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Presidential Podcasting: College & University Edition

Josie Ahlquist, EdD, with Danielle Sewell, MFA

With podcasting becoming increasingly more mainstream, I’ve been seeing an uptick in questions about the platform as I work with campus executives and other leaders and organizations in higher education. How does podcasting work? Should every executive have a podcast? How do you get started with podcasting? 

Now that I’m in season four of my own show, Josie and the Podcast, and have 65+ episodes’ worth of experience, I feel pretty darn prepared to tackle the topic! It’s time to talk about podcasting as a college or university president (and much of this information will also be applicable to vice presidents, deans, and the people who assist them with executive communications). 

First things first: What is a podcast? 

At its heart, podcasting is a storytelling platform. You may have heard about some of the most popular non-higher-education-related shows out there. Serial, This American Life, My Favorite Murder, and How I Built This are just a few examples of podcasts that have become modern classics.

These shows — note that podcasts are regularly updated shows, with a run-time lasting anywhere from just a few minutes to over an hour in length — are audio productions, made available for streaming or downloading on a variety of mobile apps and platforms. You may find and subscribe to your favorite podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, Stitcher, TuneIn, or a similar service.

Who’s Listening? 

As of this writing, there are well over half a million active podcasts in existence and over 86 million podcast listeners in the United States — with 32% of the population listening at least monthly (Statista, 2019).

The majority of those listeners are between the ages of 18 and 54. Younger generations tend to be avid sharers of podcast content, as well. 80% of Millennial survey respondents and 72% of Gen Z respondents reported sharing podcasts with friends or colleagues (EX-IQ, 2019). 

That means that it’s extremely likely that the podcast-listening demographic includes not only your typical residential college students, but also the online, graduate, and professional program students served by many institutions. This is great news! It also includes a huge portion of your alumni population and many of your colleagues nationwide. In short, many of the audiences you want to reach are already signed into their favorite podcast app, ready to listen to you.

Is Podcasting Right for Me or My President? 

As with any storytelling platform, podcasting involves both a wealth of opportunity and a number of potential challenges. It isn’t for every president or campus executive, and that’s okay. To help you reach the best decision for your unique situation, here are some of the medium’s pros and cons for your consideration.

Possibilities Unlike Any Other Platform

As a college president, you are probably concerned about reaching students. Or perspective students. Or your alumni base. Or faculty and staff. Or fellow professionals throughout the higher education industry. It can be a struggle to find those people, and even more of a challenge to connect with them in a meaningful, impactful way.

We have already covered the demographic appeal; podcast listeners make up a large portion of each of these key populations. But even better, podcasts are a naturally intimate format, allowing the show host(s) and guests to bring their voices directly into the homes, cars, offices — and ears — of their audience. Talk about meeting people where they are! 

Because of the typically casual, conversational nature, podcasts are an ideal medium for campus leaders who want to foster connections with their communities in a unique new way. With solid planning and good intentions, you can create a show that presents the human side of leadership, your office, and/or your institution. 

Considering the Challenges 

While there is a lot to love about this form of content creation, it can be extremely time-consuming and resource-heavy to produce. If you plan to add podcasting into your communications mix, you’ll need human capital, time, and equipment to make it happen.

A good episode may require days of planning, recording, editing, and promotion to be successful. And if you don’t have skills in all of those areas, you’ll probably want to invest in help. If you have a marketing and communications team on campus, it’s a good idea to consult them in the early stages of podcast ideation and find out which resources are already available at your institution. These professionals will further help you sort through the strategic benefits of a podcast and weigh those against the costs of production before moving forward. 

That said, executives who are willing and able to support these efforts are often rewarded several times over. Presidents who podcast have benefited from improved communication with their constituents, relationship-building within their communities, and boosts to their professional brands. And they usually have a lot of fun, too! Check out the curated list at the end of this post to find presidents, provosts, and deans with a podcasting presence.

If you’re ready to get behind the mic, keep reading as we go beyond the basics and dive into the exciting world of presidential podcasting. 

Articulating Your Podcasting Purpose

Before you rush out to buy a new state-of-the-art microphone and flashy recording equipment, take a moment to think about your professional goals. What do you want to achieve? What is your institution’s vision for the future? If your podcast doesn’t integrate with a larger mission, it may quickly begin feeling like busywork — and nobody in higher education wants busywork on their plate. 

Think of podcasting as one piece of a multi-pronged executive communication strategy. With that in mind, you can consider how a show might support and reinforce the messages you’re already delivering in other areas of leadership. 

Try these quick exercises to get started:

  • What do you most want to achieve in your career over the next five years?
  • Do you need buy-in to achieve this professional goal? From whom?
  • What kinds of stories do you usually tell when talking about your work? (Personal anecdotes? Success stories from former students? Evidence from faculty research?)

After answering these start-up questions, you can start developing a theme and content concepts for your future show. For example, if one of your primary goals is to support first-generation students, maybe your podcast could focus on conversations with successful alumni or faculty/staff who were the first in their family to go to college. If your mission is to foster a relationship between administration and faculty, perhaps you could host a show that invites a member of the faculty to discuss their research, or innovative classroom practices, in each episode.

You should also consider the long-term goals of the podcast. Will the show always have a home at your current institution, or would you want to take it with you if you go somewhere else?

There is no right or wrong choice. You just need to decide what kind of story you want to tell.

Podcasting Tools for Success

Selecting and setting up your first batch of equipment is one of the most intimidating stages for a fledgling podcaster. Some shows are relatively low-tech ventures, while others have all the bells and whistles in their toolbox. No matter how fancy (or not) you want your show to be, one this is certain: you must have high-quality audio. 

Spend some time researching podcast microphones and other tools. Mics that connect directly to a USB are usually an ideal option for beginners since they send audio straight from the microphone to your computer without requiring an external sound mixer. There are also several free and low-cost software options to assist with editing, including Garage Band on iOS and Audacity, an open-source product. 

The combination of tools used for recording, editing, publishing, distributing, and promoting podcasts varies from show to show. Looking for advice from experienced podcasters? Here’s what they’re using! 

Research in Action (Oregon State University eCampus Research Unit)

The team responsible for Research in Action put together this comprehensive blog post, which answers a number of FAQs about their podcasting process — including equipment used. Some of their favorites include Audio Hijack (for recording off-site guests), the Audio-Technica AT2020USB microphone, Logic Pro X and Splice for editing, and the Auphonic multitrack processor for publishing.

The Podcasts of NC State

North Carolina State has podcasts produced by multiple offices, departments, and administrators. With so much interest in podcasting across campus, they created “podcasting kits,” which are available in the university library. Each kit includes a PreSonus AudioBox USB 2-channel interface, a Shure SM58 microphone, a compact tabletop mic stand with a mic clip, an XLR cable, and a USB cable.

Pod Save Higher Ed (Laura Pasquini)

In 2018, Laura Pasquini created a detailed public document with a wealth of podcasting resources, including equipment recommendation lists.

Understanding the tools for recording, editing, and distributing podcasts can be a huge challenge. If you need some guidance, consider joining (or at least peeking at) the ConnectEDU Network. The Network’s Facebook group is a wonderful place to connect with other higher ed podcasters, ask for advice, share struggles, and find inspiration. 

The Pod People: Host, Helpers & Audience

No great feat is done alone, and podcasting is no different. Personalities, areas of expertise, and listener behavior all play a huge role in the success of your podcast. Giving these essentials some thought up-front will help you to avoid glitches later on in the production process.

Host With the Most

When you take on the role of host, your personality will naturally influence the subject matter and overall tone of your podcast. 

What do you love doing? What are your quirks, loves, and pet peeves? These questions can help you to hone in on a subject, title, and content for your podcast — because your listeners will want to get to know you

Bringing in the Professionals

Think about the people around you. Who can help you brainstorm episode ideas? Do you have a media department, film school, or radio station on campus with experts who could teach you about recording or editing audio? Do you have colleagues or contacts in your network who would make excellent guests? Does anyone in your marketing or communication department have advice about the format, promotion, or storytelling? 

You may even want to consult a third-party coach or consultant to help with digital strategy if that’s not your strength. Seeking help from people with expertise will help make your podcast a high-quality representation of you as a professional in your field.

Know Your Audience

Your podcast will benefit not only from clearly defining your primary audience but from treating those future listeners as a guiding light to inform all decisions about your show’s content and format. 

As much as we’d all love everyone in our campus community, academia, and the world to subscribe to our podcasts, it’s not a good idea to identify “everyone” as your target audience. Instead, narrow that down to a single, distinct type of listener. If only one type of person could ever hear your podcast, whom would you want that to be? Be as specific as possible. 

Some examples of target audience:

  • First-Year Students 
  • First-Generation Students
  • Graduate Students
  • “Non-Traditional” Students (I’m a huge fan of this audience potential)
  • Student-Athletes 
  • Young Alumni
  • Donors / Prospective Donors
  • Faculty and/or Staff
  • Student Leaders
  • Fellow Professionals in Higher Education (a unique opportunity for executives serving at a higher ed professional association or campus partner/vendor)

Over time, you’ll probably find that secondary audiences begin to find your podcast organically — and that’s fantastic! But you’ll still want to operate with one clear audience in mind. This will prevent you from over-generalizing your message and falling victim to “mission creep.”

A Format that Fits

There’s no shortage of options when it comes to choosing your podcast’s format. Some shows feature a guest who is interviewed by a single host. Some podcasters use a monologue format or have two hosts who bounce ideas back and forth throughout each episode. Others are styled as a news broadcast or use a more narrative style to tell a long-form story. Some are serialized, telling a single story in a season, throughout multiple episodes. Others feature a variety of guests or topics with a number of standalone episodes. 

When thinking about formatting, you’ll also want to consider the frequency of your podcast. Will it come out weekly? Monthly? Will you take a break over summer and winter breaks, or publish throughout the year? How will you consistently open and close each show? Will there be the same set of questions, sections, or calls to action? 

Here are a few examples to consider as you think about which format would work best for you!

Josie and the Podcast (Ok, so this one is a biased favorite.)

Most full-length episodes of Josie and the Podcast are centered around an interview with a guest who sits at the intersection of leadership, technology, and education. In the editing process, that interview gets bookended by a quick introduction to the guest speaker and a concluding reflection of the conversation. Theme music in the intro and outro also provides consistency throughout the episodes. Each episode runs about 60 minutes.

Fireside Charla with SDSU President Adela de la Torre

Fireside Charla allows San Diego State University’s president to show a more personal, conversational side. She sits down for casual chats with members of the SDSU community to learn about their stories and unique achievements. Sometimes Charla features a one-on-one conversation, but President de la Torre often hosts multiple guests who participate collectively. At the end of the episode, messaging directs listeners to a URL where they can access show notes and written episode transcriptions (an important feature, particularly from an accessibility standpoint). Episodes typically run about 30 minutes. 

Think. Do. Lead. A Podcast About Creativity, Innovation & Influence

Connecticut College President Katherine Bergeron hosts Think. Do. Lead. Bergeron hosts “conversations with inspiring minds from a variety of fields.” Each episode begins with an introduction to the podcast’s mission, followed by an overview of the guest’s work and biographical information before jumping into the recorded interview. To wrap up, there’s a quick call to subscribe to the podcast on iTunes or another platform, with theme music cuing a prompt sign-off. Episodes usually run 40-60 minutes

Higher Ed Live

Higher Ed Live podcasts typically feature a small panel of guests, with conversations moderated by a host. This podcast is actually derived from a live video session, during which the panel fields questions from listeners who participate via the event hashtag on Twitter. Following each live session, Higher Ed Live pulls the audio file from the video and posts it as a podcast in its own right. Multi-purpose content can save time and resources, while also extending your reach and engaging people who learn in a variety of ways. 

Sponsorship Opportunities

As you listen to podcasts, in the field of higher ed and beyond, you’ll notice that many incorporate sponsorships into their show structures, too. A little shoutout to my podcast sponsor, Campus Sonar! 

For campus leadership, your sponsorship opportunities could be in your own backyard. Is there a campus group, partner, or organization that you could partner with and support through podcast “sponsorship” — Maybe your campus bookstore or dining hall? Or perhaps you could shout out a study abroad or internship program? Podcasting can lend itself well to cross-promotional efforts, which can double as a good relationship-building tool for a campus leader. 

Building a Recognizable Podcast

Putting your podcast on the internet doesn’t guarantee that folks will actually find and listen to it. Branding and promotion is an important piece of your podcast strategy. 

To start, every podcast needs a title and a graphic when it’s released to the various podcasting platforms (Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify, Google Play, etc.). Podcasting is personal, so try to find a title that captures not only the subject matter of your show but you as a person and a professional. As host, you’ll be the face of the podcast. Its name should reflect you in some way. 

The same goes for your graphic. Let the design showcase your personality or the brand of your campus. You may even consider using a photograph of yourself, perhaps with an overlaid logo. Whichever approach you choose, be sure to consult your campus marketing team. They can work with you to create a graphic that achieves your goals, and moreover, they can help you adjust the final design to meet specifications (file types, dimensions, etc.) required by the various podcasting platforms — and that part can be a real pain for a layperson if you’re trying to tackle it on your own. 

Before hitting publish on your premier podcast episode, there are a few additional items you’ll want to cross off your to-do list first: 

  • Episode Titles. In addition to creating a name for your podcast as an overall show, you’ll need to title each individual episode before it’s published.
  • Episode Descriptions. Every episode will also need a quick blurb that summarizes the content and intrigues potential listeners.
  • Plan for Promotion. Think through the ways you might increase awareness of your podcast and get the show in front of your target audience. Your marketing and communications team may be helpful brainstorming partners!

Listening is Learning

Podcasting can be a rewarding, effective, and enjoyable — but it can also be a frustrating process. Luckily, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel to create a show of your own. Learn from those who have already been there, made the usual mistakes, and figured out how to succeed. 

Here are a few resources to help you along the way: 

CASE SMC Podcasting Panel
Listen to the full conversation from CASE SMC 2018 in New Orleans, featuring a panel of higher ed podcasters who discussed the adventures, trials, and joys of podcasting: Josie Ahlquist, Tim Cigelske, Jackie Vetrano, Stephen App, and Chris Barrows.

ConnectEDU Network
ConnectEDU is a group of higher ed podcasters who want to connect and support one another. Join us in our closed Facebook group and/or sign up for the ConnectEDU newsletter. The link also includes a directory of several members’ podcasts for easy access.

Executive Coaching
If you’re not sure where to begin with digital communication, or if you feel like your digital presence could use some support, my Connected Exec coaching program may be a perfect fit. Check out the website or contact me for more information.

Campus Leaders Podcasting
Here’s a list of podcasts from presidents, provosts, and other senior administrators. In podcasting, listening IS learning!

More Podcasting Resources

What recommendations do YOU have for higher ed podcasters? What are your favorite education-related shows? Share in the comments! 

Looking for more conversations with college and university presidents? Check out these episodes of Josie and the Podcast!

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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