Using podcasts to engage with new audiences
This case study is based on a session at Digital Heritage Lab's Digital Skills Day, when Ranjit Atwal spoke to Emma Beck from St Mellitus Organ Restoration Project in Stroud Green, North London and Oonagh Gay, Chair of Islington Guided Walks, about a series of ‘podtours’ they have created. The ‘podtour’ is an audio walking tour exploring highlights of the local community’s musical heritage.
Podtours web pages on St Mellitus Organ Restoration Project's website. Image courtesy of St Mellitus Organ Restoration Project© Photo Charlotte Wilson.
Ranjit: I’ve had the joy of mentoring Emma from the St Mellitus Organ Restoration Project as part of The Lab strand of the Digital Heritage Lab and I’m thrilled to share how she and Oonagh from Islington Guided Walks engaged audiences in the pandemic with their Podtours ― audio tours of Stroud Green’s musical heritage. Emma and Oonagh, perhaps you can start by telling us how your collaboration first came about?
Emma: Yes, so our project is a First World War Memorial organ restoration project in a church in North London called St. Mellitus. Alongside that, we have archive volunteer researchers exploring the histories of the men commemorated by the organ.
We were trying to think about how we could present their research in a new and interesting way. In Islington, we’re lucky to have a fantastic heritage service department at the Council, who mentioned they'd been doing historic guided walks for some of their other projects, and so they introduced me to Oonagh. It sounded like a fantastic way of presenting some of the stories of the men to a wider audience. Oonagh and I had some meetings about how the project would work but after Covid struck, we realised we’d need to be more flexible with it.
Oonagh: I’m a local guide for Islington and I'm very familiar with the heritage around Stroud Green, where St. Mellitus is based. I knew I had enough content about the area but because of the pandemic we needed a new way of presenting it. I was keen to emphasise the multicultural nature of the area, as I know it’s often difficult to relate to the First World War if you're from a heritage not often represented in stories from it.
Emma and I came up with the idea of focusing initially not so much on the First World War, but on the musical heritage of Stroud Green, so we could still celebrate the heritage of the organ. Not only is Stroud Green good for pop music, but it was also an area of piano and cinema organs, and so with such a wealth of information we began forming the idea of a podtour.
Ranjit: How did the podtours begin to take shape?
Emma: Oonagh and I spoke about ways that other tours were being done in lockdown such as Instagram or PowerPoints, but we plumped for the skill base that we already had. I come from a background of media and radio and already had audio recording equipment at home, whilst Oonagh is an expert tour guide and would know how to articulate the knowledge of the area.
We were keen to record outside to get the sounds of the environment, rather than isolated in a room, so we could connect with a lockdown audience that was shielding or wanting to make the most of their limited time outside. It seemed obvious to bring the outside world to them.
Oonagh: I certainly had to adjust the way in which I operate. Normally I'd stand at an area, talk for a few minutes and take questions from the audience. Now, the stops would need to be shorter because there’s no immediate feedback from the audience. Instead of bullet points, I needed a proper script, because otherwise we wouldn't be able to time it.
Emma: We needed to be analytical about what was working and what wasn’t. One thing we took from The Guardian tours, which are a great example of audio tours, was bringing in multiple voices to add more variety. Just one person talking for 30 minutes can feel very long and so adding in voices really helped with that.
Oonagh: Thinking of that person shielding sitting on the sofa, we needed to bring in other voices and we also needed the music to make the whole tour come alive. So we used our contacts and Emma had volunteers on her project who could directly contribute.
Ranjit: Can you tell us about the kit you used?
Emma: I had a Zoom H5 Portable Recorder, which is a broadcast quality piece of equipment. However, you can learn to do pretty much anything from a YouTube tutorial video and so it’s perfectly possible to record on something like an iPhone. You might have to buy an extra microphone but you could also look into hiring kits.
With Covid, we couldn’t be too close to the interviewee so we invested in a boom pole, which isn’t too expensive, and also a longer cable so that we could keep some distance when recording.
Recording by Jazzy B's statue at Finsbury Park Station. Image courtesy of St Mellitus Organ Restoration Project © Photo Charlotte Wilson.
Ranjit: What did you learn after you finished the first recordings?
Emma: Firstly, it was too long, so we started editing to get it under 35 minutes, which also meant re-recording sections to make links work.
We also realised we needed personal memories to add a different dynamic and bring heritage back to the heart of the project. We literally just asked around people that we knew who we thought might have personal memories. Susan, the other guide on the tour, knew somebody who had Greek Cypriot heritage whose father had run a cafe in the area. We linked up with Sarah White at the George Padmore Institute and she had memories of their offices being used to prepare for the Notting Hill Carnival, so that was a great way of engaging our project with another event in the city. One of our archive volunteers had Irish heritage and had memories of going to see a Pogues gig at a music venue which was also a stop on our tour.
Audio clip of a brand new podtour focusing on what the area was like during the First World War.
Clip courtesy of St Mellitus Organ Restoration Project©. Podtours promotional clip #2
Ranjit: Tell us a bit about the website and how that particularly helped anyone who was shielding.
Emma: We realised the podtour could work like a radio documentary if you could also visually see the locations and some of the interviewees on our website. We used a fantastic volunteer photographer from the organ restoration project to take photographs and we also got some archive images through Islington Heritage Service. We really tried to think about the audience that would use the site and how we could make sure that the tour is accessible to as many people as possible.
Ranjit: How did you deal with the issue of noise out on the street?
Oonagh: When we recorded the first podtour, we did have to re-record some bits as we hadn’t understood how much things like vehicles affect the sound quality. We also learnt you don’t have to go to every single spot. Instead, just find a suitable outdoor space that still has appropriate noises.
It can be a problem working outside and you have to expect your interviewees to have a little bit of patience and be prepared to repeat things.
Emma: Another way we dealt with sound was working with musicians, who have experience with audio recordings, to do a sound mix for us. To edit the podtour I used a free online programme called Reaper.
Ranjit: How did you tackle other challenges you faced?
Emma: One thing that helped enormously is Oonagh and I had built a really good relationship. We embarked upon the project as an original enterprise and we were aware there would be mistakes and bumps in the road, but that we could learn new skills ourselves from doing it. It’s about finding a partner you can explain the value of the project to and someone who can see that they will get new skills from being involved.
Oonagh: Yes, that was key, as I was quite scared. I'd never done a podcast and I've got no technical background. I knew I could supply the content but I needed that positive rapport with Emma. I’d had experience of a different project getting delayed during COVID and a real opportunity was missed to review how it could be done differently, but with Emma we successfully figured out how to adapt a project.
We were fortunate that Emma’s funders, The National Lottery Heritage Fund, were flexible too. For organisations like ours, do be prepared to change your plans and to work out what worked and what didn't.
Ranjit: Could you talk about the distribution and marketing plan?
Emma: After looking at YouTube tutorials and speaking to others about platforms they use, we chose Podbean as our hosting service. It’s very straightforward to use with lots of tutorial guides within their system. We had a web designer embed it on our website and we also put it on Spotify and on Apple Podcasts, but still directing people to the website so they could see the blurb and the photographs.
We used an app called Headliner to producer shorter clips which could be accompanied by images, which also meant we had something to start sharing on social media.
We sent a press release to the local newspaper, who featured it in a news article on it for us. We sent emails to all the organisations and individuals that were mentioned in the podtour, like Decca Records, Topic Records, Jazzie B and Soul II Soul. We also tweeted them all to connect anybody mentioned in the podtour and help us promote it.
Audio clip of the first podtour, courtesy of St Mellitus Organ Restoration Project©. Podtours promotional clip #2
Ranjit: What have been some of the main successes overall for the heritage project and for both organisations as well?
Oonagh: For Islington Guided Walks, it's been great to try some new things and be rewarded for that. Because of lockdown, many of us went into virtual PowerPoint tours, but the podtours were a chance to get information out to people who might not otherwise be able to go on a walk, especially those with disabilities or with caring responsibilities. So as an organisation we certainly thought a lot more about target audiences and trying to reach a more diverse audience.
Also, just reaching a wider audience in general. When we do a physical walking tour we have up to 20 people, but some might drop out and others might not remember everything. Now, we’ve got a permanent memorial, we've got visuals on the website, as well as the recordings. It’s something that people will be able to dip into for years.
Emma: For us, it's been a genuinely good way of connecting the project to the local community at a difficult time. We couldn’t host in-person events or get local people into the church itself, so the podtour was a way of reaching people through different means.
We put it online in February and [as of 10 June] we’ve had 146 downloads. That’s way more than we would have probably had if people could have gone on the actual tour, which is fantastic.
I also think the legacy of the podtours is better than if we had done these as live walking tours. We still have the scripts so we could ask Oonagh to even rerun them as a live tour when that’s possible. In the meantime, it will continue to exist on our website and on various podcast platforms.
Ranjit: What tips would you give to others who are digitally inexperienced?
Emma: I know funding is key in informing how much you can do, but try to work around limitations, especially if you already have an organisation or an individual with knowledge of your particular heritage project that is willing to volunteer their time.
Also, think about your audience through everything that you're doing, whether it’s editorial decisions or your marketing. Be sure about why and how you're going to do something and apply that attitude through every part of the project.
Oonagh: My take home was don't be afraid! I had no idea what I was doing at the start, but through Emma’s help I learned a lot and I’ve ended up with a permanent memorial for my time in lockdown.
Emma: I completely agree. We were very open with each other about what did and didn’t work and so I’d advise anyone to not be scared to fail.
To listen to the Podtours podcasts in full go to: St Mellitus Organ Restoration Project's website. There you will also find a brand new podtour on what the area was like during the First World War, which is intended to be listened to whilst cycling, but can also be taken on foot.
The Digital Heritage Lab is a project managed by the Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with Arts Fundraising & Philanthropy, One Further and the Collections Trust and funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. It is a free programme for small and medium sized heritage organisations seeking to develop their digital capabilities and capacity.