This guide by Dr Sophie Frost forms part of the University of Leicester’s One by One project aimed at building digital literacy and confidence in museums.
Sophie worked with Royal Pavilion and Museums, Brighton and Hove to explore ways to develop digital courage within the service. This staff-led podcast was one of the project outcomes. This approach is suitable for any museum or service, whose staff or volunteers want to reach new audiences or present collections in a new way. It is a way for the people involved – whose voices may not always be heard – to present their knowledge, anecdotes and stories in an informal, yet structured way.
Jump to: What is a podcast? | What is a staff-led podcast? | What problem does it solve? | Who is it for? | How does this build digital skills? | Who should be involved? | What are the key tasks? | How do I get people to take part? | What are the do’s and don’ts? | What kit do I need? | How do I measure success? | How may it fail?
What is a podcast?
A podcast is a series of digital audio file episodes that a user can download to listen to. To put it more simply: podcasts are like radio, but not live. In the last few years, they have become a popular format for providing alternative and additional content about museum buildings, collections and communities for new or different audiences, some of whom may be less likely to visit the museum itself.
All that you need to make an enjoyable podcast is plenty of enthusiasm and some very basic recording equipment – even a smartphone can be used.
In her book ‘Your Museum Needs a Podcast‘ Hannah Hethmon, a consultant who specialises in museum and cultural podcasts, describes podcasts as “a unique opportunity for museums…to regularly reach their visitors and community members at home, during the commute, or even at work”.
What is a staff-led podcast?
A staff-led podcast can offer a twist on these, by showcasing the favourite stories of those working behind the scenes in a museum, especially those who are less confident or less likely to be heard by your audiences. Whether it is an anecdote about a museum object, former exhibition, community project or piece of outreach work, using a microphone to record a podcast encourages more informal kinds of storytelling as opposed to the more prescribed responses you may hear from the same speaker in a public setting.
What problem does it solve?
A successful staff-led podcast can:
- Enable a greater sense of individual staff agency, and build the courage to use digital technology in new and different ways.
- Encourage practices of co-creation and knowledge transfer between museum departments.
- Provide opportunities for inter-generational digital skills sharing through the practice of storytelling.
- Be a polyvocal activity, where multiple voices from across the museum (regardless of job role or salary band) can speak and be heard.
- Reframe the objects, collection and buildings of a museum in relation to its staff, linked to their identity and shared history as citizens of the geographical area.
- Produce accessible, thought-provoking and long-lasting (or evergreen) content.
- Capture ‘a moment in time’ at your museum.
Who is it for?
A staff-led podcast can be engaging to a wide and varied audience – from museum professionals to those seeking information, or even intrigue, interpretations and personal views, on specific aspects of collections. Most significantly, it can provide an opportunity for staff and volunteers to celebrate and reflect upon their work in the museum and provide a chance to share – both internally and externally – the work that they do.
How does this build digital skills?
The process of making a staff-led podcast creates the conditions and context for greater digital literacy. While a certain level of pre-existing digital competency is required (at least one member of your podcasting team will need to feel confident with the recording and editing equipment, or at least have a willingness to learn), the straightforward nature of the kit means that podcasting can provide an opportunity for many staff or volunteers to develop their digital competency in producing something engaging with tangible results. Making a museum people-led podcast is a creative exercise; it involves using technology to construct imaginative and alternative digital content.
Who should be involved?
Voices of Royal Pavilion and Museums, the staff-led podcast series made for the museum service in Brighton and Hove, was planned and presented by an external facilitator or ‘change agent’. However, it is possible for a staff member or volunteer to lead this process successfully.
While you are building a podcast made up of many voices, it is important that a core group of no more than two or three people have ultimate ownership in order to ensure that ideas are achievable and coherent, and that decision-making is streamlined.
Once your core team is established, it is worth listening to some other museum or arts podcasts to get an idea of the format and content that you find most compelling for your own one. You may want to refer to Hannah Hethmon’s book Your Museum Needs A Podcast which provides hints and tips on what to think about before you press record on your first interview.
What are the key tasks?
The key tasks, which can be delegated amongst your core group in any number of ways, are as follows:
- Establishing an overall vision and direction for the podcast. This may be connected to a chosen theme, to the mission of your museum or to a collection. It may be worth writing this into a pitch and sharing it with your senior leadership team before you begin.
- Setting up interviews and less formal ‘in conversation with’ sessions with staff members/volunteers.
- Presenting and scripting – preparing questions for an interview.
- Editing and organising the audio files.
- Designing a podcast logo (the thumbnail that goes alongside the podcast when listened to on your smartphone or tablet).
- Obtain any necessary permissions.
- Uploading your final edited episodes to a distribution platform, for example Acast, Stitcher, Spotify, iTunes, Google Podcasts, Podbean, AnchorFM and many more. Remember you will need to update these, so keep a track of where you decide to post. As you will need to maintain these, try to stick to two or three platforms.
- Marketing and advertising the podcast on your website, social media and offline if you choose.
How do I get people to take part?
Once you’ve explained the proposition, most staff and volunteers should be keen to be involved. However, a carefully worded poster that emphasises the podcast as an opportunity for all voices in the museum to be heard, followed up with casual in-person conversations is often the right approach. Remember that you want to capture a cross-section of the museum but that some individuals or departments may be less eager than others to take part. Word-of-mouth often works well, especially with those who are more reluctant. Once they’ve heard that what’s-his-name in Finance who never speaks to anyone has been interviewed, they may be more willing.
What are the do’s and don’ts?
- Record a back-up. Always aim to have a second device such as a mobile phone recording the interview alongside your main recording device.
- Leave room for spontaneity. Sometimes the best interviews or conversations are not the prepared ones. It may be that a member of staff or volunteer warbles on about the royal bayonet collection at length, only casually dropping in at the end something juicier about King Zanzibar’s stuffed porcupines. Stay open to what may unexpectedly be revealed and pursue points that interest you.
- Establish trust. The only way to get people to talk openly and animatedly about their experiences is to establish confidence early on. Many of your interviewees may be grateful to have an informal chat off-the-record beforehand, to be set at ease about what is involved and what the expectations are.
- Keep your interviews to a maximum of one hour. No matter how great the material, you’ll be setting a hard task for yourself if you let an interview drag on and on. If great stuff only starts to come up at the 50 minute mark, make a call then as to when you will stop the recording and warn the interviewee that you’d like to go on 15 minutes more but that you want to focus on certain specific areas.
- Stay in control. It can be easy if your interviewee is a big talker to let them take over. Try to steer the conversation gently in the direction you need if things seem to be straying off topic.
- Interview in noisy places. It can be distracting for both you and your interviewee and is tricky to edit.
- Have preconceptions. It is likely that the person you’re interviewing and the stories they tell may not be what you expected.
- Allow too much opportunity for venting. Political points may be interesting, but personal vendettas never come across well in public engagement. If a staff member or volunteer is keen to talk about things that they are unhappy with at the museum, let them get this off their chest before you press record.
- Work out exactly what each episode will contain beforehand. Chances are that the material you thought you had will sound different when you get to the editing stage, and best laid plans will need to be altered. New themes can emerge, or whole interviews may be so interesting that they constitute an entire episode.
What kit do I need?
If money is tight, recording your podcast on your smartphone is always an option. Articles such as this are a good place to start. However, you can purchase a good kit for under £400 that, if looked after, can last a long time. Here is a suggested list of what you may need:
- 1 x Zoom Recording Device
- 2 x External Microphones
- 2 x Microphone stands
- 2 x XLR cables
How do I measure success?
At Royal Pavilion and Museums Brighton and Hove, creating a staff-led podcast had the effect of motivating more staff to generate new evergreen content of their own, in the form of videos, blog posts and online articles.
It’s important to remember that the success of a podcast can take months, sometimes years to measure. It can be common to have only a few subscribers or listeners at the start then suddenly more and more people begin tuning in. The beauty of podcasts is that they remain online without an expiry date, and so it is usual for them to take a while to gain traction. However, making sure that there are a range of themes across the series can be a good idea, as it may be that some listeners are interested in only one or two episodes that concentrate on specific areas of your museum – decolonising collections or queer histories, for example – rather than the whole thing.
How may it fail?
Creating a staff-led podcast is always a valuable exercise in building digital courage across a museum service. However, common reasons that such a project may fail include:
- Pre-existing and unspoken institutional hierarchies that underpin a reluctance to allow certain staff members to have a voice.
- A lack of confidence among staff or volunteers themselves, particularly those who don’t regularly use social media. Some staff may believe that their voices don’t matter, and thus rule themselves out from taking part.
- Staff inhibitions around whether they are speaking ‘on or off the record’.
- A lack of understanding around the podcast’s intended audience.
While you’re not going to change everyone’s mind (nor may you want to!) most of these reasons can be circumvented by chatting informally with individuals who express fear or reluctance, sharing with them examples of successful podcasts from other museums or arts organisations and reassuring them of the purpose of the project. Again, being open to unexpected encounters is crucial here: while you may not be able to persuade an important curator to take part, you can always ask them who they would recommend in their stead, which may open up new encounters that you had not previously imagined possible.