It is difficult for large organizations to target a specific audience when they produce information on a wide range of subjects. One solution is to make it easier for people to find their stories.
Until very recently, the means of mass communication were exclusively in the hands of large corporations and governments. But with the advent of the Internet and digital technology, mass communication is now within the reach of ordinary people.
With the massive amount of information that is now available on the web it is difficult for organizations like UNICEF to target specific audiences, especially as we produce a wide variety of content ourselves. Visitors to our website might only be interested in programmes from Bangladesh, for example, while others might look for everything we have on HIV/Aids. In order to make sure our message gets out we have to make it easy to find. One way of doing that is to spread the material around as widely as possible, and that means using every available platform – television, radio, text on the web and on paper, and now also podcasting. It’s a bit like roulette, where the audience is the ball that spins round and round and you don’t know which pocket it will fall into. But you can win at roulette if you spread your bets, and put a chip on every number on the board. If you can somehow put your message, your story, onto every single platform then eventually the audience will find you.
At UNICEF, we felt we had as much right to contribute to the information buffet as any other organization, and podcasting was one way to do that. Since launching the podcasting service in July 2005, we have added to that vast, ever-growing stream of information in an effort to give people the opportunity to learn about our work and hopefully support us. We now have more than 200 podcast files on our website, which people can subscribe to for free. This enables them to receive automatic updates with any new podcasts, while the older material is archived and is available to anyone who might be interested in just downloading a single file.
Podcasts are relatively cheap to produce. Ten years ago, if you wanted to set up a radio station, you would have to borrow money from your rich uncle, then figure out where to put the transmitter, and then get government approval. But now the Internet is the transmitter, and it has the potential to reach everybody in the world. Once the podcast has been produced, and ‘transmitted’, it can be downloaded by anyone connected to the Internet, saved and even shared. This is the concept of the ‘long tail’, where content you create today survives forever. It can be accessed at any time, it can be reused and it can be passed around. That is something that suits many of the UNICEF podcasts. A lot of our material is issue driven and timeless in that it will still be relevant a week, a month, a year, and hopefully even ten years from now.
The fact that these audio files can stay around for so long, on our website or on other computers and media players, means that we can reach audiences that do not need it right now, but might find it useful some time in the future. That becomes important when you think about the number of people who don’t yet have access to the Internet. When they eventually do get connected, these stories will still be there when they need them. The content being produced now will still be available to audiences we don’t yet have.
It is also very encouraging that people in developing countries are increasingly getting connected to the wider world. I have visited isolated rural areas where I have met farmers who don’t have shoes, but they do have a mobile phone. That’s because the human desire to be connected to people sometimes outweighs other priorities. As a species we need to talk to each other. And as technology progresses, particularly mobile Internet technology – and it is progressing very rapidly – then those farmers will no longer be isolated, and it will no longer matter how rural or remote their farms. They will soon have access to the ever-growing quantity of information that is being continually produced.
UNICEF’s real aim is to get our information out onto as many platforms as possible, and podcasting is one way to do that. It is clear that unicef.org will never be the most visited website on the planet. It is very much like an institutional headquarters in cyberspace where everything is archived and catalogued and hopefully people will meet there. As long as we tell good stories, stories that people want to hear, then the platform doesn’t matter. UNICEF is now trying to do it in television. I hope we do it in radio, text and, of course, that we can also continue to do it with podcasting.
Stephen Cassidy is an Emmy award-winning journalist, and former deputy managing editor at CNN, He is currently chief of the Internet, television, radio and image section at UNICEF headquarters in New York.
Click here for UNICEF podcasts