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Metabolizing culture and history through storytelling

Kerning Cultures is a podcast whose mission is to dissect the more complex narratives of the Middle East through stories. I spoke with one of the show’s co-founders, Hebah Fisher, about podcasting in the Middle East — how listening behaviors vary, the different types of stories that get told, and the role of the Western perspective. This interview has been edited and condensed.

 

Why did you and your co-founder, Razan Alzayani, decide to focus your show on narratives of the Middle East?

Audio storytelling pulls on the long tradition of oral history that we have in the Middle East. Many years ago, storytellers (called hakawaty) would gather people in a circle in the streets and tell long narrative, often historical  stories of heroes and legends to entertain and educate them. That tradition hasn’t been completely lost, per se, but it’s no longer common. We wanted to modernize it and bring it to the current day to explore topics like society, culture, history, entrepreneurship, and current affairs through personal stories.

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Libraries: Frontiers in podcast awareness

It started with a post in the New York Times Podcast Club Facebook group from a librarian looking for podcast recommendations to share with her students.

As the suggestions from other group members started rolling in, I began thinking about the relationship between libraries and podcasts more generally. Public libraries are these amazing social resources, providing everything from internet access, to books, movies, music, and community programming — all for free. Were they doing anything to formally incorporate podcasts into this media lineup? You can’t stock podcasts on shelves, but were there example of libraries that made podcast recommendations through newsletters, did shared listening events, or otherwise actively embraced this form of storytelling?

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Building your podcast’s online community

Podcasters take on so many roles to get our shows made: writer, researcher, editor, interviewer, host, social media manager, web developer, designer, marketer. But one job that I don’t often see discussed is community management.

Community managers turn people with something in common into real communities and keep those communities healthy. They are what make tight-knit subreddits on Reddit different from diffuse hashtags on Twitter, creating the conditions for participants to organize, interact, contribute, and feel invested in their community. I don’t think any podcast active today has a dedicated community manager, and I suspect a lot of producers don’t even think about hiring one—but every single one of us could use one. Community, specificity, and strength of engagement are what make podcasts so special. We must devote time to our shows’ communities to help them grow.

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How I use: Topic Clusters

Jenny Luna works at Mother Jones on the show Bite, “a podcast for people who think hard about their food.” She does everything from pitching ideas, to booking guests, to promoting the episodes on social media and in their weekly Food for Thought newsletter, which goes out to all of their food fans and subscribers. The audience is wide — some folks may not listen to Bite, but will follow their food coverage. As part of that newsletter, Jenny includes a blurb about other episodes and shows related to food that the Bite team is listening to. But it’s not always easy to come up with new recommendations to share, and she found that rather than sharing new shows, she sometimes had to repeat the same ones in multiple newsletters.

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6 questions for Steve Henn

Steve Henn is a co-founder of 60dB, an app that feeds you the best short audio stories about the topics you care about. Before creating 60dB in early 2016, Henn was a reporter at WAMU, Marketplace, and Planet Money. We talked to Steve about his goal of creating a new, better form of radio and how his relationship with audio has changed with his shift from the public to the private sector.

Tell me about your day to day role at 60dB.

My role here is to jumpstart the short-form content ecosystem. We’re doing that in a bunch of different ways — one, by working with institutions like The New York Times, Vox, and others that have incredible newsrooms, and produce content that is really well-suited to a platform like ours, and two, by investing in and working with the great journalists we’ve hired to produce our own content and adapt stories from existing print and digital outlets and to audio. I’m part product evangelist, part editor.

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People over tape

We’re 90 minutes into a two-hour recording session and I’m guessing I only have about 30 seconds of usable material.

I’m glancing back and forth from the clients to my phone, pretending to read along with the script, but I’m really just checking the clock. I’m not sure if it’s the grey weather, my choice of cookies over pretzels for snacks, or the way I’m folding my arms, but I can’t seem to find the right strategy to get the tape I need from them. I’ve re-written the script, used up all of my best dad jokes, and even held an impromptu jumping jacks session, but it’s all been for naught.

I need two minutes of solid, natural conversation between two clients about the history of an upcoming holiday, and we have 30 minutes to nail it before our allotted studio time is up. Simple, right?

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A new radio for a digital age

Greg Fadul and his business partner Jim Palmer founded their company, Grace Digital, as a niche audio consumer electronics company. Their concept was to create value-added solutions with more unique features than a typical big company would provide, and their first product was an internet radio. It was 2007, and the first iPhone had been released just months earlier.

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Hail and well met, listeners! Storytelling structure in audio drama

On a sticky night near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn, NY, Third Coast brought five head honchos of the audio world together on one stage. To the delight of the audio nerds in the crowd (read: Brooklynites. Read: me), the moderator Johanna Zorn asked the panel what they wanted to see next in podcasting. Gimlet’s Alex Blumberg said he wanted to see fiction pieces that sounded less like the theater and more like television. The panel nodded their heads and agreed, and everyone drank an artisanal beer.

Alex, I love Reply All and Matt Lieber, but I gotta disagree with you. I want audio fiction that sounds less like a TV show and more like a game of Dungeons & Dragons.

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“Got podcasts?”

Think back to some of the most memorable ad campaigns of the past 20 years. What comes to mind? Maybe it’s “Got Milk?”, from the California Milk Processor Board, which ran from 1993 to 2014, and reportedly reached 90% awareness among American adults. Maybe it’s the more recent “Shot on iPhone 6” campaign by Apple, which showcased the spectacular photos of ordinary people. These efforts dramatically increased public awareness of their products — so much so that they became iconic cultural reference points.

Podcasts aren’t quite at the saturation level of, say, milk or iPhones (yet!). But as the industry grows and matures, it needs new ways to become part of the public conversation. What might it look like if publishers, networks, and creators were to join forces to develop a similarly catchy and widespread campaign, something arresting that couldn’t be ignored? What kind of awareness and interest could we generate?

The advertising of podcasts themselves is an emerging area that is currently small but steadily growing.  Here are 9+ ways that organizations of all sizes are using advertising to grow awareness for their work.

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Behind the scenes of the New York Times Podcast Club Facebook group

Phoebe Lett is a self-proclaimed podcast nerd. She tries to listen to two to three new podcasts every single day, keeping a list of them in a notebook. She jots down short reactions and summaries for each, and stars the ones that make her want to try another episode or recommend it to someone else.

Phoebe isn’t just a dedicated hobbyist; she’s one of three moderators of the recently-launched New York Times Podcast Club Facebook group. The Facebook group started a few months ago when Samantha Henig, the Times’s editorial director for audio, approached Phoebe about creating a virtual version of their in-real-life podcast club, one that would be open to the public and a place to foster conversation and connection among podcast enthusiasts of all types. But how to create a social media community that achieved the best of their weekly in-person gatherings?

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