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Local podcasts: What three independent news projects are learning

by: Amy Gahran |

The last few years has seen a boom in podcasting, and more local independent media projects are using podcasts to inform and engage their communities. Here are three local podcasts worth a listen.

Valley Navel Gazing is a podcast produced by the Valley Independent Sentinel -- a website covering Connecticut's lower Naugatuck Valley, part of the New Haven Independent family of community sites.

Editor and podcast cohost Eugene Driscoll explained that their podcast first started in 2011 as "a low-rent discussion of local journalism -- just Valley Indy reporters talking about Valley Indy journalism. We uploaded it to Soundcloud or YouTube, audio only."

The show has come a long way since then. Last month, the New Haven Independent launched WNHH, a low-power FM community radio station. Today, Valley Navel Gazing is a weekly 52-minute show on the air, which is now distributed for direct download by WNHH via iTunes and by RSS feed. And it's also posted to the WNHH SoundCloud account, where it can be streamed and embedded. It currently features one or two call-in guests, and the show is streamed on the internet as well as broadcast over the FM signal in New Haven.

In addition, VallyIndy recently started using Google Hangouts to create a marathon video podcast to celebrate the "Great Give" local fundraising campaign.

"We did a Hangout for about 36 hours straight, we barely left the office," said Driscoll. "About a dozen local nonprofits came in to talk about their work in our valley. That helped raise a lot of money for them -- and for us, too! We raised $10,000 through that campaign."

Driscoll said they plan to expand upon that success, by partnering with the local Valley Community Foundation to use video podcasts as a way to highlight local nonprofits and local issues.

Facebook is essential to Valley Navel Gazing's success -- for finding topics and guests, attracting listeners, and continuing the conversation. "The engagement is always going on there, it's a talking rolodex," said Driscoll. "We're not really seen as reporters or media outlet. We try to be approachable."

In North Carolina, New Bern Now and Beyond started podcasting in spring 2014.This local podcast covers the smallish town of New Bern and the surrounding mostly rural region, along with some coverage of nearby military bases and the Crystal Coast region of eastern N.C.

Editor Wendy Card says the format for the 20-30 minute podcast evolved over the last year. Currently it begins with a short "PodSquad" segment (four or five people discussing local arts, entertainment and issues). Then there's a phone interview, and shoutouts for upcoming events. It ends with a local day tripping segment.

"This podcast is definitely getting traction," said Card. "I get calls from people in Wisconsin or whatnot, saying they listen to the podcast and they're thinking about moving here."

New Bern Now and Beyond is distributed via Libsyn, a popular podcast hosting service that manages a lot of the technology to support direct downloads and streaming.

Card said Facebook is crucial to their podcast, too. "About five days before we do the podcast, I post on Facebook and say that the first five people who respond will get 30-90 seconds to discuss anything they want -- as long as it's not negative, we don't want them trashing anything," she said. "People love it! They consider it free advertising, and a lot of local nonprofits take advantage of this."

And in New Jersey, this February former journalist Paul Brubaker launched his weekly Backgrounder statewide podcast. Yesterday, Backgrounder announced a partnership with NJ.com, where it will become one of their featured podcasts.

Backgrounder has already attracted an appreciable audience. "We went from a dozen listeners to 100 over a couple of months, then to thousands rather quickly," said Brubaker. Part of his audience-growth strategy is to interview guests who already have a substantial online or social media presence, either individually or through their organization. But word of mouth, business cards, and social media also are essential.

Brubaker values the conversational feel of podcasting, and his show is a long form interview -- typically one hour long. "But sometimes we go a little over," said Brubaker. "Long interviews are where you get people to be their most casual or authentic. And without airtime restrictions, no one ever has to say in a podcast, 'We'll have to leave it there.'"

Backgrounder usually presents lesser-known influencers. "People in N.J. see see Gov. Christie often enough -- but what about people who affect our lives locally? I'm not sure we have the same appreciation for, say, Jamie Fox, the state's Transportation Commissioner," he said. "I try to go for some folks who are prominent but who may not get much major media coverage."

But sometimes Brubaker does land some big names, such as former N.J. Governor and 9/11 Commissioner Tom Kean. "We've heard him before, but not this way," said Brubaker. "Conversationally, in his office, no tie on, giving his take on next presidential race and on N.J. priorities."

What about revenue? As a WNHH show, Valley Navel Gazing is supported by the sponsorships and other revenue streams for that station. New Bern Now and Beyond does not yet have a separate revenue stream for the podcast, but Card is eyeing options.

Backgrounder's revenue model is "private sector straight ahead," said Brubaker, who began his media career selling radio advertising. "We have paying advertisers who run audio ads in the podcast. I do a 'live read,' but I script it out in advance and run it past the advertiser. It can be a bit of a challenge to get advertisers to want to buy a podcast ad -- but one thing that helps is data. The data that an advertiser can have from podcasting is far more precise than terrestrial radio ads."

Advice for getting started. All of the podcasts hosts agreed, they key is to just jump in and try podcasting. The technology is inexpensive, the platforms are user-friendly, the barriers are low, and audiences are becoming accustomed to this medium. Clark has written a useful guide for getting started with local podcasting.

And Driscoll observed that you shouldn't be afraid of making mistakes. "I think too often -- at least in my career, especially when I was in legacy media -- people fear trying anything different, because you might make a fool of yourself. At ValleyIndy, we'll try anything. Our fist show, we didn't even have a microphone. Don't try to impress other reporters or the industry. It's about serving your community."

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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