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Podcast Survivor: Community Radio Must Podcast

First off, if you didn’t catch the big news that streaming music platform Deezer is acquiring Stitcher be sure to read my take on what it means for podcasting.

I should also note that former WFMU host Tom Scharpling has announced that he is bringing back The Best Show “sometime in November.” This coincides with the announcement of a 16-CD box set release of “The Best of The Best Show” from Chicago’s consistently great Numbero Group label. Pre-orders of that behemoth set begin shipping in March 2015.

Community Radio Must Podcast

Last week I wrote about how the business of podcasting is booming, and I ended by promising to dig deeper into how community radio can use podcasting. Actually, I should clarify: I’m going to discuss why community radio must use podcasting.

Escape the Grid

Podcasting is a perfect technology for community radio because it liberates stations from the tyranny of the schedule and the clock. Community radio, in particular, had suffered from digital disruption because most stations are so very eclectic and therefore have schedules that often look like a clashing patchwork quilt. While the strategy is good for embracing diversity and potentially exposing listeners to unfamiliar voices and sounds, it’s also hell for continuity, keeping listeners tuned in or for just discovering programs in the first place.

But this isn’t about the schedule, or arguments to change the schedule. I truly recognize that community radio program schedules are living organisms with their own individual histories, built by sweat, struggle, sacrifice and compromise. It’s that reality that makes podcasting so ideal.

Podcasting frees programs from the grid, opening them up to listeners who might not encounter them on the live broadcast, listeners who can’t tune in at their scheduled time, or who won’t listen on the radio or live stream at all. Podcasting lets a station provide the Netflix or Hulu of radio to its audience, giving them the power to choose when and where to listen.

Take The Best Show as an example. It’s a program that I argue would not have found its audience if it has not been available on demand and as a podcast on the WFMU website. I don’t doubt that new fans would have been brought in by word of mouth like, “Hey, you’ve got to listen to this amazing show on Tuesdays at 10 PM on WFMU!” But how many potential new listeners would still have missed it, because the time conflicts with their schedule or they just don’t listen to the radio (or internet stream) at that time?

Be More Shareable

A podcast makes a radio program shareable. It’s dead simple to email or tweet a link to a podcast and have someone listening to it almost immediately. Sure, you can tweet out, “Listen to this show at 3 PM Saturday!” but there are many more steps before someone is listening. Even if you post or tweet when the show is on the air, if folks don’t see it until several hours later then they’ve missed out.

Expand the Grid

Podcasting lets stations expand the program grid. There are many community stations with stuffed schedules and many more potential hosts and producers than slots available. That may seem like a good thing, but given the glacial rate of turnover in community radio, it also means stations miss out on innovative ideas, or are unable to give promising new shows a good enough time slot to build and audience and be sustainable.

The solution is to give promising new producers and programs a podcast on your station. Let them use production facilities and help them get it online, then put it on your station’s site. Insist on a regular schedule and the same level of quality as your on-air shows and your station is well on its way to creating a digital channel.

Then, you can start scheduling your best podcasts on the air as time slots become available. Instead of taking chances on a green host where quality might be rough for a while, you potentially have a talented and more polished farm team of shows ready for air when you need them. Another great idea is to create a show that highlights and rotates in whole podcasts or segments, helping expose them to your broadcast listeners, too.

That is essentially how programs like 99% Invisible and Freakonomics got their start. They were digital-first, and now both are also heard on the radio.

Of course, you might wonder why a new producer would podcast for your station when she could just do it all herself. The reason is access to your station’s audience and resources, and the more intangible value of being associated with your station. As your podcast roster grows you’re essentially creating your own podcast network, which provides a leg-up to each new show that joins.

Podcasting Is Cheaper & Easier Than You Think

Finally, podcasting is cheap, in terms of both time and effort. Yes, it does require a little more of both compared to not podcasting, but it can be surprising how little that is.

At its simplest, a podcast is nothing more than an air check that you make into an MP3 and put online. Since most stations already have a website, that means you already have a place to upload and post that MP3. Blog platforms and content management systems like WordPress and Squarespace have easy-to-use tools to create the RSS feed and submit it to iTunes, and then you’re good to go.

As long as your focus is just distributing your podcasts widely and simply to your audience it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. While there are dedicated podcast hosts like Libsyn and Soundcloud, they do cost a little bit of money. Unless you anticipate needing more comprehensive listening data or think you might sell ads on your podcasts, you really don’t need to use a dedicated host right away.

Again, I’ll call your attention to WFMU, which has been taking the simple but effective approach to putting shows online way before the word “podcasting” ever existed. The archives are in the plainest html, but they work. Click on a show and it plays, or you can go to each show’s archive page and subscribe to the feed.

The on demand versions of WFMU’s broadcast show are created automatically, so they’re not even trimmed to start exactly when the show does–there’s often a minute or so of the previous show at the beginning. But, so what? Better to have a slightly imperfect podcast or archive than none at all. If you’re posting born-digital podcasts, then this isn’t even an issue.

My only caveat is that music podcasting is a little more complex than talk programs. Because a podcast is fundamentally a downloadable and shareable MP3, you probably shouldn’t use music in a podcast without permission. While I know that there are music podcasts out there that rely on an interpretation of Fair Use that emphasizes their noncommercial nature, because this is not settled law I still wouldn’t advise it.

Luckily, there are workarounds. First, if you have shows featuring in-studio performances or local music, getting permission should be easy. Also, the Mixcloud platform lets you upload and share music shows legally. While that gives your listener the on-demand experience both on computers and mobile devices, they’re not podcasts that can be downloaded for listening offline. Still, it’s a great service for your music shows where getting artist/label permission is not practical.

There’s no reason not to start today. Pick some of your locally-produced talk programs, start recording them and put them on the website. BOOM! Podcast network.

Is your station podcasting? Have you tried to podcast and run into trouble? Do you agree or disagree with my argument? Please let me know in the comments.


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