Thursday, February 4, 2010

What makes a Great Podcast?

Last week, I sat down with a group of docents at the Hyde Collection, an art museum and historic house with a tremendous collection in Glens Falls, NY.    We were working together, supported by an IMLS grant for new interpretive efforts to make plans for each of them to create a short, two minute or less podcast about a single work of art in the museum.  These are passionate docents, both committed to the museum and with an enthusiastic interest in art.  But podcasts were new to most of them.

We began by listing the things that would make, we thought, a good podcast.  It boiled down to what we called ended up calling The Four Cs:
  • Conversational:  the podcast narrator was easy and fun to listen to--not jargon filled.
  • Content and Context:  you actually learned some information and were able to put the work of art in a larger context.
  • Connection:  the podcast narrator found a way to connect directly with you, the listener/viewer.
  • Concise:  goes without saying, that the podcast needed to be direct and brief.

Then, as a group, we listened to several podcasts and rated them using a rubric based on the Four Cs, rating each area from 1-5.   We had one hands-down winner that got received 5s in every category from almost every listener.   The winner:  the Frick Collection's description of a Rembrandt self-portrait by the director of the Frick, Anne L. Poulet.   Why?  Take a listen and see what you think... Ms. Poulet drew the docents into the painting by her description that helped you look deeper and make connections to their own lives (and grumpy grandpas, perhaps).  The listeners finished feeling that not only did you understand the painting, but also the painter.  And an unexpected result:  several docents said they'd make a special effort to see the painting on their next visit to New York.

We listened to another podcast that stirred some lively discussion.  It was a podcast from the Museum of London, about an alderwood club.    According to their website, this and other podcasts were specifically designed for visitors with visual impairments, but are suitable for all visitors.   These podcasts were developed as part of the museum's social inclusion program:
Podcasts from the Past worked one day a week for 8 weeks with a small group of adults who are currently long-term unemployed, to create a series of podcasts for visually impaired visitors. The participants are a range of ages, with a rich variety of backgrounds and life stories, but came together to work as a team to realize their abilities and gain news skills and experience they can use in their futures.
The Hyde docents liked the informal tone of the speaker, and some loved the sound effects and others really disliked them--but all agreed, that if you were a young visitor, the sound effects (listen for that thwack at the end) would be memorable!

I hope this meeting had several take-aways for the docents, but I know it did for me.  I gained a handy tool to think about audio tours (and perhaps those Four Cs would serve any label-writer well).  It also reinforced for me a process of working with docents, encouraging them to become active learners themselves in critiquing and understanding the many ways museums connect with visitors.

Photos top to bottom:
Listening to our audio tour, from nicolelikestarts photostream on Flickr
Self Portrait, Rembrandt van Rijn,  from the Frick Collection
Museum of London podcast recording session


Anne W. Ackerson said...

Great post, Linda! What a terrific way to introduce podcasting to a group that had little-to-no experience with it. It will be interesting to see how they do with making their own podcasts, following the examples you provided and sticking to the C-list they developed!

Nina Simon said...

Great process, but I'm a bit surprised by the Frick clip. Maybe it was my high expectations, but I didn't think it was that special. Yes, there were some interesting bits shared in accessible vocabulary, but to me it sounded like any decent art audio guide. As a person with little art knowledge, it didn't turn me on or get me excited about the piece - I'm not even sure I would have listened to the end and the good content about his size if I were in the gallery. It would have been more conversational if she had been a bit more personal, not using the floating and dislocative "us" quite so much. I find the Smarthistory podcasts more effective.

I think there's a difference between audio that works well for people who already have high affinity for art museum experiences (including docents) and those who don't. Maybe the "don'ts" are less likely to even pick up a podcast or audio tour and aren't a suitable target audience. But as a "don't," this audio clip didn't help me want to get more engaged.

Linda Norris said...

Anne--yes, it will be very interesting to see how they do...and Nina, great point about audience--this was a group that was very experienced in terms of both learning about art history and museum-going. And what some liked about the London museum podcast was that it was much more accessible...and I'll now check out those SmartHistory podcasts and recommend some more listening!

It was for me, as you both noted, the process of encouraging docent listening that was the most valuable.

Anonymous said...

I really liked your post! I especially liked the Four Cs, I think you hit the nail on the head with these, especially when it comes to being concise. I also used this article on making museum podcasts. It gave tons of examples of other museums' podcasts.