by SOJC students Johanna Roseberg and Trevor Stanner
In 2019, WFAE (Charlotte’s NPR News Source) found great success with the Queen City PodQuest, a podcast accelerator that empowered the community to use podcasting as a vehicle for their unique voices and stories. Building off the immense interest in podcasting and the success of the Queen City PodQuest (which encouraged nearly 400 wide-ranging podcast pitches from the region and more than 100,000 votes from around the world), WFAE collaborated with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library in the spring of 2020 to host free “Podcasting 101” workshops that focused on the fundamentals of podcasting, which led to the creation of the Queen City PodQuest Academy and its eight-week curriculum that equipped thirty “Podcasting 101” students to dive deeper into podcasting with dedicated lessons focused on producing, audio recording/editing, marketing, legal considerations and monetization. The various courses conducted by WFAE focused on teaching and engaging Charlotte’s diverse communities around radio storytelling and podcasting, as well as offering hands-on experience from WFAE’s professional instructors and audio equipment.
Organization Background: WFAE is an NPR affiliate, a non-profit public radio station located in Charlotte, NC.
Project Goals: WFAE’s goals in the creation of the Queen City PodQuest Academy were to reach a broader and more diverse audience and to inspire change in the community through storytelling. The free “Podcasting 101” classes were formed in order to supply the knowledge and resources for students in the Charlotte area to produce their own podcasts.
Project Resources: WFAE members and the Knight Foundation were the primary funders for the Queen City PodQuest Academy. The Knight Foundation, founded by John S. and James L. Knight, financially supports journalism and the arts. The Queen City PodQuest Academy is primarily run by Joni Deutsch, the manager of WFAE’s podcasts and host of its award-winning Amplifier music podcast. WFAE also partnered with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library to provide free “Podcasting 101” classes, as well as the Queen City Podcast Network, BIPOC-owned Eclecs Creative Agency and Blumenthal Performing Arts for the Charlotte Podcast Festival.
Tools & Technology: In order to promote PodQuest’s initial contest in December of 2018, WFAE used their own network’s platform, in addition to physical billboards, mailer postcards and in-person promotional events. WFAE created an online submission form for aspiring podcasters to apply for the Queen City PodQuest competition. They were asked to answer some questions and upload a short audio clip. After the public voted on their five favorite submissions, the finalists premiered their podcast trailers at a live event which was also streamed live on WFAE’s Facebook.
Impact: Roughly 500 participants were able to partake in the “Podcasting 101” workshop series. Out of those 500 initial participants, 30 individuals were chosen to take the PodQuest Academy course. The Academy classes took place over an eight-week span which provided in-depth lessons and projects that helped them further develop their production skills, marketing/strategies, and possible routes to monetize their work. Multiple participants have since reached out to notify of their work either being produced and or published. The post-event surveys allowed participants to highlight the importance of the program and their key takeaways. Deutsch emphasizes how this is essential in WFAE’s pursuit to encourage more community-based projects. Since 2017 and 2018, Deutsch has seen the progress being made by one-time and recurring participants. “I’ve absolutely seen within either a year’s time or a few years’ time, podcast ideas come to life because of initiatives stacking up like ours,” Deutsch says.
Here’s How it Happened
Starting Point: Thanks to generous support from WFAE members and the Knight Foundation, the Queen City PodQuest was created as a way to get a wider and more diverse audience to engage not only with WFAE, but also as a way to highlight the region’s underrepresented voices and stories in a public medium.
The PodQuest was produced by the podcast team, which consisted of one full-time manager/producer/host (Joni Deutsch), who received support from two editors and who leveraged internal and external talent as hosts and producers. WFAE used the mini-publisher concept, in that the manager works with the chief content officer (Ju-Don Marshall) and WFAE’s 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 Deutsch’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 PodQuest kicked off on December 3, 2018, with an open submission period, wherein anyone from the community (18 years of age or older and residing in or attending school in WFAE’s listening area) could submit their pitch for a podcast. No audio/storytelling experience was required. WFAE incentivized the program with prize packages for PodQuest finalists (including professional podcast mentorship, subscriptions to Hindenburg audio editing software, Blue Yeti microphones, membership to the Association for Independents in Radio (AIR), professional headshots/podcast logos, cash prizes and the opportunity to have the winning podcast produced by WFAE) and promotion based around participants’ podcasts/voices being heard across a relatively large audience. It was open to anyone 18 years old or above and didn’t require any prior podcasting/radio experience.
Over the course of the 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 talks, 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 were likely due to our mix of promotional methods including 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.
Public Voting & Narrowing Down Contestants: Entries were closed on January 27, 2019, wherein an internal screening process took place in order to make sure that entries met PodQuest’s contest requirements. Public voting then took place, with more than 33,000 individuals from around the world casting nearly 100,000 votes for their favorite podcast pitches. 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.
The five podcasts that received the most public votes would go on to be finalists and get a chance to receive podcasting mentorship and equipment access. The five chosen casts were “Bicycling in the Queen City and Beyond,” “Choose Our Own Adventure,” “Next Door Docs,” “Teachable Moments” and “Work It.”
Mentorship & PodQuest Live Finale: Over the course of two months, the five PodQuest finalists received one-on-one mentorship with WFAE’s podcast manager Joni Deutsch, as well as dedicated training sessions with award-winning podcasts representatives from NPR, PRX, WFAE and Georgia Public Broadcasting.
After two months of podcast guidance (including expert insight about podcast storytelling, production, hosting, marketing, workflow management and legal considerations with guest instructors 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.
This PodQuest Live Finale had an audience and panel of community judges to determine the grand prize winner and fan-favorite podcast of the contest. The five PodQuest finalists were judged by their originality, reach, sustainability and relevance. “Next Door Docs,” the podcast with quick tips on health, won the audience’s “fan favorite” award. “Work It,” the podcast on the intersectionality of work and identity as hosted by Jill Bjers and Stephanie Hale, was chosen as the winner and was slated to be produced by WFAE for a six-episode season to debut in the fall of 2020.
Podcasting 101: Given the vast amount of interest in podcasting and audio storytelling in the region as a result of the Queen City PodQuest, WFAE hosted a series of “Podcasting 101” workshops in the spring of 2020. In collaboration with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, these hour-long “Podcasting 101” classes were designed to teach podcast fundamentals to those who wanted to turn their story into a podcast but weren’t sure where to start. Over the course of an hour, attendees would gain an understanding of how to strategize content and audience, record and edit audio and engage listeners and the larger community with marketing ideas.
The first two “Podcasting 101” workshops took place in January and February 2020 at different library branches reaching racially, geographically and socio-economically different residents. Attendees were also able to check out the podcasting equipment from the Library to record their podcasts.
When sharing their thoughts on the post-workshop survey, attendees expressed how they appreciated the “very informative lesson that gave the fundamentals of podcasting,” how it provided “confidence and great tips to make a podcast” and that they were “so glad I waited to attend this before starting my podcast.” Some attendees even connected with each other after the class so they could collaborate/share podcast ideas, and a number of participants were now so engaged with podcasting that they requested, “When is part two / Podcasting 102?”
Given the excellent response, WFAE announced eight more “Podcasting 101” workshops to take place each week of April and May 2020. Initially, these classes were to take place across the Charlotte area at different library branches within underserved communities, but the pandemic caused the workshops to pivot to virtual classrooms via Zoom.
Between the two in-person classes and the eight virtual workshops, WFAE had more than 500 individuals register for the “Podcasting 101” classes, with the virtual workshops receiving great acclaim through our surveys, with one virtual attendee writing, “Thank you for helping us while we are home and teaching us new ways to do something that can help others.”
Queen City PodQuest Academy: Following the workshop series, participants could apply to the newly-created Queen City PodQuest Academy, led by WFAE with podcast production assistance from the hyper-local Queen City Podcast Network.
The application process was open to all “Podcasting 101” attendees, wherein 30 participants could attend an eight-week series of in-depth trainings, culminating in a “Graduation” showcase where the students could share their fully-realized podcast audio (whether it was a snippet of audio, a podcast trailer or even a full episode). This PodQuest Academy was extensive and ultimately resulted in students going on to produce and publish their content publicly.
Charlotte Podcast Festival: WFAE’s podcast initiatives culminated in October 2020 with the creation of the inaugural Charlotte Podcast Festival, produced in collaboration with the Blumenthal Performing Arts, Queen City Podcast Network and Eclecs Creative Agency. Named one of the “best podcast conferences” by Buzzsprout, the Charlotte Podcast Festival was the city and state’s first podcast festival, designed to inform, enrich and inspire audio storytellers and podcasters. This festival also marked the first virtual and free podcast festival produced by an NPR member station.
Nearly 14,000 registrations from around the world occurred during the inaugural Charlotte Podcast Festival, which was free and open to the public (with registration), with more than 40 virtual sessions devoted to podcast production, marketing, inclusivity of voices, monetization and community-building. All sessions were recorded and made available for free to the public.
The festival also included more than 60 chart-topping audio/podcast speakers from around the region, including Chad Lawson (composer for “Lore”) and Morgan Givens (Transom graduate/host of “Flyest Fables”), as well as representatives from fellow North Carolina public radio outlets (WDAV and WUNC).
Whether they placed in the PodQuest competition, attended a class or registered for the podcast festival, WFAE gave individuals the encouragement to bring their podcast ideas to life, to listen to public radio and to become members and sustainers of this non-profit community service.
Here’s What Worked
1. Developing engagement onramps
In the multiple projects WFAE’s Queen City PodQuest has done, creating engagement with the public has been crucial to their success. People have been able to vote in competitions, submit their own podcast ideas, develop skills in classes, etc.
2. Incentivizing participation with prizes
One of the ways the original PodQuest competition was able to maintain engagement and bolster participants’ creativity was through having prizes.
3. Establishing one-on-one mentorships
The advanced-level courses benefitted from this. By offering one-on-one mentorships, PodQuest students had the opportunity to learn directly from professional audio-based storytellers and reflect these developed skills into their projects.
Here’s What Could Have Worked Better
1. Increasing resources for classes, equipment, financial capabilities and personnel
Increasing monetization and revenue generation opportunities to support the podcast initiatives will be important in order to expand the station’s podcast capabilities in personnel, scope, audience and ability. According to Deutsch, in order for Queen City PodQuest to devote more time to their projects and to the community, they’ll also want to increase their personnel.
“Podcasting is still such a new idea as a medium, compared to other media,” Deutsch says. “Sometimes it’s a little hard to sell because the companies aren’t really thinking of what podcasting is. They may not listen to it. They may not understand the impact of it, or the role it’s playing in the current landscape of journalism, media and storytelling.”
Here’s What Else You Should Know
- Sign up for WFAE’s email newsletter for updates on future podcast events and initiatives (including the upcoming 2021 Charlotte Podcast Festival): http://eepurl.com/dMlfn6
- How-to list created by WFAE https://wfae.report/queencitypodquest/resources/. This includes ways to checkout equipment for free and start learning hands-on!
- “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,” Deutsch says.