December 19, 2018

Should your nonprofit podcast?

Chandra Hayslett, Communications Director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, sits down to share her experiences launching the podcast, The Activist Files, for her organization. She discusses why she started the podcast, results she’s seen so far, the nuts and bolts of production, and shares practical tips for starting a podcast for your nonprofit.

Curious about the Center for Constitutional Rights’ rebrand? Read about our work together in the case study here.


Sarah: Welcome to the Smart Communications Podcast. I am Sarah Durham, and I am joined today by Chandra Hayslett who’s the Communications Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Welcome, welcome!

Chandra: Thank you I’m happy to be here.

Sarah: I’m delighted to have you here. Chandra’s gonna talk to us today about something very meta. We’re going to talk about podcasting on a podcast.

Sarah: Chandra launched a podcast for the Center for Constitutional Rights earlier this year we’re gonna learn all about why and how that’s working. But before we dig in I just want to tell you a little about her, and give her a chance to introduce the Center. She has been at the Center for Constitutional Rights for about a year. At CCR, she’s responsible for leading the overall development of communications strategy and guiding the department’s coordination with their legal and advocacy departments and case-specific communications plans which is no easy task. You have how many issues areas?

Chandra: We have 14 issues areas, but 50 active cases.

Sarah: Wow.

Chandra: So it’s a lot.

Sarah: It’s a lot of communications plans. Before that, she was the managing supervisor at G&S Business Communications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in African-American studies from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Her honors include a Pulitzer Prize staff award for breaking news at The Star-Ledger; Society of Professional Journalists’ Deadline Reporting Award; Gannett Newspapers’ Project Enterprise Well Done Citation; The Home News Tribune’s Rising Star Reporter’s Honor; Responsible Journalism Award from the New Jersey Press Association; and Best New Diversity Initiative by the PR Council and PRWeek. Not too shabby.

Chandra: Thank you.

Sarah: So Chandra, tell us a little about the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Chandra: The Center for Constitutional Rights is a nonprofit legal advocacy and education organization. We’re 52 years old this year. We actually have 52 employees. I just counted yesterday because we’re getting new head shots. But like I said we have 14 issue areas, 50 active cases and some issue areas are abusive immigration rights–Guantanamo–we were the first nonprofit to file a lawsuit against the Government based on the detainees at Guantanamo Bay; government surveillance; drone killings; discriminatory policing. We’re also the Organization behind the successful lawsuit against NYPD’s stop and frisk; LGBTQI persecution issues; Muslim profiling, so it kind of runs the gamut.

Chandra: Most of our clients are black and brown. They’re marginalized. We work with social justice movements and really take the lead from what’s happening on the ground, to uplift the social justice movements in a legal and advocacy manner.

Sarah: Awesome. Earlier this year, you launched this podcast that is aptly called, “The Activist Files.”

Chandra: Yes.

Sarah: And on it you feature stories of people on the front lines fighting for justice. So activists, lawyers, artists and each episode is 10 or 15 minutes long, or longer?

Chandra: We aim for about 20 – 25 minutes, and again it’s activists, lawyers, storytellers. We have this saying at Center for Constitutional Rights where if you bring an activist, lawyer and storyteller in the room you can change the world. Most of our guests fall within those categories.

Sarah: So why did you decide to start a podcast? I mean, in the past ten years we’ve seen more and more nonprofits launching blogs, some launching YouTube channels. Everybody’s on social media. Why podcast?

Chandra: We wanted to reach a younger audience at CCR. We are really grateful for the audience that we have. It’s a broad audience. Our audience includes donors and it tends to veer toward a certain age group. We really thought our podcast could be a way to reach a younger audience to partner with activists, lawyers and storytellers to talk about issues that touch our cases, but not specifically our cases. We also have a weekly blog that highlights our cases and we really were looking for an outlet to bring in people to talk about issues that are related to our cases but not necessarily cases we are filing at Center for Constitutional Rights.

Sarah: There’s also something powerful about the humanity of the voice in a podcast. Often times in the work we’ve done with organizations that are heavily staffed by lawyers, the written word can get a bit plotting when there are a lot of lawyers involved.

Chandra: Yeah.

Sarah: I imagine there’s something about the power of conversation.

Chandra: Yeah! It’s fun. We bring in these people who are really interesting. When I’m editing and listening to it, if I’m not in the recording room, and I’m listening to the podcast, and in an editing mind frame, I will literally Google the person because their voice makes me want to see who they are, what they look like and find out more about them. The conversations are really natural. They’re interesting. It’s been fun so far.

Sarah: One of the reasons we started podcasting is that it is actually a really pretty easy medium to work in. I would expect more and more nonprofits will figure that out and start to do it. There also seems to be much more of a critical mass of people listening to podcasts these days. We actually had a podcast maybe ten years ago called, “The Nonprofit Jungle,” and we had a lot of fun making it, but nobody really was listening to it. We killed it, and when we launched this podcast, we did so because we kept hearing people saying, “I love podcasts. I listen to them in my commute time, in the car, on the subway, etc.” Are you finding as you’ve launched yours, that you’re connecting with the people you expected to connect with?

Chandra: I think we’re connecting with new people. I didn’t have any expectations about who we would connect with outside of just the guests sharing the podcast with their friends. It’s a lot of new people, and I think we had a podcast launch party, maybe about 3 – 4 weeks ago, and there were a ton of new people in the room. That made me happy. It made my boss happy, the editorial team. We were really excited because we were like, “Okay who are these people? How did they know about CCR?” I went in with no expectations, but have been really happy with who were finding out and listening to our podcast.

Sarah: Your party was interesting because it was a silent party.

Chandra: Yes.

Sarah: Can you explain how that worked?

Chandra: Yeah sure. Everyone in the room had on a set of headphones, and at the time we had four podcasts-one was a bonus episode-so we had the three kind of real episodes on the podcast. People could switch from the different channels and the headphones would light up based on what podcast you were listening to. I think that the colors were red, blue and green. If you saw someone whose headphones are red, you could maybe go up to them and be like, “Hey, what did you think about that particular podcast?”

Chandra: It was really cool. We had light music playing in the background. Part of our podcast, the end, is called, “The Real AF,” for “The Activist Files–The Real Activist Files,” it’s “Would You Rather” questions. We did live “Would You Rather” questions at the podcast party. We were celebrating the fact that we were on iTunes, and now we’re also on Spotify.

Sarah: One of the things that I think is challenging, is to know exactly know who is listening. I mean, what we have found, and others I’ve spoken to have found, is that there are metrics that you can look at in iTunes and your distribution channel, but they’re more reflective of downloads, not necessarily people who are live streaming. They don’t always aggregate correctly. So you’re trying to reach a younger audience with this having the launch party is one way to kind of start to get a feel of who’s coming to the party. How can you leverage your networks. How are you measuring the value of this podcast in terms of reaching those new audiences at this point?

Chandra: We’ve gotten a couple of emails about, “This is great!” Of course, there were people at the party who were listening and gave us feedback. We’re so young right now it’s a little hard to measure who’s listening, but definitely looking for ways to do that.

Sarah: Yeah and maybe that will emerge through some sort of combination of supportive media. Podcasting, in many ways, is still a broadcast vehicle. It’s a little traditional. It’s a little one way. When you start to use it to open up conversations on the topic in Facebook, or in LinkedIn, you start to make it a little more engaging. Do you find that there is any data that is emerging? I mean you’re about 4 – 5 episodes published at this point, but is there any data emerging yet that is helping you get your arms around the value of it in any kind of measurable way yet?

Chandra: Our first podcast we had 862 downloads which, I was shocked.

Sarah: Great!

Chandra: Yeah. Then the numbers kind of tapered off a bit. There was a lot of excitement around the first one. We did a lot to let the people know our podcast is monthly. It comes out the second Thursday of every month. We always do an email blast. We put it in our blog which comes out every Monday. It’s “The Front Lines of Justice.” We’re doing a lot of different types of outreach. As far as to get those numbers up, we’re just trying to reiterate for people to follow us on iTunes, and to rate and review us and to follow us on Spotify.

Sarah: Yeah. The idea of any piece of content getting repurposed across multiple channels, I think, is really central to its success. Promoting in social, having an email, all those kinds of things, I think it’s probably not unlike other forms of journalism where there’s this misnomer, “If we build it, they will come.”

Chandra: Right. They’re coming but very slowly and I’m trying to–and like I said, I didn’t go in with any expectations, but I think that just my mindset is the numbers need to be high for it to be successful, but the fact that we are still doing this and we’re 4 – 5 months in, and we’re kind of in our rhythm. Right now we have three podcasts in the can. We’re recording another one next week and one launched last week. I feel like we’re in a really good place. To me, that’s success.

Sarah: Tell us a little about how you’re actually technically producing it. There’s a wide range of ways to produce podcasts. You guys are doing it in a way where you’re going for maximum production value but in the scrappiest, most DIY ways possible.

Chandra: It is so scrappy and so DIY! (laughter) We’re using a conference room. You’re fortunate enough to have a room dedicated to your podcast. We grab a conference room [inaudible 00:10:17] and so we have kind of been floating from conference room to conference room. We have our preference, but, you know, it’s 52 people in our office and we’re all sharing these three conference rooms. So it’s very scrappy in that sense that we don’t have a dedicated room. We do have mics and we do have that type of equipment. We’re really learning as we’re going along.

Chandra: We have one person on our editorial team who had a personal podcast a couple of years ago and we’re looking to him. It’s Ian Head, one of our co-hosts, we’re looking to him a lot for direction. It’s really trial and error.

Sarah: And is he, Ian, editing your podcasts in-house, currently?

Chandra: Charles Greene, our web manager, is editing. He had to learn this editing software kind of on the whim. I will normally go in and do a line edit, literally like I’m listening to the podcast, and like at three minutes and 32 seconds there was a cough, can you take that out, and so we’re looking for a better way to do that, a more efficient way. Then I send all those line edits to Charles. He will edit via software then send it back to me. I’ll do a content edit. So, again, it’s trial and error and we are looking for more efficient ways to do this because everyone’s so busy at CCR. But this is a labor of love and everyone’s really dedicated to it.

Sarah: The way you’re producing it in-house is a great way to really understand what goes into producing it.

Chandra: It’s a lot of work.

Sarah: Get your arms around it. It is a lot of work. One of the bees that’s been in my bonnet for a long time is calculating the value of staff time as a hard cost. Because when you produce something like this in-house, there is a real investment that you’re making that the time you’re line editing is time you’re not doing other things. For those of you who are curious the way we produce our podcast is, as Chandra said, we have a room in our office, and it’s got, you know, weird baffled sound things up on the wall. We’ve got fancy microphones and headsets. We also have a portable mic so if we go out into the field we can do some recording on the fly. And then we upload a digital file to a freelance producer, and he takes out all the “errs” and “ums” and edits things together so we hopefully sound a little smarter. So we are investing the money in that to not do the work. I think the kind of production value you need almost is a branding issue. I think if you are an organization that is producing a podcast called, “The Activist Files,” and you’re really trying to kind of communicate and connect with the grassroots audience rough for production, it’s going to be fine, it’s going to be on brand.

Chandra: I will agree with that, completely. Yeah.

Sarah: Yeah.

Chandra: No one’s expecting us to come out at the gate and be top quality because this is Center for Constitutional Rights. This is not a podcast organization. This is just one of the things that we do.

Sarah: Right. This is both the marketing tool, and really a programmatic tool in a way… .it’s a way you can sort of augment the programs. I also think there is a question that it kind of emerges with this sort of media about the trade-off of something like podcasting versus blogging versus video. I’m curious for you as a journalist how you think about these different thought leadership platforms, the sort of pros and cons of different thought leadership platforms.

Chandra: I’m really big on thought leadership and really trying to get our legal and advocacy staff, who are talking to the media, a lot to think about different ways to approach thought leadership. I like the way we’ve added another element to thought leadership, and that when we’re pitching our experts, we can point them to the podcast. We try not to bring in staff a lot to do podcasts. We really want to bring in people from the outside. But we have had a couple of (CCR) staff people as guests, or they come in to interview, and it’s just another way for them to acquaint to their expertise through the podcast.

Sarah: Yeah. So thinking about podcasting and other thought leadership platforms, but particularly launching a new one like this, let’s hear some tips. I feel like I’ve learned a ton podcasting and maintaining thought leadership machine. What do you recommend? What tips would you give to an organization that’s considering podcasting?

Chandra: Right now we’re in a good place because we have a couple in the can, but this is very new for us. Within the last month we’ve had some in the can, but in the beginning it was really hard as far as finding speakers, so we [inaudible 00:14:26] did a wide outreach within the staff. Send us people you know, who, you think would be good for the podcast, and just, scheduling issues. So I would really tell people to go with the flow with the scheduling and be really open because people will cancel on you at the last minute. So just kind of be prepared for that. If you’re doing outreach to guests who are not within your organization, maybe have an in-house backup, because things happen. People will cancel on you, and you can’t let yourself get too frustrated about that.

Sarah: We’ve always recorded many more podcasts than we’ve released and that helps too. That way, somebody doesn’t show up, you’re okay because you’ve got some in the can. I’m a big fan of that for blogging, and really any thought leadership because particularly if you’re working in an area where you might have to be news reactive or unexpected things come up, the more you’ve got stuff back-logged, the more reliably you’ll be able to maintain a consistent release schedule. A consistent release schedule becomes really important, I think, in any media. If you build a listener base, you want them to know for sure that they can tune in and get your podcast every week, or every other week.

Chandra: Yeah, definitely. We’re now at the point where we’re trying to do more evergreen podcasts, so when they are in the can, we can pull them out whenever we need them. It’s not a guest who’s responding to something that happened in the news yesterday, or last week.

Sarah: Another tip I would people is, just in terms of getting the most out of a podcast, or any recording–this is true for webinars and videos, too–is to transcribe them. Post them on the website. I teach a day long workshop in content planning in management and one of the things we talk about is search engine optimization. If you visit our website, you’ll see we link to the recording, as do you, and then we also post the transcript, and I would be surprised if people actually read the podcast transcript, but the bots do and Google does. That will also give you a lift when somebody searches something that is related to the contents, that’s good.

Chandra: Yeah that’s a great idea. We’re definitely looking into that.

Sarah: There are two tools you can use for that. The one we prefer is called Rev.com and they also take out all the “errs” and “ums” and things in the transcript. There’s another one called Temi, which is done digitally. If you’ve already edited your podcast, and it’s nice and clean, Temi will be good, it will give you a clean result. But there’s a little more manual labor you have to do in Temi as opposed to Rev.com.

Chandra: We’re used to the manual labor, so…

Sarah: Yes. Once a podcast goes live, I’m also a very big fan of thinking about all the ways you can use it. Who should you email? Should you send it to a board member? Do you weave it in somehow to other media you’re doing?

Chandra: Yeah. Our email blasts includes board members. It’s always in our Front Lines of Justice newsletter that comes out every month. We share it on social media. I’m actually going to start just taking people’s phones and subscribing them myself. I just really want to get our numbers up. It’s not about the numbers, it’s really about the content and the fact that we’re doing this. You know, high numbers are good.

Sarah: Yeah, I mean that’s simple “Call to Action” wherever you go.

Chandra: Yeah.

Sarah: “Hey! Would you listen to my podcast? Would you subscribe to the podcast?” It can really help.

Chandra: Yeah, and we have started including that in our talking points when we’re doing events just to kind of plug The Activist Files.

Sarah: Yeah, great! Well, Chandra thank you for being here!

Chandra: Thank you for having me.

Sarah: Happy podcasting!

Chandra: Yes!