Real experts for real life

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Not long ago, I wandered into a deep debate with myself after listening to Gimlet’s excellent podcast Startup. As usual, they were offering a peek into how they make their own sausage as a podcasting company. They’d been approached about the idea of doing branded podcasts for outside companies. I found myself as puzzled as them about how to tell a story responsibly when you’re being contracted to do it, and how to do as much as you can to prevent it from interfering with your journalism.

The two big fish making a splash in this very new pond are The Message, a sci-fi serial sponsored by GE, and the whole series of work/lifestyle podcasts that Slack has funded called The Slack Variety Pack. Both projects are pretty fun to listen to from the little bit I’ve heard. And crucially, as revenue sources are declining for old media, companies are willing to pay to create engaging podcasts that have their name attached. It gets people thinking positively about them.

Well, last month I got to dip my own toe into that world.

The Coles Notes version is that the Alberta College of Social Workers (which accredits all the social workers in the province) puts on events every year to celebrate Social Work Week at the beginning of March. They’ve done in-person events and print ads in the past. This year, they wanted to try reaching a new audience, and tell more in-depth stories about what social workers do. So they asked me to create a short podcast series for them. We called it Real Experts for Real Life.

I was very fortunate to have the help of my radio/podcast friends/colleagues Trevor Chow-Fraser and Marcelle Kosman in creating it. The timeline was short but I think we put together three pretty engaging stories to listen to. One focused on an Indigenous social worker named Brianna Olson who sees love as an essential tool in serving inner city kids. One asked how playing around with Lego and puppets can help kids in counseling. And one looked at how a social worker originally from China uses her own experience to serve new immigrants.

This is Brianna’s story:

So how do you balance the need to make the client happy, and portray their “brand” well (in this case, the whole field of social work) with a general journalistic commitment to the truth, and the need to maintain trust with people who listen to your journalistic work?

Well, for one thing, I’ve put my name on the project, so I’m not hiding anything from people who follow me as a journalist. Hopefully disclosure helps with that trust bit. I imagine I’ll be veering away from social work-related reporting for the time being. It wasn’t really an area of focus for me anyway. If I’m doing a story that features somebody with a connection to the Alberta College of Social Workers specifically, I’ll need to mention that or hand the story over to someone else.

As far as balancing my desire to tell the truth but also stay on message, this was a really pleasant experience though. My main contact with the ACSW was helpful and responsive the whole way through, and followed my lead when I thought we needed to shift focus to reflect the tape we really gathered, and when I pitched a new story at the last minute. If I’d been approaching this as a reporter, I might have dug into different issues, but I think listeners will understand that this isn’t investigative reporting, it’s a series of portraits of the field.

The hardest part was trying to portray the lives of the social workers and their clients accurately, but also protect the clients’ confidentiality. But that’s something that comes up in my journalism work too.
Surprisingly, the biggest difference between this and the work I do for radio is that I got to be way more finicky with the editing! I usually don’t have the luxury of getting to do a third or fourth draft before getting something out for broadcast.

So in summary I’d say my first foray into “branded” podcast work was rewarding. I hope any future projects I pursue are this ethically straightforward, and about subject matter as meaningful as this was.

You can listen to the whole Real Experts for Real Life series here.

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