I recently celebrated 10 years of making podcasts at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. In the summer of 2013, after 14 years managing the Brookings website, I assumed a new role in digital communications as podcast producer and host, launching the Brookings Cafeteria podcast.
For over eight years and 430 episodes of the award-winning Cafeteria pod, I interviewed public policy experts about their research. Since we retired the show in 2022, I’ve helped create nine new podcasts, am now co-hosting a 10th, and have others in some phase of pre-production.
In my decade of podcasting for a nonprofit organisation, I’ve learned important lessons that I hope will help guide others in the think tank space to launch successful podcasting journeys.
1. Be clear about why you want to podcast
Your organisation has ideas to spread and many digital channels to use. Public events, a website, research papers, books, op-eds, email newsletters, social media, multimedia, and direct contacts with key audiences form a constellation of ways to get your message to the right people at the right time. A podcast is another channel, another tool in your toolbox, but the format has some special qualities that set it apart from the others.
First, it’s intimate. Listeners put earbuds in or headphones on, subscribe to a show, click to download an episode, and then listen, often alone. Most listeners are doing other things while listening—driving, walking, chores. Audio streaming into their heads creates a different engagement with the content.
Second, usually podcast listeners are consuming your audio content outside of digital spaces you control. Your website is the hub for all your digital channels and information, but podcasts are consumed primarily elsewhere—on podcatcher apps and platforms like Spotify, Apple, and YouTube. This means listeners are actively finding shows on their devices, subscribing and downloading there, and listening when it suits them.
Third, and perhaps most important for an organisation, given its intimacy a podcast is a powerful way for people to tell stories about themselves, their research, and their ideas. Storytelling for a traditional think tank can be an elusive proposition—how do you tell a “story” about tax policy or global trade? I produce a narrative-format show (more on formats below) called Reimagine Rural in which a scholar host talks to rural leaders, businesspeople, and local residents who share stories about innovation and positive change in their communities, layered on a foundation of rural policy research. But you don’t have to podcast with a view toward narrative story—maybe an interview format is best suited to your organisation, and even in that style, you can draw out anecdotes that illuminate the research.
2. Get stakeholder buy-in
I’ve had many coffees with communications pros who want to start a podcast for their outfit. They are often, like me, dedicated podcast listeners and sometimes podcasters in their personal time. At some point, they looked around their organisation and thought, “You know, we need a podcast.”
But of course, your boss, and perhaps others in leadership, must greenlight any podcast project first (unless you are the boss, in which case please proceed to podcasting). So, get buy-in for your idea. Hopefully, your chain of command is all in from the start, in which case please proceed to podcasting.
If they need convincing, emphasise the low startup cost (it’s not free, though … more below on that); call it an experiment; define some measurable short-term goals; and do a pilot episode to wow them with how cool a podcast can be. Oh, and set expectations …
3. Set expectations
At some early point in this process (and many of these items are happening simultaneously), you must set expectations for all involved, especially your boss and other stakeholders.
The first expectation to set is around downloads. We’d all like to see our policy podcasts get 100,000 downloads an episode, or even 10,000. Your leadership may also have this expectation because the podcasts they’ve heard about—e.g., Serial, The Daily, any number of true crime shows—are the ones getting big numbers. Yet a public policy podcast is not going to enjoy those figures.
So, you may ask, why podcast at all?
Well, first, about the numbers. How much would your organisation invest in a public event that might draw a couple hundred people IRL (in real life), plus maybe the same online after you pay to webcast it?
Think about your potential podcast audience as a room full of people, maybe two or three rooms full of people, listening to what you have to say. I would say a podcast episode likely will reach more people than can attend the typical think tank public event (that said, in-person events have their own special characteristics that make them worth doing).
Podcasts have another unique quality in the constellation of digital channels: they reach new and younger audiences who may not be tuned into what think tanks typically offer. According to the latest Infinite Dial report by Edison Research (the longest-running digital media consumer survey in America), about one in five Americans over the age of 55 listens to podcasts regularly; more than half those aged 12–34 and just half of the in-between age bracket listen. A survey from Pew Research Center backs up these data, suggesting a trend toward younger people being more likely to consume audio. However, a challenge seen in the Pew data is that older listeners are more likely to listen to podcasts for news, while younger audiences are more likely to listen for entertainment.
The takeaway is that we need to reach all people with our policy information where they are—in both analog and digital spaces. Increasingly, the latter is multimedia for today’s younger audiences, many of whom are tomorrow’s policymakers.
4. Identify your audience
As with any communications product, you must define the audiences. For many think tank products, audiences are broad categories: national, state, regional, or local policymakers and/or their staffs; academics and students; journalists; NGO staff; other think tankers; business leaders; interest groups; and maybe the general public.
Podcast audiences are the same, with one key difference: this audience starts with people who already listen to podcasts. Sounds like a tautology, I know, but the point is that not everyone in any audience category is a podcast listener in the same way they are, we assume, a reader.
That said, don’t assume that your podcast will convert people in your core audience to podcast listeners if they aren’t already. Instead, consider that the audience for your podcast starts with the people who already listen to podcasts. Then, in that group, seek out members of your core audiences and welcome new audiences for your ideas.
But there’s a good chance anyone in your wider audience profile is a podcast listener. According to the latest Infinite Dial report, an estimated 42% of Americans over age 12 listen to podcasts at least monthly, and nearly a third listen weekly. As noted, younger people are likely to listen to podcasts (and watch videos) more frequently than older people.
Finally, there is debate in some think tank circles about whether the general public is an audience for think tank research. I think they are, especially those who are voters, activists, influencers, and engaged citizens.
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5. Create the show
Okay, your light is green and it’s time to create the show. Here are some practicalities you need to figure out.
Format. The basic nonfiction podcast formats are interview, narrative, and monologue. Interview is simply a host asking a guest (or guests) structured questions to elicit answers that present policy ideas or analysis. My previous show, the Brookings Cafeteria, was an interview format on which I asked Brookings experts questions about their research or to comment on current affairs. I produce other interview shows that feature one Brookings expert posing questions to or having dialogue with guests, including Dollar & Sense and Global India.
The production lift of an interview format is the lightest (relatively) of the three. Prepare for the interview (in theory, this takes less time when an expert is asking the questions than when, say, I was asking an expert the questions); record the session; do some light audio editing; add intro and outro bumpers; add a little music (that you have rights to use); and, voilà, you have an episode.
In narrative format, the production time rises, but so do the potential payoffs in terms of listener engagement. Here, we start to think about scriptwriting, crafting a three-act structure, and applying significant audio editing and sound design.
Consider This American Life, where the host leads the listener through a series of sound bites from a speaker or speakers, arranged to propel a story forward, punctuated by good sound design—music, sound effects—that keeps the listener engaged. You often don’t hear the narrator asking the questions, though someone did ask them—they’ve just been edited out. Instead, the narrator reads from a script they or a producer has written. As you might suspect, the writing and audio editing of the narrative podcast is more intensive than straight interview, so it takes more time.
Monologue, the third podcast format, is straightforward: the speaker introduces themself, establishes the policy problem, and talks for a few minutes about context or solutions. This person is usually an expert/scholar at the organisation, so they know their subject well. Sounds easy, but in this approach, the speaker writes a script, gets it recorded—in multiple takes to get it right—and the audio engineer edits it. The act of writing a script for a five-minute monologue might take more time than writing an 800-word op-ed for the website or a newspaper. Which path is your expert going to choose?
Host. After picking the format, decide who will host the show. Let’s assume you’ve chosen either interview or narrative. In the former, you could have an expert interview other experts, or you could have a communications staffer or leader of your organisation (the vice president of communications, for example), do interviews. Hopefully, multiple experts at your think tank already want to do a podcast, so you won’t have to convince them to collaborate with you to produce one.
Cost. Podcasting is not free (well, it can be if you record into your phone and self-publish on a free service), but it can be a cheaper investment relative to other digital productions, such as a live webcast event. As an organisation, you can expect to incur costs for: staff time, hosting, recording equipment, and audio editing. More on some of these factors below and in the next section.
Hosting. Here, I’m talking about the company where you upload episode audio and hit publish. That host then distributes your podcast via RSS feed to the podcasting services (e.g., Apple, Spotify, Google—and YouTube by the end of 2023) and to the plethora of podcast apps. Most of these hosting companies provide metrics such as downloads, platforms used, and geographic origin of downloads. Many companies offer these services at reasonable costs.
Name. Brainstorm a good name for your show. Have an ideas session with your colleagues, search a podcast directory to see if the name has already been taken, and find out what other shows with similar themes are called. I’ve seen some great names in the nonprofit space—Sidedoor from the Smithsonian and After the Fact from Pew Charitable Trusts come to mind. When we named the Brookings Cafeteria podcast a decade ago, our aim was to convey that the show would deliver a “menu” of policy ideas, but it was also a play on the real and tasty cafeteria then housed in our main building on Massachusetts Avenue (and, personal note, the Brookings eatery was where I met my future wife!).
Artwork. Your show must have a logo, a square piece of art that conveys the show’s name and possibly the vibe. The logo will be seen mostly on mobile phone podcast apps, so it will be small and thus can’t be too busy. But it should be visually interesting even at small scale. Don’t put too many words on it! Paradoxically, Apple Podcasts requires a 3000 x 3000-pixel show image, which is quite large on paper. If you hire a designer or have one on staff to make a logo, keep this in mind: what pops at that larger size might be too hard to see on a phone.
6. Invest in quality sound
Bad sound can tank listens to a podcast before it ever gets off the ground. However, you don’t need a professional studio to get high quality sound—just good equipment and best practices. Whether you are in a studio, in the field, or online, invest in a good microphone. When I record from my home office, I use a dynamic USB microphone with a pop filter suspended on a boom arm.
First, decide how you’ll record interviews: in person, remotely, or in some combination of the two. If you have access to a studio operated by a skilled audio engineer like I do, the in-person audio will be best quality. However, if you (as host or producer) are recording “in the field”—say, in someone’s office or in a conference room—and you’re bringing in audio gear, you’ll need both a microphone (or two) and a digital recorder. In that case, find a carpeted space, close the doors, and set up the microphone(s) appropriately distanced from speakers (e.g., fist distance from the mouth).
If you’re remote recording, you should maximise the sound quality you can control, i.e., your own space. Find a quiet room, preferably carpeted, maybe with some foam sound tiles on the wall. Position your microphone correctly. Do some recorded sound tests.
Since you can’t control where interviewees are sitting or what equipment they have, prepare them ahead of time by asking them to be in as quiet a space as possible, turning off all notifications, closing doors, and requesting others around them be quiet for a little while. Ask the guest to use a USB mic if they have one; otherwise, a headset or earbuds will be fine. Discourage guests from speaking directly into their computer’s built-in microphone—the audio quality just varies too much.
Finally, you have many options for the remote recording platform. We use Riverside.fm, which is designed for online audio and video recording. I have also used Zoom. You have many options to research. One key feature you need in your remote podcasting platform is recording separate tracks for each speaker, as this makes audio editing much easier. Even with an online recording service, though, while you can control your own space, you can only encourage best practices with remote guests.
7. Launch your show
Now it’s time to circle a date on the calendar for show launch day. Here are some tips to make that as effective as possible.
First, aim to have two or three full episodes “in the can”—that is, recorded, edited, approved, ready to publish with an episode title, description, thumbnail image, and show notes. This will help you maintain a publishing cadence from the start and avoid the dreaded podfade.
Second, develop a pre-launch and post-launch promotion/marketing plan for the show. Before the launch, start advertising in your organisational and personal channels that a show is “coming soon.” Ask the show host to do so as well.
Third, about a week prior to launch, publish what I call “episode zero,” aka the trailer. This is about a one-minute piece of audio in which the host explains what the show is and that it’s coming out soon. This is the first episode you’ll publish on your hosting service.
Once the trailer is published, promote the show across social media, email, LinkedIn, and other networks, giving potential listeners an actual podcast to add to their listening app before you drop the first episode. Another reason to publish an episode zero is that it can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days for some of the podcast services and apps to add your show to their directories. You don’t want your actual first episode to be unavailable when you launch.
Finally, start post-launch marketing/promotion any time after the first episode is published, but consider waiting until two or three episodes are out to do a big marketing push. That way, people will have more than one episode to listen to and share.
8. Show notes
I mentioned “show notes” above. Making them is the last part of an episode’s production phase. Show notes appear on each episode’s landing page on your website and include the episode summary, key points, links to related resources, links to speaker bios, and a transcript.
The transcript is especially important and should coincide with the publication of each episode if possible. I include both a PDF of the episode transcript and the full text in the body of the page. This aids SEO and supports hearing-impaired audiences who would like to read the podcast. Services like Riverside.fm and Zoom produce transcripts, or you can subscribe to other online services, some powered by artificial intelligence. No matter what, you will have to clean up transcripts to make them accurate.
9. Measure success
You launched your first episode yesterday and today you looked at your downloads … and quavered. Tomorrow your boss is going to ask you, “How’s the show doing?” This makes you more nervous.
Do not fret, because earlier in the show’s pre-production phase you set expectations for downloads, didn’t you? While downloads are not going to be high at the start, they are but one of many ways to measure the success of your show. These include anecdotes, online reviews, media mentions, and more. Create a success tracking document to gather these mentions, leaving a section at the bottom for downloads.
And be patient! It takes a while to build an audience anyway. Measure the trend in downloads over time. Hopefully you’ll see steady growth, even if the per episode numbers seem small. A method I use is to track downloads is over each episode’s first three, five, and ten days, as well as total. This gives you an apples-to-apples comparison for each episode.
10. Final thoughts: The Five Commitments of Podcasting
Perhaps the easiest part of podcasting for an organisation is getting backing and arranging resources to launch your first episode. Once you’ve accomplished that, you are on the podcasting journey. Now you have to keep at it to prove out everything you told your stakeholders a podcast would do for the organisation. So, make at least five commitments, to:
- Preparation. Whether you are the host, producer, or both, research your topics and let your guest(s) know the outline of your questions, or share the questions outright. For a narrative style podcast, especially, think about the story arc as you prepare.
- A schedule. Consistency of episode release is key to building an audience. Don’t publish episode one, then wait five weeks to publish episode two, then publish episode three a few weeks later. Every other week could be a good cadence at the start. That’s how we started the Brookings Cafeteria podcast in 2013. This also means staying on track with interview booking and prep.
- Quality sound. As noted earlier, control your sound environment to the extent possible, and invest in good microphones. Your listeners will appreciate it.
- Your audience. A podcast is, at heart, a dialogue between you and listeners. Respect this relationship and the choice listeners made to put your voice inside their head. When I’m behind the mic, I see myself as the audience’s representative in the studio, sitting in the privileged position of asking leading experts about their ideas. What questions would people in my audience want asked?
- Enjoyment. Podcasting is interesting, rewarding, and fun. Whether you are behind the mic or supporting those who are, enjoy the opportunity to share the ideals and ideas of your organization, important policy analysis, and stories about people making change in our world.
May your podcasting journey succeed in all ways.