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Birds do it, Bees do it but should educated company executives be doing it? Podcast producer and consultant Christine Burns offers a jargon-free insight into whether this is a communications medium that can work for your own company.

Terry Wogan has one. The Pope has one. No self-respecting political party would be without one now. But what exactly is a “Podcast”, how do you make one and, more importantly, would your organisation benefit from having one to communicate with customers and employees?

“Podcast” is one of those words which seems to have sneaked quietly into the language, multiplied whilst nobody was looking and then suddenly seemed to be everywhere.

Where Did It Come From?

Like so many things that are part computer technology, part youth culture, this deceptively simple but immensely powerful variation on an old theme has developed and achieved widespread adoption so quickly that you could be forgiven for feeling bewildered.

There’s a temptation to rush to jump on the bandwagon, for fear of falling any further behind than the rest. Yet is that a mistake? To know whether Podcasting is for you and your organisation, you first need to strip away the hype, understand a little about how it works, and decide which kinds of audience might be reached with this as just another communications tool.

The actual term “Podcast” (a marriage of “iPod” and “broadcast”) was only coined in late 2004. References to the term measured by Internet search provider Google rose from a dozen a day in October that year to over 100 million by the following September. The idea really took off as a mainstream concept when Apple, makers of the iPod music player, added support for the concept to its iTunes music store in June 2005.

But What IS It?

In its very simplest form a Podcast is simply a recording in digital form, coupled with some way of distributing it to people.

Purists would argue that a true Podcast needs to be distributed using a particular technology called “Really Simple Syndication” (RSS). That’s a technique that makes it realty easy for non-technical users to receive new “episodes” of material automatically when it becomes available.

RSS means, for instance, that you can tell your computer you’d like to “subscribe” to Terry Wogan’s weekly Podcast, or Radio Four’s “From Our Own Correspondent”; your PC will then poll the appropriate computers every day to see whether a new episode of that material is available, and automatically download it for you if so.

The crucial difference between this and traditional broadcasting is that you, the listener, can then hear the material in the time and place where you fancy – either at your PC, or whilst weeding or jogging with the sound file copied into a portable music player, such as an iPod.

The other difference – which makes all this a proposition for anyone, rather than just licensed broadcasters – is that it doesn’t rely on radio broadcasting. Instead it uses computer technologies easily available to any aspiring programme maker. Alastair Cook, veteran radio correspondent, died in April 2004 – just months before the Podcast revolution began. Yet if he were a young man today, you can bet he would be making his own Podcast for millions to download; not needing to rely on the patronage of the BBC.

Yet many people simply use the word “Podcast” to describe the digital recording itself, and there are many other ways you could deliver a recording like that to listeners – be they your customers, employees or Aunty Maud.

Email, web pages – even Audio CD’s – are alternative methods to consider for getting your recorded message to other people. This means you need to think separately about producing your material, and the method you use for getting it to the right people.

Making The Recording

The actual technologies for recording a Podcast are very easy to obtain. Many personal computers have software already loaded for recording sound into one of the special digital audio formats available. Some software is even specifically designed for producing Podcasts – offering the kind of mixing and editing facilities you would normally find in a professional sound studio. Yet, just as there’s a world of difference between taking moving pictures with a Camcorder and making a watchable movie, having the means to record and edit a recording on the nearest PC is a long way from being able to produce something people will listen to.

Who, What, How .. and Why?

Forget the technology for the moment. Concentrate on Content, Content, Content…

The first consideration is audience. Who do you want to reach, and why? Communicating with customers is different from communicating with staff. If you’re to work out whether Podcasting has a place in your organisation’s communications strategy then you also need to be clear about why it would offer advantages over other media, and how it complements and dovetails with those.

It may not be you who your customers or staff need (or want) to hear. Perhaps the monthly sales figures should remain in a staff email, and the latest product offering should stay in brochures or on the web site; yet maybe customers would perceive real value in hearing your R&D manager talking about their vision, and staff might find an interview with your HR manager less turgid than a memo about a new benefits package.

Format is equally important too. Unless your name’s Alan Bennett, the chances are that reading from your own prepared script is going to be unremittingly dull. Maybe it’s OK for five minutes or less, and if you’re sure you are an interesting speaker. But for longer and more complex communications, you may be far better off getting an interviewer involved as well. A skilled interviewer, briefed with the message you want to communicate, can ensure that you’re able to communicate that message in a conversational way. Conversations are usually far more engaging for everyone else to listen to.

When and Where?

Consider from the outset whether your Podcast is planned to be a one-off or part of a series, planned into your overall communications strategy.

A one-off could be a way of attracting attention in a novel way, or to show people that your organisation is out there, on the leading edge – but in that case be careful how you hype what you’re doing if the recording falls short in terms of slick production values, or if the delivery is not a true afficionado’s “Podcast”. Today’s one-off pilot can easily get carried along on a wave of enthusiasm into becoming a series though – so be just as clear about your objectives and positioning from the outset.

Planning a series means giving more thought to the logistics of production and distribution from the outset.

What programme format are you going to use? Newscaster? Interviewer? Magazine show? Do you need scripts, and who is going to edit and approve these in advance?

When and where are you going to record each programme? What investment do you need to make in tools and skill? Should you use outside contractors? Do you need to go to a studio?

Do you have the presentation and production talents in-house? A one-off could be recorded anywhere quiet and an enthusiastic member of staff may be discovered to have hidden editing and production talents, but is that going to become part of their job?

How is regular distribution going to work, and does your organisation have the necessary technology? Are customers or staff going to have the technology on their desktops to hear it? Not every office PC has a sound card or speakers, or the right software. For some of these questions you’ll need to involve your IT staff or advisors.

Summing Up

Like many simple ideas it’s easy to think that because the parts are simple, so is the whole. With regular Podcasting your organisation needs to think about all the basic communication issues that underpin a decision to use any kind of communication medium.

It’s horses for courses. Use a Podcast to announce your firm’s redundancies and you may be on tonight’s TV news and the recording itself may be winging its way around the Internet to millions, making your organisation a laughing stock. Use the same technique to keep staff in touch with developments, or communicate better with people who recommend and use your products, and it can be another good way of achieving your broader goals.

It may have emerged and taken off even faster than the mobile phone or digital cameras but Podcasting is maturing fast. A geek’s toy yesterday is a fast growing medium today and will become just another corporate communications tool tomorrow. Change happens fast these days. Those who can master new tools and work out how to use them first always enjoy an advantage over their peers. But only you can decide if this one’s for you.

Copyright © Christine Burns 2008