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How WFAE used a podcasting contest to reach diverse audiences

Here’s an idea to steal and adapt: WFAE kicked off a community podcast competition that sparked hundreds of new podcast ideas, revealed issues important to the community and empowered residents of all ethnicities and backgrounds to share their stories.

This is a series on Better News to a) showcase innovative/experimental ideas that emerge from the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative and b) to share replicable tactics that benefit the news industry as a whole. This “win” comes from Ju-Don Marshall, chief content officer, and Joni Deutsch, manager of podcasts and community engagement, at WFAE, the NPR station in Charlotte, N.C. (WFAE was in the first cohort of the Table Stakes program run by the University of North Carolina.)

Question: What problem were you trying to solve, and why was solving the problem strategically important for your organization?

Answer: In 2017, Charlotte was still reeling from protests that erupted in the wake of a fatal police shooting of an African-American man. We recognized that far too many native Charlotteans, particularly those of color, felt that their concerns weren’t being heard by enough people outside their communities and with the authority or means to address them.

We know that too often there are stories in communities, particularly in those of color, that go untold because people don’t have access to or understand how to engage with news organizations. In addition, our ability to seek out those stories is limited by our resources. We wanted to leverage a growing interest in podcasting to unearth those stories and connect with diverse audiences beyond our traditional listeners and readers.

Queen City PodQuest

Social media graphic designed to promote the launch of WFAE’s Queen City PodQuest. Photo courtesy of WFAE

As journalists, we understand the power of storytelling to effect change. We also understand our own limits in being able to tell urgent stories that exist but may be beyond our immediate reach, whether they’re due to resources, sourcing or general unawareness. That led to the creation of the Queen City PodQuest. Generously supported by WFAE members and the Knight Foundation, the Queen City PodQuest was an opportunity for people in the WFAE listening area to pitch their podcast ideas and stories. Finalists would receive training and have the opportunity to win cash and a podcast deal with WFAE.

Strategically, we felt the Queen City PodQuest would do a number of things:

  • Introduce WFAE to non-listeners and non-readers, and reposition WFAE for our current listeners and readers as an organization that works in service of the community
  • Establish WFAE as a podcast leader in our region
  • Showcase WFAE as a multiplatform news organization
  • Connect WFAE with more diverse audiences and the institutions that serve them
  • Build WFAE’s reputation as a news organization that partners with its community to create collaborative storytelling opportunities and equips residents to tell their own stories even when we can’t.

Q: How is this approach related to Table Stakes (e.g. one of the 7 Table Stakes and/or an outgrowth of the Knight-Lenfest initiative, etc.)?

A: This effort was related to Table Stake No. 1 (Serve targeted audiences with targeted content) and Table Stake No. 7 (Drive audience growth and profitability from a “mini-publisher” perspective).

Q: How did you go about solving the problem?

A: We launched the Queen City PodQuest as a contest to inspire individuals to consider podcasting as a medium to share their stories and perspectives. The goal of this contest (which included pitching a podcast idea, having the community vote on their favorites and mentoring the five finalists) was to address the underrepresentation of diverse voices in conversations affecting local communities.

Our PodQuest falls under our podcast team, which comprises one full-time manager/producer (Joni Deutsch), who receives support from two editors and who leverages internal and external talent as hosts and producers. We used the mini-publisher concept, in that the manager works with the chief content officer (Ju-Don Marshall) and our digital/social, radio, sales and marketing teams to build out content, opportunities for revenue, events and audience strategies in support of each initiative.

From holding cross-departmental strategy meetings leading up to the PodQuest’s roll-out to brainstorming PodQuest logos and social media-friendly graphics to encourage brand ambassadorship, Joni’s role went beyond managing the project. Rather, she encouraged a detail-oriented, audience-focused mindset that activated the voices of the community and catalyzed the input (and output) from the station.

The competition kicked off on Dec. 3, 2018, with an open submission period. Anyone could enter (as long as they were 18 or older and resided in or attended school in WFAE’s listening area), and no audio/storytelling experience was required. The sky was the limit for podcast ideas! Nonfiction, fiction, interview-based, narrated … it was up to the participant. Our submission form included a short list of questions, as well as the ability to upload an audio clip of two minutes or fewer.

Submissions closed on Jan. 27, 2019. Following an internal screening from WFAE employees (to ensure submissions met the contest requirements), the public voting round commenced.

After the public voting round concluded, the five podcast entries with the most votes continued as finalists in the Queen City PodQuest, receiving one-on-one podcast mentorship (as well as podcast recording equipment from Blue, Hindenburg audio editing software, membership to the Association of Independents in Radio, and professional headshots/podcast logos). These five finalists were “Bicycling in the Queen City and Beyond,” “Choose Our Own Adventure,” “Next Door Docs,” “Teachable Moments,” and “Work It.”

WFAE Queen City PodQuest

WFAE podcast manager Joni Deutsch kneeling in front of the Queen City PodQuest finalists at WFAE HQ in Charlotte, NC. Photo credit: Jeff Cravotta

After two months of one-on-one mentorship (including expert insight about podcast storytelling, production, hosting, marketing, workflow management and legal considerations from NPR, PRX, WFAE and Georgia Public Broadcasting), the five teams pitched their podcasts and shared podcast trailer audio at our PodQuest Live Finale on May 4, 2019. The PodQuest Live Finale was a ticketed event at the NASCAR Hall of Fame Theater, and it was also streamed live on WFAE’s Facebook page.

WFAE Queen City PodQuest

Queen City PodQuest finalist “Next Door Docs” pitch their show at the PodQuest Live Finale in May 2019. Photo credit: Daniel Coston/WFAE

The PodQuest Live Finale audience members could vote for their “Fan Favorite,” but a panel of esteemed judges determined the grand prize winner of the PodQuest based on four criteria:

  • Originality (i.e., the podcast has fresh and compelling ideas)
  • Reach (i.e., the podcast has potential to deeply engage with large audiences)
  • Sustainability (i.e., the podcast can be produced for at least six episodes and generate audience engagement)
  • Relevance (i.e., the podcast fits into the WFAE radio network and vision — to create content that informs, enriches and inspires).

Based on the criteria, the judges determined the grand prize winner was “Work It,” the podcast that looks at people’s work and how it shapes their lives. As part of the grand prize package, “Work It” will be released by WFAE as a six- to eight-episode podcast in summer 2020.

WFAE Queen City PodQuest

WFAE podcast manager Joni Deutsch with “Work It” team members Jill Bjers and Stephanie Hale at the PodQuest Live Finale in May 2019. Photo credit: Daniel Coston/WFAE

Q: What worked?

A: Over the course of our submission period, WFAE received more than 370 podcast submissions from 14 counties across North Carolina. Podcast submissions came from high schoolers to retirees and ranged in topic and tone from local craft beer and wine to pregnancy and women’s health, life as a young professional to sports talk, stories of adoption and personal journeys through addiction, to dogs, families, medicine, finance and more. As the podcast submission form included zip codes for participants, WFAE could see that the PodQuest reached into more neighborhoods and encouraged a wider, more diverse audience than the standard public radio listener demographic.

The number and range of podcast submissions was likely due to our mix of promotional methods. We used WFAE’s network (on-air radio promos, email newsletters, events, social media, apps, podcasts, interviews on Morning Edition), in addition to billboards, postcards and cross-promotion and interviews with other media outlets.

WFAE Queen City PodQuest

Screenshot of a Facebook post from Queens University of Charlotte promoting the Queen City PodQuest voting period.

As for our voting round, we received nearly 100,000 votes from more than 33,000 individuals. Queen City PodQuest participants received social media-ready graphics (along with sample language and a link to the voting page) to encourage their networks and communities to vote once per day. It would be an absolute understatement to say that PodQuest participants blanketed their friends, family and colleagues’ social media feeds.

Queen City PodQuest

Screenshot of a tweet from a Queen City PodQuest participant during the PodQuest voting period.

Q: What didn’t work?

A: Despite our best efforts in researching the best website tool for the Queen City PodQuest, the selected digital infrastructure was not strong enough to withstand the power of nearly 400 podcast submissions and almost 100,000 votes. Since the digital platform was provided by a third-party system (whose support team was in a different country and time zone), our WFAE staff graciously stepped up to help with the public’s questions and frustrations with podcast submission and voting difficulties.

Q: What happened that you didn’t expect?

A: Whether they placed in the competition or not, Queen City PodQuest participants have reached out to let us know that this competition gave them the encouragement they needed to bring their podcast ideas to life.

Q: What would you do differently now? What did you learn?

A: Without a doubt, we would invest in a server that can handle the load of a community podcast competition.

Q: What advice would you give to others who try to do this?

A: The Queen City PodQuest was more than a competition. It was also an important resource for local podcasters. We compiled a list of how-tos on podcasting, including a way for individuals to “check out” podcast recording kits (for free!) from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. Whether they needed guidance to submit their podcast idea or they wanted to work on their podcast past the competition, WFAE wanted to give as much information as possible to these podcasters-to-be.

As a digital medium, podcasting can be quite solitary. WFAE wanted to give established and up-and-coming podcasters the ability to connect and collaborate with one another. WFAE held a few different events for podcasters, including a “Mix & Mingle” at a local brewery and a “Podcast Meet-Up/Seminar” at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.

Queen City PodQuest

Flyer for a Queen City PodQuest event held at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture during the January podcast submission period. Photo credit: Joni Deutsch

Q: Anything else you want to share about this initiative?

A: Following the launch of the Queen City PodQuest, there has been no shortage of interest in podcasting. On-demand audio stories have blossomed in popularity in Charlotte, particularly from participants who were inspired to pursue and grow their podcast pitches beyond the PodQuest.

As a result of the overwhelming interest we received during the PodQuest, we are expanding podcasting opportunities for communities in the Charlotte area with a “PodQuest Academy” that includes free community workshops (in collaboration with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library). The PodQuest wasn’t a “one-off” effort for WFAE, but a powerful first step toward amplifying diverse voices to build and connect communities.

All of that is to say: Keep your ears open. Create a platform for your community members to share their voice. And continue to support them. There are some amazing stories just waiting to be told.

Related content: See how WFAE fought news fatigue (and found a hit) with a local music podcast.