On a summer evening in San Francisco, the Canvas Gallery, a caf� next to San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, is transformed into a venue for a multimedia presentation on the mysteries of gray whale migration along the Pacific coast. Amid chattering voices and clacking cappuccino saucers, organizer Juliana Gallin announces that local public radio station KQED and the Jean-Michel Cousteau Ocean Adventures Educational Outreach Campaign will record tonight's science talk for possible podcasting.
Already a near-ubiquitous feature on the Web sites of public radio stations, museums, and other education-oriented nonprofits, podcasts are an increasingly popular and inexpensive way of delivering audio programming over the Internet. Typically offered on a free subscription basis and delivered through software programs like iTunes, podcasts can be listened to on a computer, either online or offline, or transferred to a portable digital audio player such as an iPod or MP3 player and played back at your convenience.
Back at the cafe, the curious audience listens to instructions on how to use a microphone to prevent speaker feedback. "That sounds really bad in ear buds," says Stacy Bond, referring to the iconic white earpieces used by iPod users. Bond is the executive director of Audioluxe, a nonprofit partner of KQED's that produces podcasts and teaches organizations how to create engaging audio programming for the Web. Audioluxe trains beginning and advanced podcasters inside KQED's San Francisco studios. Costs for one and two-day crash courses range from $90 to $350.
That podcasts and podcasting are popular should come as no surprise. According to surveys taken by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 73 percent of adults in the United States, representing 147 million Americans 18 years of age and older, are online, compared to only 20 percent ten years ago. Factor in the ubiquity of iPods and MP3 players — the Pew group surveyed podcast listeners in 2005 and concluded that more than 22 million American adults own an iPod or MP3 player, while 29 percent of them have downloaded a podcast from the Web — and you have a phenomenon in the making.
KQED, which broadcasts popular national public radio shows such as Forum and Perspectives to northern California audiences, is finding that podcasts are quite popular with its audiences. And by offering them on its Web site, the station is reaching new listeners — many of whom live hundreds or thousands of miles outside its regular broadcast "footprint." For instance, when it launched the Perspectives podcast, which comes in "bite-size" two-minute episodes, earlier this year, Internet surfers found it immediately and downloads "escalated like mad," says Colleen Wilson, the station's senior producer for interactive content. Web offerings like podcasts have "definitely resonated with our members and people who were not members," adds Wilson.
The San Francisco-based California Academy of Sciences began its experiment with the technology in April by offering two podcasts, one to accompany a new museum exhibit and the other a thirteen-minute tour of the northern hemisphere's summer sky led by astronomer Bing Quock. The organization also has tested a service that allows visitors to use cell phones instead of iPods or MP3 players to listen to academy scientists talk about special exhibits like its African penguin colony. (The museum doesn't charge for the audio tours, but the cell phone minutes count against your plan.)
Like the academy, the Monterey Bay Aquarium on California's central coast is constantly searching for ways to reach people through "new channels of communication," says Ken Peterson, an aquarium spokesperson. "We are experimenting with ways to reach folks, to further our mission, drive up attendance, and build more conservation awareness." After adding free podcasts to its Web site in May, visits to the site rose sharply. "They're a great way of telling stories," says Peterson. "And we hope they translate into more visitors being connected to oceans and ocean issues, but we're still trying to figure out how to measure the impact in a meaningful way."
Trying to measure impact isn't the only challenge. The podcasting efforts of the San Francisco Bay Joint Venture, another environmental organization, got off to a strong start earlier this year after it partnered with Jerry Kay, who produces podcasts for the California Academy and Monterey Bay Aquarium, to create a series of stories designed to educate local communities about wetlands restoration projects in the Bay Area. Kay and his team recorded two ninety-second programs per week on topics ranging from "Weeding Green Threads Into the Urban Fabric" to "Restoring the Lungs of San Francisco Bay." But after twenty episodes, the organization took a step back, in part because it discovered that even though each episode only cost $200 to produce, edit, and distribute, it was more difficult to recruit sponsors than it had anticipated. While the podcasts are on hold, the organization, with funds from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the James J. Gallagher Trust of the Community Foundation of New Jersey, recently launched another interactive Web project: on-demand audio and video tours of the Bay's northern wetlands. All audio features are available at www.yourwetlands.org.
While you can always turn to media experts for help in producing polished, high-quality podcasts, a number of free technologies can help your organization create and distribute media content over the Internet. To pull it off, however, your nonprofit will need a certain amount of technological know-how and capacity.
To create your own podcast, you need a good computer, a fast Internet connection, and a quality microphone. For recording and editing programs, you can use Audacity, a free software program that works on the Windows, Macintosh, and Linux platforms. Macintosh users can also use Garage Band, which comes with Apple computers. Or you can forgo software altogether and simply record straight to the Net using a free online tool provided by Odeo, Inc.
Unless you're lucky and word spreads like wildfire upon release of your podcasts, you'll also need to come up with creative ways to publicize them. Free tools such as feedburner.com can help. The bottom line is, if you have great content, there are always options.
To learn more about podcasts and other new Internet-based media tools, visit NetSquared, a project of Compumentor, one of the world's largest nonprofit technology assistance organizations. And if the cost of using the newest generation of Web media tools is beyond your current marketing or communications budget, don't hesitate to approach funders for support. Foundations increasingly are enthusiastic about projects that strengthen community knowledge and enable more voices to be heard. As Dan Reed, director of the Renaissance Computing Institute in North Carolina, reminds us: "[T]echnology, in and of itself, is neither bad nor good; it is up to people to use technology to drive positive change."