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Podcasting at Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy with Jenna Spinelle

Podcasting at Penn State's McCourtney Institute for Democracy with Jenna Spinelle

Podcasting ranks right up there with influencer marketing and AI as one of the most hyped marketing trends over the last few years. But what’s really involved in launching a podcast, what’s the potential pay-off, and is it too late for your school to jump on the podcast train?

We tackle these questions and more in our latest Higher Ed Marketing Lab podcast. Joining us is Jenna Spinelle from Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy, Since 2018, Jenna’s produced and promoted the Institute’s Democracy Works podcast, and she’s got great advice for anyone considering starting one.

You’ll hear:

  • Why podcasting has become such a hot medium over the last few years
  • Whether or not it’s too late to start your own podcast
  • How to set realistic expectations for exposure and listenership
  • How to pick the right topic for your podcast
  • And smart ways to make the workload of podcasting more manageable.


Democracy Works Podcast

Audacity (free audio editing software)

Hindenburg (audio editing and production software)


Jarrett Smith
You’re listening to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab. I’m your host, Jarrett Smith.

Welcome to the Higher Ed Marketing Lab, I’m Jarrett Smith. Each episode, it’s my job to engage with some of the brightest minds in marketing and higher education, to bring you actionable advice you can use to level up your school’s marketing and enrollment efforts.

In this episode, we’ll be talking about podcasting. If you’re in a marketing role, chances are pretty good that you, your colleagues, or your boss have at least toyed with the idea of launching a podcast as part of your school’s marketing plan. That makes sense, given all the hype around podcasting in recent years, but what’s really involved in launching a podcast? What’s the potential payoff? And, is it maybe too late to get in on this medium?

Joining us to help answer some of these questions, and more, is Jenna Spinelle. Jenna is the Communications Specialist at Penn State’s McCourtney Institute for Democracy. Since 2018, Jenna has been working with the institute’s team to produce and promote the Democracy Works podcast, and she’s got great advice for anyone considering adding podcasting to their school’s marketing mix.

We start off by talking about why podcasting has become such a hot medium over the last few years, and then we turn to more practical matters, like setting realistic expectations for exposure and listenership, essential considerations for picking the right topic, and smart ways to make the workload of producing and promoting a podcast more manageable. So, without further ado, here’s my conversation with Jenna Spinelle.

Jenna, welcome to the show.

Jenna Spinelle
Hey Jarrett, thanks for having me.

Jarrett Smith
So glad you’re here, and I’m super excited to have this conversation about podcasting in higher ed. Before we get to that, though, could you start off by just telling us a little bit about yourself and your role at Penn State?

Jenna Spinelle
Sure. So, I work for the McCourtney Institute for Democracy, which is a research center that looks at democracy from a couple of different angles. I am a comms team of one, so in addition to producing a podcast, which I’m sure we’ll talk about, I also handle all of our social media, website content, media relations. Pretty much anything that would fall under the communications umbrella.

It’s in many ways a perfect mix of a lot of things that I’m interested in. Democracy encompasses politics, it encompasses the media. My background is in journalism, and I get to do a lot of pretty cool Marcom stuff as well, including our podcast.

Jarrett Smith
Very cool. So, it’s interesting, podcasting started quite a while ago. It dates all the way back to, as we know it today, back around 2004, when it was brought into iTunes around then, or, Apple Podcast now, around 2004. It’s been one of those sleeper mediums.

I would love it if you could set the table for us, by giving us a little background on why is podcasting the “it” medium now? Why are so many folks tuning into that?

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah. It’s funny, I’ve been trying to think about, have our lifestyles adapted to podcasting, or has it been the other way around? Has podcasting cropped up because of needs, or just the way that we live our lives has changed? I think it’s probably a little bit of both.

If you think about, we spend more time today, maybe commuting on public transportation, or driving in cars. We’re, of course, all about optimizing our lives, and being productive, and wanting to connect with people. I think, in some ways, our world is very disconnected, even though we have access to any information we would want at any time through our phones. I think that can get lonely, and podcasts are a way for people to have those connections, or at least feel like they have those connections. You literally have someone coming right into your ear, talking about their life, or telling you a funny story, or teaching you something new. I think that’s part of the reason why they have really caught on.

There’s research out there, to suggest that about 74% of podcast listeners tune in because they want to learn something new, so I think there’s a lot of opportunity in that for folks in higher ed to really take advantage of something that people seem to be hungry for.

Jarrett Smith
Mm-hmm (affirmative). I think it is an interesting question, of why now? But, the growth has been, really, pretty impressive around podcasts. Can you give folks a sense of just how big the podcast universe is, and how this is really a serious channel?

Jenna Spinelle
Somewhere around 40% of the country listens to podcasts at least once a month, even more than that have listened to a podcast in their lifetimes at all. It’s growing, every year. In particular, from 2018 to 2019, the growth was about double what it had been. So, it had been a pretty steady two to three percent increase, year over year, and now from 2018 to 2019, it’s gone up about six percent or so.

I expect it’s going to keep on growing, especially as more celebrities start to have podcasts. Conan has really brought a lot of folks to the medium. I just heard that Rainn Wilson, from The Office, is going to have a podcast. I think Barack and Michelle Obama are working on one. So, I think all that is really good, because it helps bring visibility to be medium overall.

Jarrett Smith
I just chuckled while you were saying all that, because I was thinking of the Opera, “You get a podcast! You get a podcast!”

Jenna Spinelle
Exactly, exactly.

Jarrett Smith
Just personally reflecting on this, when we started this podcast, we kicked it off in October 2018. I was so crushed, I was like, “Oh, I feel so cliché! I missed the boat.”

But, maybe a more serious point that, I think we’ve all seen in a lot of these channels that timing really matters. I remember, back in the day when Facebook had really serious organic reach, and as more users piled on, and then their profit motive got introduced, that organic reach dried up. It became what it is today, and it’s not necessarily, from a marketing standpoint, always as effective in certain ways, as it was in the past. We’ve seen that with blogging, there’s so many blogs out there, and it becomes a very crowded space. Over and over again, there’s that curve where you get diminishing returns because so many people are piling on.

If you’re staring a podcast today, what are you getting into, in terms of the crowding that marketplace that’s out there, and the competition for people’s attention?

Jenna Spinelle
Just like every other aspect of our media diet, as you were saying, there is a lot of competition for attention. There are now at least 700,000, if not close to 750,000 podcasts out there, in the world, and about 4000 new shows being added, every week.

You’ll see an article every once in a while, have we hit peak podcasts? I think that we are probably getting close to some type of saturation point, if the number of listeners doesn’t continue to also grow. But I think that higher ed, in particular, we have pretty unique opportunity to help bring new people into the fold, so to speak.

Colleges all have a variety of different audiences that they work with, from students, faculty, staff, alumni, people in the community who might come to events on your campus. Some of those folks listen to podcasts, but some of them probably don’t. Your show, your university’s podcast, might just be that vehicle that gets them into podcasting. From there, they discover whatever other show they might want to listen to. It’s the rising tide lifts all boats model.

I’ve mentioned our podcast at university meetings, and events, and literally had a line of people come up to me after and hand me their phones and say, “I don’t know how to find this, put it on here.” New people are hungry for the content, they just don’t know how to find it. Whatever we all, as podcasters collectively can do to help people find, I think, is super important.

Jarrett Smith
Yeah. I think whenever you’re entering off into a new medium, it’s super important … somebody listening to this is contemplating, maybe, starting a podcast at their school. I think it’s super important to have realistic expectations about what you’re going to get out of that.

You’ve been podcasting for a while, and are obviously well versed on the subject. What do you think people need to be prepared for, in terms of the type of exposure they could have, the number of downloads, if we just want to quantify it? What kind of reach does this get you?

Jenna Spinelle
First of all, I’ll say you’re not going to be Serial, you’re not going to be The Daily, you’re not going to Joe Rogan. Sometimes, especially if the idea for a podcast starts at the top of an organization, there might be some of those expectation that you’re going to get millions, or 10s of thousands of downloads.

There is a podcast hosting platform, call Libsyn, that compiles average and median stats every month, and they release them on their podcast, called The Feed. Based on what I’ve heard from them, the median number of downloads per episode is somewhere around 140 to 150. So, Libsyn always says, “If you have more than that, you’re better than half the podcasts out there.” Just to add some perspective to that, if you have more than 1100 downloads per episode, you’re in the top 20% of all podcasts. To be in the top 10%, you really need 3200 downloads per episode.

Those numbers don’t sound like a lot, but I think if you think about it in terms of, most colleges, I would venture, if you had 150 people come to an event on your campus, or an alumni networking event, you would consider that a resounding success. I guess, maybe unless you brought in some really big name speaker, or something like that.

I know, with a podcast you have 150 people tuning into you, week after week, after week. And people that might not even necessarily have had any connection to your university previously. So, there might be, for folks starting out, the need to just reframe some of those expectations. Yeah, you might not get a high amount of numbers, especially at the start, but the engagement, the amount of attention people are giving you is much, much greater. People are listening to you for 10, 20, 30 minutes, maybe even longer than that. If you think about the total slice of that attention pie, it’s pretty big.

Jarrett Smith
Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. If you were to have that same number of people in a room, and get to talk to them, and deliver that same content face to face, you would be absolutely thrilled.

Jenna Spinelle

Jarrett Smith
I think that’s a really healthy way to think about it, and bring it back down to Earth.

Podcasting, outside of just the download numbers, and the more quantifiable reach that you have, I think can have a lot of different benefits. I know you and I have talked about this a little bit, in terms of it’s not just downloads that you get in the folks that are listening to that, it allows you to do other things that, maybe, wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah, sure. The McCourtney Institute for Democracy, where I work, is a fairly new institute at Penn State, we’ve only been around for about four years or so, which is not very long in higher ed terms. So our podcast, which is called Democracy Works, has really allowed us to punch above our weight class, a little bit.

We’ve been able to reach out to other research centers at places like Princeton, and Stamford, and Harvard, and have some of these pretty big time faculty on our show. We would’ve never had a reason to reach out to them otherwise, and now we’ve established to connections. They know who we are, what we do. We’re hoping that it will lead to increased opportunities down the line. We’ve only been doing the show for about a year and a half now, so a lot of other research projects and things tend to have a much longer time span to them.

They definitely know our name, we’ve been invited to speak at conferences. When our faculty go out and they say they’re from the McCourtney Institute they’re like, “Oh, you’re the people with the podcast.” So it really helped us, in terms of name recognition, and establishing our institute in a field that is a little bit crowded.

Jarrett Smith
Good stuff. Okay, let’s get down into the brass tacks of what it actually takes to produce a podcast, and do that well. If someone is thinking, I think we might want to wade into these podcast waters, or maybe their boss is nudging them into the podcast waters, what are your thoughts on how to get started in a smart way?

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah, as with any marketing project, I think it’s important to understand what you want to say, and what your goals are for putting that content out there. Because the landscape is so crowded already, you really need to make sure that you are filling a niche that someone else is not already filling.

I would suggest, first, think about what area it is you want to focus on. So, podcasting is a super niche medium, in spite of the fact that you and I are talking, say, on a show that’s all about higher ed marketing. If I would have said, “I want to make a podcast about Penn State,” there’s 160 majors here, and any number of things that we do, so that’s too broad to really match into any one specific niche.

Think about what’s your university known for, what are your strengths? Where are your rock star faculty, what’s their expertise? What can they bring to the table? Try to figure out where you can fit, and survey the landscape. Of course, listen to other shows out there, start doing some keyword searches in Apple Podcast, or Spotify, or whatever your podcast app of choice is. See what people are already talking about, and figure out if there’s a way that you can add something different, or add something unique to that landscape.

For us, after the 2016 election, there was a lot of talk about democracy. There was a whole cottage industry of books that were written, and are still being written. But, we didn’t really see anyone that was having a version of what was being written in those books in a podcast form. So we saw an opportunity, and just decided to go for it. In higher ed too, we tend to have decision paralysis sometimes. The more people you get involved, all of a sudden you have a committee, and you have to have six months or a year of planning before you can even get something off the ground. I think, definitely, as podcasting continues to get more popular, if you have a good idea, and you are reasonably confident that no one else is doing it, you should strike while the iron’s hot, otherwise someone else is going to, most likely, come along with your idea.

Jarrett Smith

Jenna Spinelle
So, I would just say, work diligently but also quickly, and try to find some happy medium between those two things.

Jarrett Smith
Yeah, that makes a ton of sense, really trying to dive into that niche, and figure out where you can bring a unique voice to the table. Of course, there’s a larger question that I know you’re very mindful of, of how does this fit within our larger institutional mission? Because there’s a lot you can do with a podcast, you need to understand how that fits with where the larger organization is heading.

How have you thought about that, with your podcast, or talked to other folks about that?

Jenna Spinelle
It is important, as you were saying, to understand what your organization’s goals are. Where does your podcast fit into your existing comms plan? Is it something that you’re going to use to try to build outreach to a particular group of students?

I know a colleague of mine at American University produces a podcast called, Big World. It’s run out of the School of International Service. They view it as a recruiting tool, for prospective graduate students that they want to come to their program. They can hear from their faculty about the things that they’re working on, that’s been a good vehicle for them in terms of recruitment.

Because I said with our show, it’s more about just establishing our institute and Penn State as part of these larger, national and international conversations that are happening, about the state of democracy in the US and throughout the world.

I think the answer to that question is probably going to be different for everybody. It’ll probably depend on, again, what your faculty’s strengths are, what your staff’s strengths are. Do you have the resources on your comms team to produce an NPR style, This American Life field recording, type of show? Or, do you have somebody who might be better as a host, and you just do an interview type of show? What are your resources, and where is it going to fit into your existing marketing plan?

Jarrett Smith

Jenna Spinelle
Those are the types of conversations I’ve had with other folks, here at Penn State.

Jarrett Smith
Yeah, such important advice. Diving a little deeper into that workflow and resources piece, because I think as you and I both know, producing a podcast is a lot more work than it seems like it should be. Even if your show is a relatively simple one, like this one, it still takes a number of hands to put it together, and a lot of time.

Can you talk through the workflow, from recording to editing, and promoting the podcast, those pieces? Some things people might want to think about along the way, if they’re considering this, but haven’t really ever tried it before?

I would definitely recommend doing a pilot episode, or maybe two or three pilot episodes. That’s what we did, just to make sure that this is really something we want to do, and do consistently. That’s the other thing about podcasting, there is some expectation if you’re asking people to subscribe to what you’re doing, that you’re going to hold up your end of the bargain and give them content, on a somewhat regular basis. Maybe it’s weekly, maybe it’s biweekly, maybe it’s monthly. I would say, not to go any less frequently than monthly.

You can buy a couple of microphones, and get a license for Adobe Audition, or Hindenburg, or you could even use something like Garage Band, or Audacity, which are both free programs. You could do things pretty quickly, there’s all kinds of videos and tutorials out there, about how to edit audio. It’s most basic level, it’s not that different than cutting and pasting text from a Word document, except you’re moving around different pieces of audio. There’s some fading and things that help with production, but again, you could a very bare-bones model.

Our show is a little bit different in that we produce it in partnership with our NPR station, here in Central Pennsylvania, which also happens to be part of Penn State. We have audio editing and production help that we get from WPSU, which has been a huge help for me. I don’t know that we would be able to do a weekly show if I had to do all the editing, plus prep for the interviews, plus promote the show, plus book guests, and all of that stuff.

I think a lot of those logistical pieces are, for me, what I thought would be easy, but it ends up taking a lot of time. Figuring out, we have a different guest on our show every week, so what’s their schedule? What’s my schedule? I have two co-hosts on our show, so what’s their schedule? What’s the studio’s schedule, if we’re recording over there? It’s a lot of moving parts, and it can just, like I said, be a time suck to make all those things work.

I cross my fingers every time we record, that no one’s going to be sick that day, or nothing’s going to happen, the weather’s not going to be bad, or we’re not going to be able to not get to the studio, or that no one’s computer’s going to die. There’s any number of things that can go wrong.

Jarrett Smith

Jenna Spinelle
The other piece of it, too, is promotion. It is a vicious cycle, if you are like me, a team of one doing a lot of this stuff. The episode comes out on a Monday, and then it’s Wednesday, and I have to both write the notes for next week, and also remember to post in on social media, and all the other things that you do to promote a piece of content.

Some weeks, it feels like I’m on it, all the time. Other weeks, I’ll admit, I get behind on one part of this. You and I are talking on Friday, late morning, it’s about noon time. I haven’t finished the notes, yet, for my episode that comes out on Monday, because the episode we put out this current week has been really timely, and in the news, so I’ve been focusing more on the promotional side of it. Trying to take advantage of some of those connections to what’s happening in the news. There’s only so much time in the day, and I’m still trying to figure out what the best balance. I think a lot of other podcasters that I’ve talked to are in that same boat.

Jarrett Smith
Yeah, nobody can see this, but I’m just nodding along. Yeah, that has absolutely been my experience, and it can totally be worth it if you go in with the right expectations, but just have to know you’re signing up for a lot of work if you really want to, even, achieve that median goal.

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah. That’s important, too. Podcasting is not for everybody. I think it’s important to go into it clear eyed, and understand is the amount of work that you’re putting into it worth it, to get 150 downloads an episode? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Maybe there are some of those tangential benefits that we were talking about earlier, that might help sway the decision one way or the other. But, just like with anything, don’t just jump on the bandwagon because everybody else is, you have to understand what you’re going to put into it, versus what you might get back out of it.

Jarrett Smith
Absolutely, that is fantastic advice. So Jenna, a lot of our listeners like to reach out to our guests after the show, shoot them an email, connect on social media. If someone wanted to reach out to you, to find out a little bit more about podcasting and carry this conversation further, what are the best places to connect with you?

Jenna Spinelle
You can send me an email, so Jenna, J-E-N-N-A@PSU.EDU. You can also search for me on Medium, I’ve written several articles about podcasting in higher ed, and at organizations more broadly. Look me up on LinkedIn, happy to connect there as well. If you wanted to check out our show, you can find it at DemocracyWorksPodcast.com, or by searching Democracy Works in any podcast app.

Jarrett Smith
Awesome. Just so everybody knows, Jenna, you mentioned a lot of great tools and resources, including your podcast, so we’ll also provide links to all that stuff in the show notes, over at echodelta.co/Podcast.

Jenna, thank you so much for sharing your insights and experiences on podcasting. Thank you.

Jenna Spinelle
Yeah, thanks for having me, Jarrett. This is great.

Jarrett Smith
The Higher Ed Marketing Lab is produced by Echo Delta, a full service marketing firm dedicated to helping higher education institutions drive enrollment, increase yield, and capture donor’s attention. For more information, visit echodelta.co.

If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and leave us a review on iTunes. And, as always, if you have questions, suggestions, episode ideas, or just want to reach out and say hi, drop us a line at Podcast@EchoDelta.co. See you next time.

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Jarrett is our VP of Strategy and the torchbearer for all things digital. Since joining us in 2014, he’s made it his mission to help clients seize the power of smarter marketing strategies—and reap the rewards.

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