Listen Up, Centre County: Local podcasts emerging as popular tool to build connections
Podcasts were introduced in the early 2000s, but it wasn’t until 2014 that they really hit the mainstream. That’s the year that the breakthrough phenomenon Serial was released, and the resulting surge in the popularity of podcasts is widely attributed to its success.
In Serial’s first season, executive producer and host Sarah Koenig, of State College, investigated the possibility that prisoner Adnan Syed had been wrongfully convicted for the murder of his high school girlfriend in 1999. The story was released in 12 weekly episodes and quickly became the world’s first podcasting sensation. It won a Peabody Award in 2015, set a world record for number of downloads (more than 175 million), and led to the granting of a new trial for Syed.
Koenig, former producer of NPR’s This American Life, says that when she and co-producer Julie Snyder first developed the idea for Serial, they had no inkling that the show would be so well-received.
“I thought, if this thing is bad, it’s OK; no one will hear it, because no one listens to podcasts. So the stakes were low in that way,” Koenig says. “Our initial goal when we pitched this whole idea to [NPR’s] Ira Glass, who paid for the first season, was 300,000 downloads. I think we had 300,000 in five days after we launched. It was crazy. … We had no idea.”
Koenig attributes the unexpected success of Serial to several factors.
“First of all, it coincided with the release of a new iPhone, where the podcast app was standard. Now all you had to do was push the icon and choose a podcast, so it became vastly simpler to listen. So that helped,” she says.
Koenig also says the popularity of the true-crime genre as well as the overall quality of the show were important to its ultimate success.
“[Snyder and I] are very experienced at radio, so we brought a lot of experience to bear on a medium where people just weren’t using it for that at that point. It just wasn’t a place where all of the normal rigor and storytelling and production value and that stuff was being used in the medium at that time,” says Koenig, who is currently in the midst of production on the third season of Serial.
An estimated 44 percent of Americans have listened to podcasts, according to 2018 findings by the Nielsen research firm. But if you are part of the estimated 36 percent of Americans who are unfamiliar with what a podcast is, perhaps they can best be described as a radio show that is available on demand. They are accessible through websites, or can be downloaded to a smartphone or tablet via an app such as Apple Podcasts or Google Podcasts. Podcasts can be listened to at any time, vary in length, and cover every subject matter under the sun. They are also relatively easy to produce.
Penn State senior Katie DeFiore was one of the millions of people introduced to the podcasting medium by Serial.
“I listened to Serial my senior year of high school, and I wanted to do a podcast ever since,” says DeFiore, who considers Koenig to be one of her idols. “I saw her speak in Philadelphia after I graduated – it was a birthday present from my parents. … She’s the reason I got into podcasting.”
Indeed, DeFiore got into podcasting in a big way. She has produced 10 episodes of her own podcast, An Entrepreneurial State of Mind, hosts a podcast for The Daily Collegian called Voices of Penn State, and has been hired by local companies and by Penn State to help them develop podcasts.
One of those companies, KCF Technologies, had DeFiore create a podcast for its employees, strictly for internal use – an unusual way to use the medium.
Jeremy Frank, president and co-founder, explains, “We’re on a really rapid growth trajectory; we’re doubling in size every 12 months and as a result, it’s just a constant challenge to communicate to all the new employees about how we do things and what our priorities and values are. We’re always looking for new, creative ways to communicate. … So we had Katie come in and record a regular podcast focusing on different parts of the company.”
Frank says the podcasts are sent out to all employees and are saved online for future employees to hear.
“I’d never seen a podcast used in that way before, but I thought it worked really well,” DeFiore says.
A print and digital journalism major who loves to write, DeFiore says she has come to appreciate the broadcasting elements of podcasting. “I really like the medium. … When you write a news article, you struggle to get people to read past the first sentence. When you make a podcast, you can hold someone’s attention for 45 minutes and upwards to two hours.”
DeFiore honed her podcasting skills as a sophomore in Katie O’Toole’s podcasting course, Comm 362, at Penn State. O’Toole, an instructor and lecturer in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, says, “Katie DeFiore is a phenom. I think she’s headed for the big time; she’s really going places.”
O’Toole should know. She worked in broadcasting at WPSX (now PSU) for 24 years, where she hosted the national children’s show What’s in the News? She currently produces a local history podcast, Dead Centre, for the Centre County Historical Society.
The course started three years ago in response to the growing demand for podcasters across the field of journalism, O'Toole says.
“Podcasting is becoming one of those tools that student journalists should probably have in their back pocket, because it’s becoming a component of so many job descriptions,” she says. “There aren’t those traditional job paths anymore, where you start out as a cub reporter and work your way up, so this is one way to be part of an institution like a magazine or a newspaper and bring in that podcasting component.”
‘A captive audience’
The Obligatory PSU podcast is an example of one medium – in this case, a television show – bringing in a podcasting component to supplement its content.
Taped every Monday afternoon at Champs Downtown on Allen Street, The Obligatory PSU Pregame Show involves four guys – Chris Buchignani, Mike “the Mailman” Herr, Kevin Horne, and former Penn State and NFL football player Brandon Noble – sitting around a table chatting about football and other Penn State-related topics. Produced by Blue White Media, what started as a YouTube show became a syndicated television program now reaching 36 million households in its third season.
“One of the things we wanted to do was be able to make our format and our personalities accessible to an audience beyond the boundaries of the show and outside of football season, so that’s what brought us the idea of doing a podcast,” Buchignani says.
The podcast, which launched in March, is usually taped on a porch of a house on Burrowes Street where the Blue White Media office is located, Buchignani says, but they have also taken the show on the road, most recently to Erie for a live taping with the Lake Erie Penn State Alumni Chapter.
“Podcast is a great format because, with the way technology is, a lot of people are getting this beaming right to their phones, and they’re listening in their cars, so you really have a captive audience,” he says. “The intimacy that you get from the podcast format, especially totally freed from commercials and constraints like that, really allows you to connect with the audience in ways that no other medium does.”
That intimacy is one of the things that drew Bill Zimmerman, producer of the Happy Valley Hustle podcast, to the medium.
“One of the things I think is most exciting about podcasting is that you can become the person that helps somebody get through a long car ride, or who makes a workout less terrible; you really build a connection,” he says.
Zimmerman, who teaches a digital public relations course at Penn State, interviews innovative and entrepreneurial central Pennsylvanians for his podcast, which comes out twice each month. While one of his reasons for starting the podcast this past January was to set an example for his students, he also had visions of achieving some financial success through ad revenue.
“I realized pretty quickly that I had to recalibrate how I measure success,” he says. “I certainly have improved as a communicator. I’m meeting really cool people. It’s been a chance to show others something that I think is really cool and deserves a platform. That’s been really satisfying. So I didn’t meet my initial vision of success, but that hasn’t really mattered. There has been enough that’s happened to make this very worthwhile.”
Jenna Spinelle, communications specialist for the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State, agrees that podcasters need to be careful about how they measure success.
“Not everyone is going to be Serial or Pod Save America,” she explains. “The average number of downloads for most podcasts is 200 per episode, so people have to couch their expectations appropriately. But, those 200 people are going to be really, really engaged and seeking you out, so you’re really speaking to your tribe in some respect, which is really cool.”
Together with director Michael Berkman and managing director Chris Beem, Spinelle hosts the McCourtney Institute’s podcast, Democracy Works, which strives to present educational and nonpartisan conversations about issues related to democracy. The weekly podcast launched in March and has already been honored with a 2018 People’s Choice Podcasting Award in the category of Government and Organizations. Spinelle says it has reached listeners in 49 states and 74 countries.
“I think those of us in higher ed are just now realizing what the world has known for a little while – the power this medium can have to connect people and help them find new ways to explore topics and think about things in different ways,” Spinelle says. “It’s a way to bust down the walls of traditional media. … I also think people are just realizing the barriers to entry are pretty low and it’s a growing market. It’s an opportunity to reach people.”
Just a few basics are required to start a podcast: a recording device – a microphone of some sort, or even just a cell phone will do; sound-editing software, such as the free Audacity program; and a hosting site, such as SoundCloud, where podcast episodes can be distributed to podcast directories and apps via RSS feed.
Embraced by nonprofits
The inexpensive basic requirements and the opportunity to reach people make podcasts an ideal medium for nonprofit organizations. Both Schlow Centre Region Library and the Centre County United Way have launched podcasts within the past year.
David Pencek, Schlow’s communications manager, says, “It’s another way to get the word out about what’s going on at the library. All episodes are tied to something with Schlow, but there’s such a variety of topics we can cover; it doesn’t have to be just about books.”
Pencek faced a steep learning curve when teaching himself how to create a podcast, he says. One thing that helped him was an informal gathering of local podcasters organized by Zimmerman. The group, which also includes Spinelle and O’Toole, met this summer to network and provide help and advice to each other, which they continue to do through a Facebook group.
Tammy Gentzel, executive director of Centre County United Way, produces the United We Win podcast with the help of Forever Media. The podcast is made from a radio show Gentzel hosts on Happy 103, in which she mainly interviews local leaders from nonprofits and for-profit companies alike.
“We wanted the theme of the show to be, ‘When people come together to partner to help people, great things happen,’” she says.
Gentzel says making the show available as a podcast was important because, “I think the reality is that many young people don’t listen to radio, but they do listen to podcasts. They want the ability to pick and choose what they’re interested in listening to and they don’t want it to be time-bound. And that just aligns with the way our world is moving right now.”
Karen Walker is a freelance writer in State College.