5 Tips for Creating a Podcast to Engage Alumni

Ryan Catherwood (@RyanCatherwood) is assistant vice president, alumni and career services at Longwood University (@longwoodu). An active CASE volunteer, he most recently presented at a master class on collaboration between alumni relations and career services in Gold Coast, Australia.

Last year the team in the Office of Alumni and Career Services at Longwood University set out to create a podcast in the genre of This American Life, the critically acclaimed radio show and podcast distributed by NPR. Each episode of This American Life has a theme that revolves around a central question or hypothesis. The goal is to tell one or multiple stories through interviews that take the listener along a narrative journey and try to answer the central question in different ways.

As total novices to audio storytelling, we were in over our heads from the beginning in attempting to create a podcast that engages both alumni and students around career stories. But we struggled, learned and persevered. Earlier this month, we launched season one of the Day After Graduation podcast.

To help out future engagement pros considering alternative programming like a podcast, here are five tips for starting a podcast based on what we’ve learned at Longwood.

1. Vetting alumni storytellers and their narratives in advance of recording the interview is absolutely critical.

While we’ve been able to use LinkedIn and also Longwood Magazine’s class notes section to identify possible interview subjects, we learned how critical it was to have a “vetting” phone call in advance of recording. This call enables us to have a better sense of the story we’re trying to get the interview subject to tell. We also try to learn whether or not the alum is a charismatic storyteller.

We call possible alumni storytellers on the phone and flesh out the unique occurrences and pivotal moments from their biography. This allows us to better prepare for the recorded interview. Getting to know the storyteller in advance also allows us to build rapport and helps eliminate some nervousness.

2. Be picky about the stories and be tough on the quality of the audiotape.

During the last year, we’ve interviewed more than 70 alumni and friends of Longwood for possible inclusion in our 10-episode, season one of the Day After Graduation podcast. Some of that is because we’ve changed directions creatively. But as we’ve learned how to use our recording equipment, we’ve scrapped interviews with lower-quality sound and interviews that don’t contain rich storytelling. We’re looking for stories with a climax and some level of emotionality. As a team, we always ask ourselves whether the interview contains unique, interesting and entertaining moments.

3. Audio loves honesty.

This phrase (not my own) has been our guiding light when it comes to interviewing. We always try to ask questions during interviews like, “How did that make you feel?” and “What were you thinking at that moment?”

The goal is to color in the story with honest and candid reflections. We’ve discovered the best tape is when we can obtain these moments of deeply personal reflection.

(ABOVE: Enjoying some pizza and podcast promotion with my colleagues.)

4. Find a partner to help with editing and audio engineering.

We were hugely fortunate to find a great partner in developing our podcast. As we set out to create Day After Graduation, we knew we didn’t have the skills (yet) to breakdown an hourlong interview into its best six to 10 minutes, add narration and then build the actual podcast with great music and sound design. We found Cordie Walker and his company, Just Hit Publish, to help with this process. I highly recommend reaching out to Cordie if you’re considering a similar project or finding an expert partner.

5. Starting out, try to make each episode better than the last as the number one goal

There aren’t any comparable podcasts from within higher education as far as we could find. Our goal for the next six to 12 months is to work hard promoting the podcast to alumni and student listeners and establish a baseline understanding of our audience. We’re still discovering what those baseline measureables look like. Our long-term goal is absolutely to gain more listeners, but our short-term goal is simple: work hard to refine our interviewing and storytelling skills.

If the podcast is good, we believe our stakeholders will listen.

Please have a listen to Longwood University’s Day After Graduation podcast. I’d appreciate feedback very much as we strive to make it better.

2 responses to “5 Tips for Creating a Podcast to Engage Alumni

  1. Great questions! This first season we emailed everyone and explained how much their help guided us during this learning process. We thanked everyone and let them know we wouldn’t be using all the interviews we collected as we changed creative directions. Moving forward though since we have a process in place now for vetting, we should be able to use the majority of interview content we collect. We’ve been far more selective and deliberate recently. For sound, yes in person is way better. However, Skype has a great recording tool called ECAMM ($25 download) and that along with two good mics on either end make it sound great. Not quite as good as in person but still good. We’ve started hard mailing mics to interviewees with return postage so they’ll have upgraded sound. Must use headphones too and hardwired is better than Wifi.

  2. Question – what do you do with the interviews you don’t use? And how do you break it to the alumni who won’t be included? Also, do you do this recording in person (which I suppose would limit you to local alums) or can you record remotely over the phone or computer? Would appreciate learning more!

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