As you might know, I have podcast conversations regularly. You know, being a podcast producer and host and such. Only occasionally am I a guest on someone else’s podcast.
A few months ago, however, I was a guest on Ryan Short’s CivicBrand podcast, “Eyes on the Street.” I was invited as a fellow creative engaged in community-building and story-sharing work. Our topic of focus was community storytelling.
We talked about my beginnings as a journalist and the community project I started in 2017 (Humanitou, don’tcha know?!). We talked about my current work, hosting and producing We Are Chaffee’s Looking Upstream podcast. And the portrait photography and newspaper column I write that is related to Looking Upstream.
I think that what CivicBrand does is creative, fun, valuable and straight up cool. Here’s the description from CivicBrand’s website:
“CivicBrand specializes in public engagement, strategic planning, city & place branding, placemaking, and destination marketing. We’re a team of strategists, creatives, place-makers and story-tellers with a passion for helping communities tell their story.”
In prep for the conversation I was going to record with Ryan, I spent a little time working out my thoughts on some basic questions. I’m sharing that below, in case it’s of interest and use to you.
What advice do you have for communities that are interested in doing something similar to We Are Chaffee’s Looking Upstream?
Broaden your view and reach outside your own circle. It’s common to go to friends and professional networks to get guests. That even can be a solid way to get started with a friendly and supportive guest or two. But don’t stay in that box. It’s too insular.
If a lot of business, politics and social life is about who you know, I’d say a community-building, story-sharing initiative is about who you don’t know. The purpose of such a project is to introduce the community to itself, to introduce people to each other.
A storytelling mission is an amazing excuse to reach out to people you’re curious about, fascinated by and have always wanted to meet, but didn’t know how and didn’t want to be intrusive. Don’t be afraid to invite people to participate. People say “yes” to the podcast or other interview/storytelling invite.
Building community and connecting dots that otherwise wouldn’t be connected is the point, it’s the opportunity. Learning about each other is the point. Finding common ground is the point. It’s far more difficult to be angry toward someone when I know something of their story that we have in common and I see myself in them, in their story.
My advice? Create a mix of guests, backgrounds and stories over time that allows for voices of “known” people in town (e.g. public servants, business leaders, people with reputation) and the lesser known. Those who are known create more awareness in the project that helps to shine light on those who don’t tend to show up in the local newspapers or have access to public platforms for sharing their stories.
Genuine curiosity and sincere interest go a long way. I think people appreciate someone caring to ask them questions about themselves, and wanting to learn from and about them, and valuing their insights.
People, all of us, want to be seen, heard and valued for our stories and our perspectives. As professionals, as humans. The podcast, or whatever storytelling format, opens doors for connection. Don’t be afraid to cast a wide net.
It’s okay to start small and learn as you go, grow your skills and knowledge, and grow your budget. There are potential partnerships within the community. Examples: Chamber of Commerce, tourism bureau, real estate companies, the town itself.
It takes time to cultivate an audience. Be patient, authentic and consistent. Consistency and keeping going are huge. That includes promotion of the content at least as much as creation and publication of the content itself.
With podcasting, the numbers keep going up. Last I heard, there were five million podcasts in the world, but “only” an estimated 750,000 are active. It’s not as daunting as it seems.
Most people give up on podcasting within a few episodes. Those are dormant podcasts. More than half the podcasts out there have 10 or fewer episodes. Forty-four percent have fewer than three episodes. Less than 20 percent of podcasts hang in there for 50 or more episodes.
To me, the message is: keep going. There’s less competition at the top.
Also, a community storytelling initiative, podcast or otherwise, has an incredible niche opportunity. The audience you’re after is not the flashy, sexy millions that you hear about with global celebrities like Joe Rogan or Brené Brown. The audience is the community you are serving with your project. You can own that. You can make a household name within your community of your podcast or storytelling brand.
Calibrate your definition of success to that niche community audience. Looking Upstream has had listeners in nearly all 50 states and in 30-something countries. Now, that might be of interest to potential partners, like the Chamber of Commerce and local real estate professionals, who could use the stories to connect with their audiences. But the priority in defining success for Looking Upstream is who is right here in our county and surrounding area.
Here’s some basic math I use: We have 20,000 people in Chaffee County, Colo. Let’s say half are kids and subtract that number from our potential listeners for now. So there’s 10,000 adults who are potential listeners. Not all are going to listen, not all are into podcasts. So let’s cut that number in half again to estimate 5,000 adults who listen to podcasts in our community.
For good measure, let’s cut that in half yet again so we’re erring on the side of humility in our accounting. That puts us at 2,500 potential listeners in the Looking Upstream community. Percentage-wise, that’s still more than 10 percent of the total target audience.
That’s a far bigger portion of our desired audience than Joe Rogan or Brené Brown or (name your celebrity) get on their podcasts. They succeed in absolute numbers (millions) that no doubt are astonishing, but we do not need to use those same metrics to define success in our community efforts. Percentage-wise, our buddies Joe and Brené reach far less than one percent of their potential audience.
To reach a core audience of 2,500 listeners for our rural community podcast will be wildly successful. That’s the math I use as one measurable definition of success with this community storytelling initiative. And I’d say that’s pretty successful for a rural community that’s getting to know itself and develop deeper understanding and connections and pride in its community.
That’s enough to affect the hearts of voters and business owners and elected officials, and to affect policy and community decisions. That’s the power of storytelling.
Our target audience for impact is focused. The definition of success changes. If we reach others across the state and country and beyond, that’s a bonus. The messages absolutely are universal – I say, “local is universal, the personal is universal.” It’s relevant to people everywhere. But from a strategic perspective, the community is the focus and the opportunity for impact.
And, of course, the numbers of downloads and page views and social media engagements are not the whole story. The human element of a project like this is essential. It’s the core. And so the qualitative benefits, which, by definition, might not be measurable, cannot be underestimated.
In an ever isolated and divided world, what is the value of empathy and human connections?
The division in society and politics is because we are not connecting, we are not talking, we’re not listening to each other. We have let propaganda and politics create an “us vs. them” narrative. That narrative is about othering, it’s about diminishing “others” as less than us.
But what happens when I find out that the person I’ve been told is my enemy has a story of pains and challenges and dreams that I can relate to? I soften my stance toward that so-called enemy. I start to see them as “not so bad,” just someone who has some different views on the world and, oh by the way, maybe that’s ok.
Listen to the podcast conversation Ryan and I had on “Eyes on the Street” for much more. Ryan asks some great questions and shares some thoughtful perspectives. Hopefully I did, too.