When desktop publishing first hit the mass market back in the late ’80s, anyone could become a newsletter designer. More recently, sites like WordPress and Wix have made it possible for anyone to design a website. Video editing on a cell phone means anyone can now create and publish a music video or commercial.
Today, the same is true of podcasting. Inexpensive equipment and accessible online apps mean anyone can produce and post a podcast. Merriam-Webster defines a podcast as “a program made available in digital format for automatic download over the internet.”
Typically, podcasts are easily available through well-known platforms such as Apple, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, and dozens of others. According to Edison Research, 22 percent of adult Americans knew what a podcast was in 2006. By 2020, awareness had grown to 75 percent. According to the website Podcasting Insights, more than 2 million podcasts are currently available.
Locally produced podcasts abound on topics ranging from music and news to lifestyle features and health care. “In the past few years, podcasts have really exploded,” says Robert Lominack, who runs Richland County Public Education Partners, a local education nonprofit that produces a podcast called Education Matters. “It’s kind of old technology that’s found a new life.”
Easy access to equipment, free production software and inexpensive avenues for distribution mean the quality of both the production and the content can vary widely. University of South Carolina professor Laura Smith teaches two podcasting classes — one in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications and one in the Honors College. Her advice to emerging podcasters is to find a niche and put the audience first.
“New podcasts are coming out every day,” Laura says. “You need to figure out what will set you apart from the rest and why your audience might need what you’ve got. And you need to listen to a ton of podcasts to find a tone or style of production that suits your own special talents.”
Over the past year, the pandemic has given podcasts of all genres a chance to thrive. “People are online like never before and consuming so much content online,” says Heather Matthews of NP Strategy, a media and public relations firm in downtown Columbia that has found success in podcast production for clients. “People are buying more and expecting more online, and so much has gone on in the past 12 months. More and more content is available, especially in business.”
Chris Horn produces the University of South Carolina’s Remembering the Days podcast that features fun and quirky stories about the university’s history. “An aspiring podcaster can set up a mini-studio for as little as $300 to purchase a digital recorder and a good microphone or two,” he says. “The audio quality is what separates the hobby podcasters from the professionals. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get good sound. You just have to be committed.”
Robert shares that the best way to shorten post-production is to make the initial recording better. “We make sure what we’re talking about is linear and makes sense, but we also make sure the AC doesn’t come on to disrupt the recording.”
Robert — along with co-hosts Marques Whitmire and Lindsey Jacobs — launched Education Matters in November 2020. The podcast has featured segments about education funding, the recent federal stimulus money going to schools, and legislative action at the State House. Robert says, “We wanted to offer a place to have a conversation about public education in South Carolina. One thing I’ve learned is that because everyone went to school, they think they understand how public education works. That’s just not the case.”
South Carolina Public Radio’s news podcast, the South Carolina Lede, also covers education, politics, and a wide diversity of other news headlines each week. Gavin Jackson and AT Shire are the production team for the twice-weekly podcast. Gavin is the host with a background in news from years of newspaper reporting. AT, the producer, comes from a radio production background.
The SC Lede gets its name from the traditional newspaper industry spelling of the first sentence of a news story. The podcast started out as a partnership with the Post and Courier with its reporters serving as guests to discuss the news stories they were covering.
“We wanted to highlight real news,” Gavin says. “People don’t always understand the news and can sometimes feel left behind when they are talked over. Our whole premise is helping people understand what’s going on.” The initial format with Gavin and the reporters also gave listeners the chance to see the reporters as real people who cover their communities.
Then the pandemic forced a change in format to adapt to the rapidly moving news landscape. “There was so much news to get out, like two to three governor’s press conferences a week and ongoing health care news.” The podcast moved to three days a week early in the pandemic, which gave AT an additional role as a second voice to Gavin’s.
Gavin and AT agree that the format makes news easy to consume, even for people who don’t consider themselves news people. “When I came into it, I wasn’t a newsy person,” AT says. “I was like a lot of people just not paying attention. We wanted to shine a light on news that you need to pay attention to.”
But it’s not just about the content. “We wanted to have some fun too,” AT says. “And we wanted to build community.” During the pandemic, the pair started offering up a phone number for listeners to leave voice-mail messages to describe their pandemic experiences. A segment at the end of each episode showcases these callers sharing their unique stories. Fun sound effects and occasional joking between Gavin and AT add to the spontaneity of the podcast.
Gavin and AT say their skills complement each other and make for a podcast that appeals across listener demographics. AT says, “Some things I’m good at and some things Gavin’s good at. If we both had our way, the podcast wouldn’t be as good.”
Business and health care are two other areas where local podcasts have found a niche. NP Strategy, a subsidiary of the Nexsen Pruet law firm, serves the communication and media needs of the firm’s clients. The pandemic gave NP Strategy the chance to start serving the law firm itself using its own legal experts to share their expertise in a podcast format. When the pandemic hit and some of NP Strategy’s client work slowed down a bit, Heather, NP Strategy’s CEO and a former WIS senior reporter, saw an opportunity to use that time to develop the idea of a podcast she had been thinking about for a while. But rather than doing an audio-only podcast, Heather says, “We wanted to do video. We have the in-house capacity to do it.” NP Strategy’s team includes a number of former newsroom professionals with backgrounds in video production. They started with two podcasts with others in the works.
But it’s not just news and serious topics that dominate the local podcast landscape. The other end of the topical spectrum includes lighter fare such as music and lifestyle features.
On the local music front, John Furr launched the Cola Town Underground podcast with his bandmates from Grand Republic, an indie, alt-rock band from Columbia. “We started the podcast after realizing that band rehearsals often devolved into conversations that were sometimes as fun as making music,” John says.
The band already had the technology to produce the podcast. They started with lighthearted chats to discuss music, beer, and the past and present Columbia scene with guests. “Originally, we planned to be focused on music but quickly expanded our discussions with artists, musicians, writers, creators, restaurateurs, filmmakers, or just people we admire,” John says. “Although it might seem our audience is hyperlocal and niche, we think the stories and creativity our guests share would be interesting to many people outside of Columbia.”
Guests on Cola Town Underground have included Philippe Herndon of the Columbia-based Caroline Guitar Company, author Julia Liz Elliott, Scott Burgess of Bierkeller Columbia, radio DJ and podcaster Sloane Spencer, hip-hop producer Marcum Core, local painter Trahern Cook, and filmmaker Christopher Bickel.
On the lifestyle front, Columbia native Anne Snipes Smith launched her highly successful podcast, But Not All at Once, just over two years ago from a closet in the Greenville home she shares with her husband and four children, who were then all under 10. She set out with a goal of having good conversations and helping people connect.
Anne’s strong Southern roots from growing up in Columbia, delivering her graduating Clemson class’s commencement address, and earning her master’s from USC’s School of Journalism prepared her well for the art of conversation, including recognizing the delicate balance between asking questions and staying quiet while a guest talks. “I have always been a talker and always loved a good conversation,” says Anne. “I made a list on New Year’s Eve 2019 of women I wanted to go to lunch with and connect with. It just kind of grew into this.”
She has tackled tough, heart-wrenching topics like miscarriage, fatal diagnoses, and infidelity as well as fun, breezy topics like Meghan and Harry’s wedding and 1990-era rom-coms. Most of her episodes run about an hour and feature a one-on-one interview with a guest. A few episodes feature Anne on her own talking bluntly on topics such as body image, social justice, quarantine coping, and being a good friend.
Anne admits she didn’t have any experience with podcasting when she started researching the idea of sharing people’s personal stories as a way to connect with others. “The first podcast series I listened to was about how to make a podcast,” Anne says. “Then I just asked some people for help.”
She named her podcast But Not All at Once as a nod to her role as a mom to four young children, the owner of a thriving PR consulting business, busy wife, and long-distance daughter to Columbia parents. Anne says, “The idea was that we can learn, master, attempt, launch, or tackle absolutely anything. We can truly do it all, but not all at once.”
Anne has produced more than 90 episodes in the two years since she started But Not All at Once, and it is approaching a quarter-million downloads. While Anne says she is thrilled and grateful for the huge following, not only in Columbia and Greenville but all over the world, she says, “I prefer to gauge the success of an episode by the number of direct messages in my inbox. If we had 500,000 downloads and no one reaching out, it would be like speaking into an echo chamber.”
Anne says she has found people just want to be heard and to hear stories with which they connect. “People you read about in The New York Times or the people with blue checks by their names on Instagram aren’t necessarily who you want to hear about. People relate to other people regardless of their profile. It just comes down to the story.”
Other Locally Produced Podcasts
• The Comfort Monk, produced in Columbia by Dylan Dickerson and Eddie Newman, showcases artistic efforts in the Columbia area and beyond, including albums, podcasts, zines, written interviews, and live shows.
• Columbia Chronicles produced by USC students features intriguing Columbia stories and people.
• Define Your Journey, produced by the S.C. Department of Commerce and hosted by Hannah Horne, looks at how the state can meet workforce challenges.
• City Quick Connect, produced by the Municipal Association of South Carolina, focuses on good news stories about what’s happening in South Carolina cities and towns.
• Of Note, produced by Scribble SC, offers a glimpse inside the notebooks of some of the state’s most interesting business and research minds.
• Asylum South is about culture, politics, barbecue, media, music, and art, hitting topics as diverse as fighting pollen to Southern politics.
• The Buzz with Burnie was the first audio/video NP Strategy podcast, featuring Burnie Maybank, a Nexsen Pruet attorney who is widely known in economic development circles.
• NP Strategy’s podcast, Taking the Pulse, is health care-related, featuring interviews with industry leaders on current health care topics such as COVID-19, telehealth, government funding, and regulations.
• Bourbon in the Backroom, launched in January 2021 by Joel Lourie and Vincent Sheheen, aims to give listeners the news in an easily consumable format.