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So you want to podcast?
By Leonard A. Sipes, Jr.
Published: 05/21/2007

0502pod We started podcasting in October of 2006. As the chair of the website committee for the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, it was our desire to add audio and video content to our redesigned website,www.csosa.gov. The new site will be up and running this summer.

CSOSA is a federal, executive branch entity providing parole and probation services to Washington, D.C. It has a national reputation for excellence in design and execution, so we wanted a site to match our reputation. We desired an experience that would be user-friendly with a choice to read, listen or watch story-based accounts of our operations.

In consultations with our IT department, they suggested doing more than adding audio of video content. They suggested we provide audio and video podcasting.

Podcasting was something I had heard about; that was it. I was reasonably proficient at word processing, e-mail and Internet searching, but no one would accuse me of computer or technological excellence. The thought of podcasting was daunting. I was intrigued by the possibilities, but woefully lacking in the skills necessary.

We started to populate our podcasting site in November, 2006, and started advertising it in January 2007.

The title of the radio and television shows is “DC Public Safety.” We are now one of the highest ranked shows for the criminal justice system (per key search terms) when searching sites like Google or iTunes. As of April, we have had 70,000 hits to our podcast site, although the actual number of people listening to the shows is much smaller.

We have been called a “national model for communication” by the International Community Corrections Association. We are a resource for major national websites, like “Justice Talking” by National Public Radio. Our programs are featured on the front page of a Department of Justice faith-based website, and we are featured on the U.S. Government's primary web portal.

What is Podcasting?

Podcasting is recording your voice or a conversation onto a computer and placing the recording on a server so others can listen. It uses an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feed that allows others to download and to the recording onto their computer or portable device, like an MP3 player or iPod. The program is available to anyone in the world who has Internet service.

Video podcasting uses the same principles. You load a video program created by your agency or a local public access station. Throughout this article, I'll refer to both audio and video efforts as podcasting.

After five months of production, it strikes me that audio podcasting (and possibly video podcasting) is something that all of us can and should do. I hosted radio and television shows about the criminal justice system for close to 20 years for my prior agency, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and for the last three and a half years for CSOSA, so I knew something about what it took to create interesting shows. But I knew nothing about the technical end. My guess is that you might know little about it too.

By the way, podcasting is less expensive and less complex then many of us think. It does require patience (and humility) as you stumble your way through the process.

Why Podcast?

All of us in government and the private sector complain that we lack opportunities to tell out story without the filter of media. Without access to money for an advertising campaign, we are almost sorely dependant on the media to tell our stories.

Web sites were our first opportunity to portray ourselves in the way we wanted to be displayed. The second is podcasting.

All of us want the public, media and partners to understand who we are and what we do. Podcasting provides us with that opportunity. There are many who will watch or listen before they will read.

With podcasting and handheld digital devices, you can take citizens along as you serve warrants. They can participate as the correctional officer walks his or her beat in the most difficult part of the prison. Judges can bring all into their courtrooms. For the first time, you can bring an endless array of sensitive issues directly to the public. You control the content. You get to say what you want to say and how you want to say it.

You can respond to emergencies. You can have recorded statements up and running in a matter of minutes. With little technical knowledge or expense, you can provide studio quality recordings quickly, and change them as necessary.

Police departments can warn the public that a new wave of burglaries are occurring in a certain part of the city and what they can do to prevent their home from bring broken into. You can send an alert about a missing child or communicate a wide array of crime prevention activities.

You can communicate with members of Congress or your local or state representative. You can talk to key partners or community leaders.

If you doubt the power of podcasting, it will all be erased when someone critical to the well being of your agency complements you on a recent show and indicates that they have a better understanding of the issues involved.

At CSOSA, we are recording podcasts in Spanish that contain information for our Spanish speaking offenders. They are advised of the rules and told of services available. Spanish speaking line staff will produce the shows. Then we will copy the podcasts to CDs and hand them out.

Employees love the exposure they receive. Probably for the first time, they and their missions are highlighted. They get to participate in the communication process.

For those who have a role in communicating with the public, you will be like a kid in a candy store. You have many choices and many ways to portray your message.

The final issues to understand are that podcasting is affordable and simple enough that you do not have to be a studio engineer to do it. Using a computer and inexpensive microphones, I get quality sound that a couple of years ago would have required me to go into a professional recording studio. If I can do it, anyone can.

What are the Responsibilities of Podcasting?

To podcast, we are taking on a new set of responsibilities. You now become your own publisher. You need to publish what is fair and accurate. As someone who has spent nearly 28 years in public relations for the criminal justice system, I fully understand that agencies can see situations through blinders. If you are going to podcast, you need to tell all sides of the story. Control of your message means that you must be fair, honest and accurate; the same things we demand from the mainstream media.

We not only provide a forum to the offenders we supervise but we also bring in former offenders. They can be critical and unsupportive of the larger criminal justice system or us. There are times when their comments make me a bit uncomfortable, but short of profanity or slander (which has never happened) their comments are recorded as presented.

When I host our shows, I ask the same questions any journalist or citizen will ask. There are times when employees are a little too complementary of the agency. I'll specifically ask about some of the more challenging parts of the job or some of the difficulties they face.

We have the responsibility to be completely accurate and honest. I invite you to listen to our shows and tell me what you think. Maybe I'm kidding myself, but I think most portrayals meet the standards I suggest.

It is also important to understand that podcasting is not about the chief, director or superintendent. It means involving people directly responsible for doing the job. If you want citizens to understand your sex offender unit, that means interviewing line staff who do the job. My administration agrees that staff needs to take the lead when it comes to podcasting.

You also need to be interesting. I understand that you are not in the entertainment business. The criminal justice system is serious business. But if people are going to listen, you (and your guests) have to be worth listening to.

I recently watched a video podcast of an administrator with another government agency giving a speech. His delivery was bland and it made for an uninteresting podcast. This is what some of us fear in government podcasting; uninteresting and pointless podcasts. If we in government are going to podcast, we need to hold ourselves to good production values.

Again, I invite you to watch or listen to our audio or video podcasts. It's not “60 Minutes” or any other commercially produced show. It's just myself and guests trying to do the best we can. You be the judge. Some comments about the show are complementary. Some are not. We learn from our mistakes and move on.

The Technical Stuff

I'm not the best-qualified person to tell you about the technical stuff. But because of the similarities we share, I'm going to try.

Audio podcasting will cost you about $1,500 for a computer, software, microphones, headphones and a mixer. Obviously it will cost less if you are using an existing computer. It will cost about $500 or less for a handheld digital recorder; get one that is easy to use. User friendly software exists for both Microsoft and Apple products.

As a federal government employee, I cannot recommend a commercially available product, but I can tell you that good recording software exists. I recently saw a podcasting package offered by a major retailer of music supplies that included everything you need for two-microphone podcasting. You've heard of home theater in a box? There is now podcasting in a box where everything you need is included.

You can take your existing computer and download or install the software you need. While podcasting geeks can argue endlessly about the type and quality of microphones and mixers available, a trip to any electronics store can solve the problem.

There are standard settings on all podcasting equipment that are perfect for beginners. As you get more proficient, you can alter the settings. It's like my camera. I can set it to automatic, but as I became more proficient, I moved on to more technical shots. But either setting gives me a good photograph.

Please note that you will want a two-microphone set-up. That will increase start-up costs a bit, but doing interviews are necessary components to keeping your show interesting. It takes gifted people to inform and entertain by themselves.

There is great news about the cost of servers. The server is the device you put your podcasts on so anyone with Internet access can watch or listen. There are a wide variety of organizations (available via an Internet search) that offer you the ability to rent a server or part of a server for ten to twelve dollars a month. Low prices are a recent breakthrough that provides anyone with the ability to podcast.

Hundreds of people can access your shows at one time without server failure. Your IT department will thank you because they do not have the bandwidth to provide the same service from your website.

My ultimate suggestion is to find an IT expert who will show you how to operate the technical side. There is probably someone who podcasts in your community who will be happy to show you the ropes and get you up and running. Without our IT department, I could not have done it myself. They were wonderfully patient and walked me through the intricacies of the technical and production stuff.

As to video podcasting, there are public access stations throughout the country that will record shows for free or reasonable sums. You can record a TV show in some places for a couple hundred dollars. Try to include footage of your agency or issue (known as B-roll) into the show. Let them create opening and closing video and music. Place the video on your rented server as a video podcast and use the audio as an audio podcast.

The costs are reasonable and the technology understandable. I went through much trial and error to get to this point and yes, it was a humbling process at times. I continue to make mistakes and learn. But it was worth it.

There are books and websites that explain the process of podcasting. Plug “books” and “podcasting” into any search engine. Go for the books that describe themselves as basic introductions. Books exist for intermediate levels and marketing. Professional consultants are available if you can pay $100 to approximately $150.00 per hour. Online instructions abound. Courses are available.

If you search the Internet for information on podcasting, you will fine a wide array of sources ranging from Google to Yahoo to iTunes. Many sites offer discussion groups. iTunes offers podcasts on podcasting. But beware; some of these discussions involve geeks talking to geeks. The discussions can be hopelessly technical.

Final Suggestions

As stated, I strongly suggest that you get thee a geek. Get someone who is excited about podcasting and who looks forward to showing you what equipment to buy and what to do. They are at the local community college and in the community. They want to show you how to do it!

Buy and read the books. Don't worry that you do not know what an RSS feed is. Nether did I. Yep, your going to feel like you're out of your element and on uncomfortable ground. I still do. I probably invested 150 hours in reading and Internet searching.

The professional and personal rewards of audio and video podcasting are endless. Your agency will reap the rewards of quality communication. Citizens have a wonderful opportunity to learn more about what you do. You will find that you get comments from people from around the world.

Also note that the media will be impressed “if” you do it responsibly. The media likes agencies that are confident enough to participate in the public discussion. They respect those who are willing to serve citizens in new ways. Just make sure that the mission is to serve and not a platform for political or narcissistic behavior.

Podcasting is the wave of the future. It will become as important as your website. It's like having a team of proficient public relations specialists on duty 24 hours a day. The time to invest is now.

Len Sipes is the Senior Public Affairs Specialist at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency in Washington, DC. For more information about his podcasts, contact him 202.220.5616 or leonard.sipes@csosa.gov

Related resources:

Podcasting-tools.com

Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency

CSOSA podcasts and videocasts



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