, particularly for people who love a good visual feed, you can go into your Instagram, all right? That’s our next stop. So open up your Instagram, and I want you to type in the search bar, Just Work It underscore. And if you’re not following Just Work It, then you’ve just got to, right? I mean you’re here right now and you’re listening in, so let’s do that next. I obviously do, so, it’s fine. And then the final step that we have, which you might be avoiding because you want to give me your full attention, but I understand, and that’s to go to Twitter. All right? We’re going to open up Twitter, and in there, search Atkinson CF. And that is the Atkinson feed that you’re going to hopefully, make the decision to follow right now.

So, I’m glad we had that break together. There’s one more thing that I want to ask all of you: how many of you feel like you’re on too many email lists? Okay, I feel that way too. I definitely share that. But I also have a real affection for email mailing lists, because I wouldn’t have known about a podcast workshop that kick started my learning journey, without it. So, I’m going to ask you to do one last thing. If you’re in your browser, go to Justworkit.ca/subscribe and join our email list; or you also have a signup sheet on your table where you can do that. And we’ll gather them after. Thank you.

On that email mailing list, I discovered a weekend workshop for diverse voices, hosted by a savvy podcast producer named Katie Jensen, at an inclusive coworking space for game makers. At this workshop, Katie took us through the basics. And by the end of the day, I had created this. And I’m going to play it for you now.

(voice over) – Hey, I’m Ausma Malik, director of Social Engagement at the Atkinson Foundation. There’s been a lot of talk about the world of work and millennials. Frivolous, entitled, avocado toast, we’ve heard it all. But how much of that is true? And why does it matter? Join me each week with the realest and smartest people answering these questions. We’ll be smashing myths about millennials and the pursuit of decent work.

(Ausma) – It’s okay to laugh. I feel a little bit mortified having to play that. And then the music just goes on because at that point I didn’t know how to edit things out. But can you hear the potential?

That was the first thing that I recorded and shared with anyone that kind of gave form and life to what the podcast could be for the foundation. And it took months of hard work to turn our idea into something we can be proud of for the impact that it has.

Katie and her partner Vicky Mochama were talented collaborators for our first year and my Atkinson co-workers, Pat Thompson, Nora Cole, and Radiyah Chowdhury, each made significant contributions based on their expertise. We formed a creative collaborative that shared responsibility for the production process. The rest of the Atkinson team were our first listeners and our in-house focus group. And we’re so grateful to them for that. All of us, have sweat equity in the Just Work It project.

We’ve leveraged that through new initiatives, like the intergenerational gathering called My Labour, Our Future that we hosted in August in Montreal. It marked the hundredth anniversary of the International Labour Organization.

Over the past two years, Just Work It has helped us up our collaboration game. Podcast production is technical, it’s creative, it’s about project management, and, most importantly, I would say, it’s also about dissemination and distribution. How people listen and engage. That really is what you all helped me with at the start of this idea. Subscribing, following, and signing up, having a plan to ensure that you reach your audience and they can reach you, is an essential component of a meaningful collaboration and what has to be included in a full production.

Our fourth idea has to do with hosting a podcast. Mine each story for gold, give your audience something valuable and remarkable. I love being a podcast host because I love talking with interesting people and listening to their stories. I know my audience’s time and attention are precious, and my goal is to listen well enough in our conversations to draw out something unexpected. The more you do it, the better you get at it.

A bit of wisdom, a cool angle, a useful connection. Something remarkable, as in listeners take something away that they can give away later. Something to share over coffee or social. Something that sticks with them. Something that sparks a desire or determination to take action.

Here’s the thing, everyone, and I mean everyone, has a nugget of gold in them. It’s found in their stories and experiences. I truly believe that. It reveals itself when the conditions are right and are created around the host and guest to unearth that. It has to do with genuine trust, respect, and curiosity.

In the “how to make a podcast” resource I shared in the handout, the host talks about good tape. A term that refers to the action plus reflection that, together, makes a great story. I’m sure all of us know it when we hear it. And it all starts, for me, with doing good research, including a pre-interview.

I love to do these, but I also have to be honest that they do take quite a bit of time and preparation, setting out questions and interrogating them to get the best, sharpest, and most interesting ones. I’ve definitely winged it when time was scarce. Plus sometimes the best conversations do come from a live encounter.

It’s important to seize the moments that are right in front of you. I think we’ve all learned that in our work. But for me, in-depth preparation enabled me to be more relaxed, open, and alert enough to follow an unexpected thread in a different direction. Also, to bring it back if it veered too far from our purpose or our audience’s interests.

The value of good preparation was crystal clear to me when I was on stage for an hour and a half with one half of my favourite, Politically Reactive podcast duo, host, and comedian Hari Kandabolu and Max Fineday, a well-known young Indigenous leader, in front of a live audience.

They helped us kick off our third series, which you heard, on the future of work, with insights into the themes of inclusion, tech, and power. Together, our team worked on the script for several weeks. It really paid off when the magic started to happen on stage. I knew where we were headed, how long we had for each segment, and how to bridge from one topic to the next. But I could also relax into the conversation and let the gold come to the surface on its own. The nuggets that we were able to reveal resonated with those at the event in person, as well as those who listened to the podcast episode after, and went so far in continuing to build our relationships and to grow our Just Work It community.

My fifth and final idea, which might not be a surprise to any of you, but I definitely feel in my gut, is that you have to love your topic for real. And to trust your audience to perceive if you do or don’t. Maybe you’ve heard of Charlie Parker, a famous jazz musician. He used to say, “If it ain’t in your heart, it ain’t in your horn.”

The quality of the relationship between the host, guest, and listener is the difference between a boring podcast and a memorable one. It’s the secret sauce. If you are genuinely interested in your topic, or guests, your audience will be, too. Passion is the creative spark needed for good podcasting.

During our preparations for our third series on the future of work, we became obsessed with the narrative presented by the Jetsons. Yes, the Jetsons, that space age family, conceived in 1962, but set in 2062. One of the most enduring depictions of the future, whether you knew it in real time, in reruns, or just as a reference.

We studied George Jetson’s relationship with his employer, Mr. Spacely, and his family’s domestic worker, a vaguely racialized robot named Rosey. It started a conversation in our office about the stories that stir our imaginations or shut them down. Those that replicate old patterns and problems, and those that liberate us from them. We landed on this narrative by acting on our first four ideas. We dug into our own experience, we tuned into the culture and realities that had shaped our audience, we collaborated intensely, and we hunted for gold.

The process led to a great live episode, but it also set us up to make the pivot from a vintage, cartoon, nuclear family from the 60’s, to an international team of superheros from the 90’s when I was growing up. Captain Planet and the Planeteers. Who remembers that show? Yes, that’s amazing. And I definitely remember it. But for the rest of you, I’ll give you a little bit of a refresher. The Planeteers are five teenagers who possess magic rings that control an element of nature – earth, wind, water, fire, and heart. Five is such a great number, isn’t it? They used this power to protect the planet from environmental devastation. When the challenge is too great, they combine their powers to summon Captain Planet, this guy here, (holds up cardboard cutout of character) who unites and magnifies their strengths to save the day.

I watched this cartoon with my dad when I was in grade school. My older siblings remember it as beyond cheesy, but I just loved it. The show stoked my budding activism against acid rain, the most critical problem in that time, in my view. It appealed to my general do-gooder instincts.

Now, more than 25 years later, it’s inspired a conversation about the power of narrative at our My Labour, Our Future gathering and with three podcast guests. Our newest episodes that you will hear soon move from the experience of being a worker in the future, to being a powerful movement to make the future better for all workers.

There’s a lot we’re still learning. I started off by sharing that with you.

This much I know for sure, and that’s that any podcasting strategy that focuses on the quality of the relationship between the organization, the story teller, and the audience will deliver invaluable and unexpected returns. When community-building is your purpose, as it is for most of us in the non-profit sector, you can generate the kind of power that really changes the world.

Make no mistake, this is hard work. Much harder than it seems when you start out, or when you’re reading a how-to resource. It’s worth the effort to try something new with this strategy. Big ideas like justice, equity, and the common good are on the line.

As Captain Planet says, “The power is yours.” Far from being a campy catchphrase, I know that it is true. The power is in each of us to discover and to move, to act. Together, as they say, powers combined. The power is ours to turn our high purpose into a reality. Through podcasting, and everything else we get to do in our non-profit work. Thank you very much.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Ausma Malik

Director of Social Engagement, Atkinson Foundation

Ausma Malik joined Atkinson as Director of Social Engagement in May 2016. She brings a background in policy, community organizing and communication to the team, having worked at Queen’s Park and as the Director of Campaigns and Community Outreach at the Stephen Lewis Foundation. From 2014 – 2018, Ausma was a Toronto District School Board Trustee for Ward 10 (Trinity-Spadina). She is a lifelong human rights and social justice activist who has taken on a variety of leadership roles within the community over the years.