What is it about podcasts that has people so hooked? And why is podcasting a communications medium particularly suited to the kinds of stories that people of faith might tell?
A recent article by Adam Sternbergh on Vulture.com tracks the rise of the lowly podcast, a digital media development whose debut no one precisely recalls, as it occurred without much fanfare or fevered buildup. And yet the podcast has become ubiquitous, a regular companion on our commutes and during the many boring miles logged on our treadmills.
“…these humble chunks of audio have emerged as the most significant and exciting cultural innovation of the new century. In an age when we were promised jet packs, or at least augmented-reality goggles, it turns out what we’ve really been craving is the companionship of human voices nestled in our ears. These voices provide us with information, yes, but also inspiration, entertainment, enlightenment, emotional engagement, companionship, and, above all, a sense that, in even our most arcane obsessions, we are not alone.”
“We are not alone.” If nothing else, certainly communities of faith embody this promise.
So what makes a good podcast? Specifically, what might make a good church podcast? Formats vary wildly, but I recently was invited to participate in a podcast series that intrigued me and got me thinking.
Sandra T. Montes is a musician, translator, speaker, writer and consultant for the Episcopal Church Foundation. As part of her Lenten discipline this year, she is hosting a daily podcast of interviews with her friends and fellow Episcopalians across the church, inviting them to conversations around the meaning of Lent. Most episodes are between 15 and 20 minutes long and feature a series of prescribed questions about the subject’s ministry, Lenten practice and opinions on church music. She records the interviews in single-take sessions on her iPhone, posts the podcast episodes on Soundcloud, and shares them on Facebook.
Initially I listened because I was one of her interviewees. Then I listened because she interviewed many of our mutual friends. Now I listen because I'm hooked. Clearly her format works. In deconstructing her approach to podcasting, there are certain elements that she uses that could be replicated by churches looking to get into the podcasting scene.
- Sandra is a great host and interviewer. She is a candid storyteller and an empathetic listener, and she knows her subjects. She has an instinctive knack for balancing her personal reflections and commentary without overwhelming her subject’s narrative or voice. She also does her research. She knows her subjects well enough to prompt interesting stories and reflections from them.
- It’s a finite series. Rather than initiate something indefinite – “let’s start a weekly bible study podcast and see how it goes” – her podcast has a finite duration. It runs daily during Lent and then it ends. Having an intentional ending point allows a podcast creator to review, restructure and adapt the format in future podcast projects based on both feedback from listeners and from the lived reality of producing regular content. Having a final endpoint for a series also can make it easier to create content that follows a narrative arc across the series. While Sandra’s podcast doesn’t have a narrative story per se, certainly her work builds towards the Easter culmination of Lent. Whether delimited to a certain number of episodes, a certain topic, or a certain liturgical season, having a finite beginning and ending for a podcast will help make the experience manageable for the creator and keep the listeners’ interest level from waning.
- It’s episodic. While there is not a narrative arc, Sandra connects every episode by following the same question rubric for each interviewee. After a few episodes, the listener eagerly anticipates hearing how each new guest will answer the anticipated questions. Hearing different experiences around the same topic connects each episode and each interviewee across the span of the podcast series. Establishing the intended number, duration and frequency of episodes helps the creator structure and organize the content. A four-podcast series on the Gospel, a weekly Epiphany series about “epiphanies” in parishioners’ lives, a daily Advent series… the possibilities are limitless.
- It’s brief. In a media environment driven by soundbites often measured in seconds, a 15-20 minute conversation is still a manageable chunk that can be consumed without interruption, especially because it can be consumed while doing something else.
- It’s sustainable. Each podcast episode is single-take recording. There is no post-production editing other than bumper music to open and close each episode. During many of the interviews, interruptions occur and are left intact. For novice content creators, post-production editing can become an overwhelming task. Better to over-structure and delimit the interview process to create specifically desired content rather than conduct free-form conversations and hope to edit them down to usable quotes.
- It’s structured, as noted, it’s not a free-form chat. This helps move the episode from an introduction through the heart of the conversation and on to a satisfying resolution. Sandra briefly frames the subject’s background but she quickly shifts into long-form questions that get the subject sharing their own story in their own voice. Again, as an interviewer, Sandra does a great job in deviating from the script to prompt a subject by saying “Tell me more..” She also draws on her own experiences with the subject, using her recollections to extend the conversation and prompt the subject. Her contributions to the conversation serve not as a platform for own narrative, but rather her stories elicit further response from her subjects. Finally, she concludes each episode with a quick-paced burst of popcorn questions: “Coke or Pepsi? Any piercings? Any tattoos?” and, my favorite, “Dip or sip?” about Communion preferences. It’s a funny question because the ambiguous and out-of-context phrasing catches almost every participant off-guard, uncertain of exactly what she’s asking!
- It’s vulnerable. During almost every episode, in addition to being throw off-guard by the Communion question, the emotional denouement comes when Sandra asks her guests about music, and inevitably invites them to sing. Most of her interviewees are not professional musicians, therefore her request is essentially an invitation to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is fascinating. It's a reason the stories featured by The Moth are so intriguing. In fact, singing in public is a practice included in Harvard Business School’s adaptive leadership training program because it helps students tap into underlying emotions and deep feelings not often revealed by people who wish to appear to appear confident, powerful, and impressive. Yet, as in the Harvard program, sharing vulnerability is the key to an authentic, adaptive and creative exchange.
Video vs audio?
Many churches might wonder why they should produce a podcast rather than creating video content. YouTube, Vimeo and Facebook Live make video production easy – shouldn’t churches be using these tools as often as possible?
The short answer is, it depends. If a church is doing something that that must be seen to be comprehended (the donkey procession on Palm Sunday, for example), then yes, video can be a great medium. But for many of our church conversations, video is unnecessary, and, in fact, video may require too much of a sensory demand. It forces people to stop what they are doing and focus their entire attention on their screen. Rather than seeing and listening to a video in the example of a Palm Sunday procession, a more engaging and yet less-demanding podcast might offer stories about Palm Sunday processions (and their resistant donkeys) that can be enjoyed while walking the dog, driving to work, running laps, folding laundry or otherwise going about the day.
As the Sternbergh article explains,
"...podcasts have thrived because they intrinsically deliver one thing the internet and all its attendant gizmos haven’t proved to be very good at: intimacy… a major difference (between podcasts and video) is “it’s your voice. It really is you. There’s no way around it.” This combination of distinct voices dwelling on personal enthusiasms is addressing a collective desire we didn’t even know we had."
If the leaders of corporations and governments who study at Harvard need integrity, authenticity and vulnerability to be creative, adaptive leaders, so too do the members of our faith communities as we seek to form connections beyond the walls of our churches. The way people engage with faith communities is evolving. Whatever form that engagement takes, authenticity and integrity are essential.
As a tool for evangelism, podcasts provide an organic invitation to connect with a church community in a non-threatening, non-demanding and authentic way. Consider Sandra Montes’ Lenten podcasts. Almost everyone she interviewed then shared on social media the episode of the podcast in which they were featured, extending the reach of the podcast beyond a church-subscribed audience. An impersonal but sharable church graphic designed as an invitation to worship, may or may not be widely shared by church members, and is likely to ignored by most people outside the immediate church circle. But podcast content that features the personal story of a parishioner is highly likely to be shared by the person being featured and much more likely to be noticed (and listened to) by their non-church friends and family simply because the subject is of personal interest. There is already a relationship to build on. Plus, it reminds people outside the church walls that the church isn’t the building, rather it’s the people who make up the community. And they are people who are willing to be authentic and vulnerable and to share their stories.
What are some podcasting ideas that your church is trying?
- Lisa Brown
Director of Digital Ministry
To Get Started
For tips on using a cell phone to record, see our blog post on Recording Sermons on a Budget.
You’ll need a way to host your podcast. Talk to us at Membership Vision about how our website platform makes it super easy and intuitive to create, host and manage podcasts. Check out what podcasting looks like on a MV Pro website at CEEP and in the iTunes podcast library! We make it possible for you to #tellgreatstories with MV Pro.