Rhody Radio Connects Rhode Island Libraries with Listeners

Rhody Radio, a collaborative podcast project of several Rhode Island libraries, has become a popular long-term programming outlet. The twice-weekly podcast, produced by library staff and community members, captures conversations, lectures, book reviews, and performances by Rhode Islanders; it is available 24/7 on rhodyradio.org and platforms such as Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

Rhody Radio logoWhile many of the past year’s programming solutions will likely be replaced by in-person events once libraries reopen to the public, others are here to stay. Rhody Radio, a collaborative podcast project of several Rhode Island libraries, has become a popular long-term programming outlet. The twice-weekly podcast, produced by library staff and community members, captures conversations, lectures, book reviews, and performances by Rhode Islanders; it is available 24/7 on rhodyradio.org and platforms such as Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

The idea for Rhody Radio was born when Rhode Island libraries closed their buildings in March 2020, and Warwick Public Library Community Services Librarian Wil Gregersen, who manages adult events, was forced to cancel programming through December. In addition to sympathizing with his patrons, Gregersen also felt a responsibility toward the people he had booked—particularly musicians, who were already having a tough time during the pandemic.

He considered alternative ways to showcase them, such as Zoom events. “But then I thought, what if we started doing a radio kind of thing?” Gregersen recalled—“get these presenters, have them do shows that would feature musicians, showcase some of their music, and give you a chance to find out something about them that you wouldn't learn if they were just performing in front of you?” Rather than a live radio program, he thought, a podcast would accomplish what he was looking for—asynchronous events that could be accessed on demand, would appeal to far-flung as well as local listeners, and could be produced without a lot of experience or new equipment.

Gregersen floated the idea past his colleague Jessica D’Avanza, community engagement librarian at Barrington Public Library, who was smarting from having to cancel a major programming series she had been planning for over a year. “How do you get up in the morning when your job is about bringing people together physically, and now, suddenly, you can't do that?” she wondered. “So when Wil called me, I immediately said ‘Yes, this is what we need to do.’”

Because all Rhode Island public libraries are part of a single consortium, Ocean State Libraries, the two felt this should be a statewide project. They reached out to Nicolette Baffoni, learning and community engagement coordinator at the Rhode Island Office of Library and Information Services, to help them pull it together on a larger scale. She loved the idea, and connected Gregersen and D’Avanza with two other librarians she felt would be a good fit for the project: Dave Bartos, coordinator of adult services at the Cranston Public Library, and Emily Goodman, community outreach coordinator at the North Kingstown Free Library.

Baffoni also found a grant that the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities was offering for socially distanced programming during the pandemic, which enabled the team to buy equipment that could be lent out to other librarians interested in participating, and to pay guests. Another grant will help them set up recording studios with good microphones and a sound mixer. With a minimum of gear and a plenty of enthusiasm, Rhody Radio began podcasting in August 2020.

 

LEARNING AS THEY GO

None of the partners had experience producing podcasts when they first began. The team pooled its technical knowledge; Gregersen was familiar with GarageBand and Bartos had worked with the open-source audio editing software Audacity. Gregersen had also done some broadcasting on college and small local radio stations, layering tracks manually—“with reel to reel, essentially, and razor-blading the tape.” Current software does the job much more easily, he told LJ. “The intro might be one track, the music would be another track, the audio from whoever you're interviewing would be another track. If you add narration in there, that would be another. It's kind of putting together a puzzle of sound.”

D’Avanza’s learning curve was steeper, but “I've been a podcast listener since about 2008, and I was just thrilled at the idea of trying to figure out how to do this,” she said. “During that beginning time of the pandemic, I was able to take my very depressed state and throw that energy into learning something new with a team.”

Finished podcasts are saved as MP3s and distributed through Anchor.fm, a free podcasting host owned by Spotify. Anchor distributes the podcasts through the customary channels, such as Spotify, Apple, and Google podcasts, and also has an embedded player function, so listeners can hear Rhody Radio shows directly from the libraries’ websites. “We're trying to make it as multifunctional as we can,” said Gregersen. “People have different technical abilities, so we want to make sure everyone can listen who wants to.” The biggest investment they’ve had to make, he added, is time.

Rhody Radio podcasts over the past nine months have run the gamut, including writer and musician interviews, guided meditations, story walks, a series on the American Civil War, an outdoor scavenger hunt in a local cemetery, and shows covering subjects such as fake news, voting, and the centennial of women’s suffrage. Several speakers who were originally booked for in-person events before the pandemic agreed to appear, including a multi-part series with Elizabeth Rush, author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, the Reading Across Rhode Island 2020 writer D’Avanza had been forced to cancel last March. On March 9, Providence Public Library collaborated with the Rhode Island Historical Society to commemorate a year of COVID and highlight the Rhode Island COVID-19 Archive.

 

COMMUNITY INPUT

Podcasting may be relatively simple, but there’s a fair amount of work involved in scheduling and putting together every episode. In the name of sustainability, Gregersen and D’Avanza encourage community members to get involved in recording their own shows; the team then edits in music and intros. Tom Shaker—a college professor, radio DJ, documentary filmmaker, and Rhode Island jazz expert—had previously done programs at the library, so Gregersen invited him to submit his own podcasts. “He knew how to record, and he knew how to talk, because he's a radio DJ,” Gregersen told LJ. “We let him put the whole episode together, and he sent it to us. This is another kind of way we're trying to empower not only the librarians, but some of our presenters we would normally hire.” Shaker has provided several episodes on the history of the local jazz and swing scene and the Celebrity Club, New England’s first integrated nightclub.

The local What Cheer Writers Club has provided support on the creative end as well as helping Rhody Radio get the word out for participants. “We've been looking for people, professionals and hobbyists, who can come in and talk about storyboarding, talk about editing audio,” said D’Avanza. “There's so much to learn.” She and Barrington’s digital services librarian taught a couple of popular virtual classes on podcasting last fall.

Other podcast participants are interviewed by phone. For the Elizabeth Rush series, D’Avanza invited members of the community to record questions on their phones and email them to her. “I’m approaching people, figuring out where their technical abilities are, and then working with them,” Gregersen explained.

Gregersen enlisted his fellow Warwick librarians for a short Friday readers’ advisory podcast, New & Notable Books, offering themed reviews of children’s, teen, and adult books. “It's been wonderful to watch my colleagues get into it and grow,” he said. Their podcasts “get more and more interesting, and more and more fun, the longer we go on, because they're really invested in it. We're all feeling a camaraderie because we're in this together. They're listening to each other and figuring out how they can improve.”

He added, “Over time, through more marketing efforts, we [hope to] get more people to call in and leave audio voicemails with their stories, and try to get a representation of voices from around the state.”

 

“THE LIBRARY’S IN YOUR EARBUDS”

Once the Rhody Radio team had a few podcasts under their belts, they recorded a training video, put together a podcasting LibGuide, with information on everything from basic editing to where to find royalty-free music, and developed a marketing and media kits. Anchor also provides numbers on estimated audience size and number of plays, and by all metrics Rhody Radio has been a success. Since it first aired, Rhody Radio currently has 41 full length episodes and 24 book reviews in its lineup, with close to 100 listeners on average for each.

The team intends to continue making podcasts and bringing in guests from around the state. D’Avanza sees it as a creative way to expand outreach, both during the pandemic—when patrons missed coming in to talk with their favorite librarians, and have enjoyed hearing their voices on the podcasts—and as a way to extend the reach of their programming going forward. Once their libraries reopen, Gregersen and D’Avanza hope to record in-person events to add to the lineup. “Our libraries are big enough that they attract people from all over,” she told LJ. “I love knowing that if they can't make it [to an event] that night, because the timing doesn't work out for them on a Thursday night at seven, that they can listen to it later on Rhody Radio.”

“We've had a huge variety of voices,” Gregersen told LJ. “I would really hate to lose that after we normalize, so I do think we need to keep it up. And I certainly plan to.” Goals include building recording studios at the Barrington and Warwick libraries, starting a community podcasting club at Barrington and a community podcasting board at Warwick, a weekly Warwick community podcast, and podcasting classes and one-on-one training.

For a library interested in developing its own podcast series, they suggest joining forces with other libraries to get a range of input—and not to be put off by the initial learning curve. “It might sound daunting to try to do everything all at once—and if you can, that's great,” said D’Avanza. “But I think on a smaller scale, just starting out with something as simple as book reviews is a wonderful way to do it. The patrons want to hear your voice.” Gregersen advises keeping each episode to about 20 minutes, an ideal length for most listeners. Anyone with questions should feel free to contact them, Gregersen and D’Avanza added.

“This year has taught me that the library is not a building anymore,” D’Avanza told LJ. “The library is everywhere, the library's in your earbuds, and it's an exciting thing to be a part of. It's allowed for a new sense of creativity in the job.”

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is News Editor for Library Journal.

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