Listen Up! How to Engage Employees with Internal Podcasts
Zane Ewton can’t say when exactly it happened. But at some point early on, he realized that the internal podcasts they were creating at Arizona Public Service (APS) had begun to develop a loyal following.
He knew because people would stop him in the hallways.
“Somebody would say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a great idea for your podcast.’” said Ewton, a Communication Consultant. “That’s when I knew that we were on to something here.”
Each month, Ewton and fellow Communication Consultant Katie Curtis, co-host a podcast for employees called “Connected.” It explores things happening at the power company, the people inside APS, and even lighthearted topics like how linemen get their nicknames.
“We started with a guy named Biscuit,” Ewton said, laughing. “Let’s just say that lineman culture is very unique. It turned out to be a fun conversation.”
Since launching 18 months ago, the podcast has become the most popular content on APS Connect, the employee communication and engagement platform powered by Dynamic Signal. It’s a unique form of internal storytelling that puts the focus squarely on the people who matter the most:
“The appeal to a podcast is it’s such a cool alternative to other storytelling that comms teams are already doing, like video and articles,” Ewton said. “Podcasts can fill in the cracks because they’re approachable conversations that don’t come across as corporate jargon that really doesn’t say anything. The authenticity is cool.”
Becky Graebe, Dynamic Signal’s Senior Director, Communication Expert, agrees.
“There’s something more intimate about listening to personal stories in podcasts than almost any other form of digital communication,” Graebe said. “Zane and the team at APS do it well. The sincerity in letting real conversations play out naturally and sharing the voices of grassroots employees has real power. They’re incredibly clever to jump on the growing podcast wave.”
It’s more like a tsunami.
Podcasts have become all the rage as they delve into every topic imaginable, including current events, sports, movies, music, and true crime. The number of weekly podcast listeners has more than doubled over the past five years, from 28 million to 62 million, according to a study by Edison Research and Triton Digital. Also, listenership on mobile apps is up 60 percent alone since January 2018, and one-third of Millennials listen to five or more podcasts each week, another study found.
Ewton is one of those fans.
He enjoys listening to an eclectic mix that includes podcasts about old-time professional wrestling, “The Daily” from the New York Times, “The Slowdown” (with poet laureate Tracy K. Smith), “Song Exploder” (where music stars deconstruct their songs), and ones focused on internal communications, like from Katie Macaulay and Debbie Aurelius.
When the APS Connect platform was launched two years ago, Ewton and then-colleague Michelle Buchanan saw an opportunity. Why not create an internal podcast as exclusive content to help drive interest and adoption of the platform?
The intro to each episode says it all.
“You’re listening to Connected, a podcast dedicated to curious APS employees who want to know more about the company and the people who keep the lights on.”
Like most companies, APS has great, behind-the-scenes stories that fit perfectly with the podcast format. APS is something of an Arizona institution, providing electricity to more than 1.2 million retail and residential customers. It was founded in 1885, just five years after the Clanton gang got what was coming to them from Wyatt Earp and the boys over at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone.
“We’ve been here longer than Arizona has been a state,” Ewton said. “We have about 6,000 employees covering pretty much the entire state. A big reason why we got Dynamic Signal was so we could reach everyone.”
Connected is the stage for Ewton and Curtis to tell stories. It’s a pretty simple process. They record a conversation on a subject that will have a company-wide interest. Ewton edits the recording in Adobe Audition down to a length that ranges between 15 to 25 minutes and adds a few touches like a musical introduction. He’s careful to keep the elements simple to maintain that authenticity.
Podcast topics have included an insider’s look at a nuclear plant, the response to a power outage, battery storage science, and a day-in-life story of a worker serving his hometown in rural Arizona.
And, of course, the tale of Biscuit and his fellow linemen.
“We have so many stories to tell, and that’s why I love working here,” Ewton said. “One of the hardest things sometimes is getting our people to share them. They just want to do their thing and fly under the radar. But everyone loves hearing them because it captures what we do at APS.”
It helps that people often are much more willing to participate in podcasts than videos, he said. It’s less intimidating to record a chat with a colleague in a quiet room than it is preparing for a camera shoot.
“Also, podcasts can tell some stories a lot better than video,” he added. “Some topics have no visuals to go with them to make it engaging video. But you can sit down with someone and have a great conversation. You can hear the passion in their voice.”
Ewton said about one-third of the company has downloaded APS Connect, and he attributes at least part of that success to the podcast.
Beyond the data, Ewton knows Connected is having an impact because he always hears good things around the office and out in the field.
“My favorite feedback is when anybody says, ‘I always learn something new,’” Ewton added. “When I started hearing that, I thought, ‘Perfect, that’s what we’re aiming for.’ That’s the sweet spot for us when people are saying, ‘Hey, that was great, and I’m looking forward to the next one.’”
Tips on Getting Started with Internal Podcasting
- Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Ewton suggests that you begin gradually with a manageable schedule. “Don’t come out thinking, ‘We’re going do a weekly podcast!” he said. “That’s going to be your new full-time job. Set up a recurring schedule that will work for you and be something that you can achieve.”
- Coming up with ideas. “It hasn’t been too hard nailing down topics because we’re monthly and that gives us a little time to plan ahead,” Ewton said. “We can home in on some topics that we think would be valuable.”
- Don’t worry too much about equipment. APS hasn’t. Ewton said they’ve spent less than $500 on their program. “Don’t be intimidated by the technical aspects,” he added. “There are a lot of resources online to guide you. You can do this with as little equipment as you want, or you could rent out a local radio station. Just find the right setup that works for you and is comfortable.”
- Be creative. Usually, they just set up in a quiet space. But for the podcast with the APS employee working in his hometown, Ewton recorded as they drove around. “We captured the hum of the truck in the background,” he said. “It was a really cool experience.”
- Don’t worry about perfection. “It was probably about four or five episodes before I finally got over being uncomfortable with the sound of my own voice,” Ewton said. “You will find that groove where you can guide a conversation for 15 minutes. I edit down the content a little bit to clean up the ‘ums’ and ‘uhs.’ But we’ve worked hard to keep this as simple and sustainable as possible. It’s finding that balance of making a great episode while not taking me away from the rest of my work for hours on end.”
- Just get started. “Once we got over that initial hesitation, we found it’s pretty easy to do,” Ewton said. “There are kids in their basements making podcasts. Professional communicators should knock this out of the park. You know what a good story is, and you have connections with employees who are going to be good on a podcast. Just be a storyteller.”
APS Podcast Toolkit