If it seems like everybody is doing a podcast these days, it might almost be true. That includes governments.
As digital technology has made it cheap and easy to deliver anyone's message to the world, WGLT explores how municipalities and other public bodies are using podcasts to communicate with constituents in new ways and wonder if it's making a difference.
When Dan Irvin was working as the director of communications for the Town of Normal, the broadcasting bug bit the former radio host again.
Irvin sees podcasting as a way for town staff to cut through online clutter and talk directly to people.
“In an age where everyone has an opinion about everything, particularly on social media, I thought a podcast would be a great vehicle to communicate to the constituents,” Irvin said.
First Irvin had to talk to his boss, City Manager Pam Reece. She needed convincing.
“I have two college-aged children who actually listen to podcasts, which surprised me because podcasts were not on my radar,” Reece explained. “I thought wow, if I’ve got some college-aged folks listening to podcasts and having an interest in that, I want to explore that.”
After experimenting a few months, the town podcast began. Normal is far from alone among cities and towns venturing into podcasting.
Some are hosted by broadcasters and former broadcasters and random city staffers and others by city executives.
These podcasts deliver everything from information about community events to trash and recycling times.
Irvin said a podcast's true function should be to humanize staff. As someone who spent most of his career in the private sector, Irvin feels he had a good understanding of what many outsiders think about those who work for local government.
“You can’t fight city hall, quote, the only thing you have to do in life is die and pay taxes,” Irvin quipped. “It’s always with a very negative, very insulated, a very us-versus-them kind of approach.”
Done in a cubbyhole at Uptown Station in what used to be a lactation room down the hall from town offices, Irvin talks with Town of Normal department heads and the occasional community partner, such as the Bloomington-Normal Convention and Visitors Bureau and Connect Transit.
Irvin said he wants the podcast to teach the public, but added he has learned something too: the passion most town workers bring to the job.
“I just had no idea that that was the case,” Irvin said. “I think that is ultimately what we are trying to communicate to people is that this doesn’t happen by accident, it’s hard work, people care.”
Bloomington is following Normal's lead. Nora Dukowitz, the city's communications manager, said Bloomington will soon roll out a yet-to-be named podcast.
“I think there’s this assumption that government is boring, and we are going to tell some of those stories that are the good stuff but also the tough stuff that makes it really interesting.” Dukowitz said.
Bloomington Deputy City Manager Billy Tyus will be one of the podcast hosts. Tyus is a former newspaper reporter. He said he will use storytelling to attract an audience.
“Being able to not simply put out facts or to not simply talk about the item itself, if there is a way to sort of weave stories into these conversations, I think those can be very, very interesting,” Tyus said.
McLean County government is also developing a podcast. County officials don't have details yet.
Local governments aren't the only ones using public funds to communicate with podcasts.
The Normal Public Library has been doing a monthly podcast since 2015. Its producers say they try to have fun with their pod, and it shows.
“This is N-P-L,” the podcast closes in a nod to National Public Radio.
Mari McKeeth is a collection department staffer at the library and one of the hosts for Check It Out. She said it's no-frills, recorded in a board room with a few microphones, a sound board, and recording software. To make it sound like a studio, McKeeth said they used to throw a quilt over the equipment.
“Now what we pretty much do is remove the refrigerator in the room so that it doesn’t hum and put a sign on the door that says ‘Quiet, podcast recording,’ and then we just start recording,” McKeeth said.
Library adult services and circulation manager John Fischer said the podcast does promote library programs, but it's more of a soft sell. Staff talk about their favorite books, films and music, whether the library offers them or not. Fischer said the goal is to help the avid reader no matter where they live.
“There’s really nothing like your hometown librarian broadcast over the sound waves like GLT might be but broadcast on our podcast, giving really good recommendations,” he said.
Fischer said the library is sensitive to the fact tax dollars support the work. He said he sees a public good in the podcast.
“We want to be very responsible with the funds that are allocated to us and we want to make sure that we are aware of how much time we spend on it,” Fischer said, adding it amounts to a few hours a month.
Is It Worth The Effort?
Podcasters are still trying to decide whether that time and effort is worthwhile.
Megan Corey manages digital engagement for the Washington, D.C.-based National League of Cities. She said municipal podcasts have taken off in the last year. New ones launch every week.
Corey credits the surge to a younger and more diverse generation of government leaders who understand you're probably not going to find the residents you want to reach at city hall.
“Local governments are realizing that they can’t stick with what they have always done, that their residents are demanding new ways to receive engaging content from them and they have to keep up with the times,” Corey said.
Many cities come to Corey with questions about doing a podcast. They want to know how much time and money it takes. She turns the question around.
“I often ask a local municipality when they say, ‘We are thinking about starting a podcast,’ my first question is what do you hope to achieve by that?” Corey asked. “How are you measuring your success on it?”
Corey said there's no real blueprint yet for municipal podcasts. Cities have had mixed results. She said she believes the best way to measure podcast success is not downloads or subscriptions, but impact. Does the public respond to a podcast in ways you can measure?
A lack of results can lead to what's called pod-fade. Andrew Bottomley teaches podcasting as an assistant professor of media studies at State University of New York College at Oneonta. He said it's common to see podcasts launch with a bang and then slowly go away.
“Maybe it’s because they don’t get an immediate wave of response that they were hoping to, so maybe it feels like they are putting it out there and then nothing is coming back, or maybe it’s just because people get busy and they get other objectives,” Bottomley said.
Bottomley believes there's a market for podcasters highlighting what's going on in local government, to help fill the void that local radio used to fill in many communities across the country.
“We’ve lost so much of that local radio in the last few decades,” he said. “It just became less and less viable for cities and even educational institutions to maintain a radio station.”
Bottomley said for a podcast to be effective it has to be carefully planned, it has to sound good and it has to be authentic. He said that is often the greatest challenge.
Bottomley said governments like the podcast format because they control the medium, even if sounds otherwise. Bottomley calls it pseudo-transparency.
“As it the case with any kind of mediated messaging like this, it’s heavily controlled,” Bottomley explained. “On the surface it looks and sounds like it’s this very open and transparent thing but realize that it’s heavily manipulated, who they are talking to, what they are talking about.”
Bottomley said if municipal governments truly want to connect with the public in a useful way they need to make the podcast a two-way conversation by engaging those who feel they don't have a voice; in other words, beyond the crowd you typically see at city hall.
“Look around the room and you see the same dozen or so faces and they typically tend to skew older, whiter, these people are already well represented in government,” Bottomley said.
Bloomington Deputy City Manager Billy Tyus contended the city's podcast will be more than a promotional piece. He said they won't shy away from controversial issues.
“This isn’t simply a vehicle to promote the good. We will talk about some of the tough things,” Tyus explained. “We will have some courageous conversations about some of the things that maybe people are reading about in the newspaper or hearing about on the radio as well, so we won’t avoid the difficult topics.”
None of the local podcasters interviewed offered clear definitions for a successful production or measuring public value and awareness.
The Normal Public Library said it gets about 120 downloads per episode, but that's with a social media outreach that they admit is inconsistent at best.
The library's John Fischer acknowledges Check It Out isn't hyper-local, which may give it broader appeal, but that may also make it harder to strengthen its community impact.
“Where I’m torn is I can hear myself reason, once the podcast is published it’s available all over the place and people in town could be listening to podcasts from San Francisco and get a lot of value out of them,” Fisher said. “So that is difficult.”
But Fischer added if nothing else, podcast production is a professional development tool for staff.
“Giving staff an opportunity to grow in readers advisory in ways they maybe hadn’t imagined and opportunities they likely won’t get at another library,” he said.
The Town of Normal's Dan Irvin has a simple idea to measure impact.
“I guess I would be upset if I go to Rotary or I play cards with the couples my wife and I play cards with and nobody has listened to it, I guess that would be upsetting,” Irvin conceded. “That isn’t happening.”
The What’s Normal podcast averages about 70 downloads per episode, according to data provided by the town. There have been 22 episodes since launching last April.
Irvin added another benefit, the podcast creates a historical record for the town to serve future generations.
“Even if nobody is subscribing, if nothing else there’s value in creation of a library of jobs, departments, facilities, services that the Town of Normal has,” Irvin said.
That is until the next wave of technology sweeps the nation and podcasts become a thing of the past.
Normal contracts with Irvin at $150 per episode as he no longer works for the town. City manager Pam Reece said the job of podcast producer will soon fall under the purview of the communications manager position the town plans to fill.
Bloomington plans to use current full-time staff to produce its podcast.
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