It’s no secret that audio media has emerged as a popular entertainment format — one that many cultural institutions have eagerly leveraged. Some have experimented with social audio, chiefly via Clubhouse, but most have turned to a format that in 2021 alone, amassed approximately 120 million listeners in the US: podcasts.
Currently, a number of museums have their own podcast programs — from the Museum of Modern Art’s Magazine Podcast to the Science Museum Group’s A History of Stuff. In particular, New York’s Rubin Museum of Art was an early adopter of the medium. In 2015, it launched Mindfulness Meditation, featuring recordings of instructor-led meditation sessions inspired by its collection of Himalayan art and cultural artifacts. Each episode gains approximately 9,000 listens.
The Rubin’s newer AWAKEN limited series comes hosted by Laurie Anderson and centers on personal stories, with 10 guests sharing their interpretations of enlightenment. Since its launch in June 2021, timed to coincide with the long-running Awaken exhibition, the series has reached over 72,000 listens, and was once ranked on Apple’s “Shows We Love,” with the first episode featuring comedian Aparna Nancherla being a listener favorite.
And the aim of the Rubin Museum’s podcasts? Very simply, audience engagement. “With evergreen online content like podcasts,” says Dawn Eshelman, the museum’s Head of Programs, “we can continue to be relevant and see numbers grow.” Below, Eshelman discusses the practicalities of producing a podcast and what the format can mean for museums’ outreach efforts.
What were some initial obstacles the museum faced when producing the podcasts?
Being new to this medium, it’s been eye-opening to understand how much time and work goes into an episode. Finding ways to balance that work with all our other priorities like exhibitions, programs, fundraising, etc., has been a challenge. But “not enough time” is a challenge many of us are used to, particularly in the non-profit world, so we get through it.
How much planning goes into producing the museum’s podcasts?
Our Mindfulness Meditation podcast is a recording of our weekly, 45-minute Mindfulness Meditation live program led by a guest teacher and inspired by an artwork from the Rubin Museum’s collection. Creating each episode takes about four to eight hours. Our audio editor takes the recording of the live program, adds the intro and outro, and edits — some more than others — to create the final episode. It’s a fairly low-budget, low-production podcast, and weekly, which is why it’s been so sustainable for us over the years.
Our AWAKEN podcast is completely different because it’s 10 episodes with personal stories from 10 different guests. The planning phase was roughly two to three months from developing the concept, to confirming guests and host, to organizing interviews, creating timelines, and more. And then the production for each episode was fairly robust, as we worked with the creative audio agency, Sound Made Public. After the first episode, each episode took several weeks and rounds of edits to confirm.
What kind of resources goes into your productions?
For AWAKEN, we pulled together an internal team that included a producer, graphic designer, writer/editor, project manager, marketing manager, and curator, and worked with the producers and editors at Sound Made Public. For our Mindfulness Meditation podcast, it’s only two of us who work on the podcast weekly.
In your view, is it feasible for a museum with limited resources to produce a podcast?
I think that podcasts are feasible for a lot of museums because it doesn’t require a ton of equipment, and that’s why we’re seeing a lot being produced right now, but I think there are a number of things to consider, including the scope, format, production quality, and where it falls within the institutional priorities. For us at the Rubin Museum, we created AWAKEN at a time when in-person programs and exhibitions have been scaled back, so we really thought of the podcast as an online program and were able to put together a team from various departments.
How do you see podcasts as part of museums’ audience strategies?
For us at the Rubin, we knew that we already had a built-in audio audience considering our weekly listeners of our Mindfulness Meditation podcast. But generally speaking, while the podcast space is a crowded market, I also feel there’s untapped potential, particularly if you are able to offer something really unique that speaks directly to your organization’s mission.