Connecting state and local government leaders
A new podcast from the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District seeks to connect with its residents.
Sewers, wastewater and stormwater management may not strike many people as prime topics of discussion. But in an effort to expose more of the public to their underground work, one agency is turning to podcasting as a means of communicating with residents.
You may already be familiar with the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District or NEORSD through its witty—and sometimes weird—Twitter presence. But 280 characters aren’t always enough to connect with the public and highlight the people and services that keep toilets flushing and stormwater draining.
Launched in September, Clean Water Works is a bi-monthly podcast produced by NEORSD. The show covers topics far beyond the deep, dark and smelly that listeners might expect from a sewer-district production. In one episode, for example, a local archaeologist talks about how uncovering streams long buried beneath Cleveland could help the city manage flooding. In another, an environmental specialist explains what happens to critters like salamanders and bats when the district undertakes massive infrastructure projects.
Clean Water Works is hosted by Donna Friedman and Michael Uva, who together have more than 25 years of NEORSD experience between them. Uva is the agency’s communications production lead, and Friedman is the manager of community watershed coordination.
NEORSD is far from alone. It joins an increasing number of public utilities that have turned to podcasting to communicate with and educate constituents about the work they are doing.
Route Fifty spoke with Friedman and Uva about how the podcast came to be, why it’s a practical means of outreach, and what it takes to produce an episode. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Why did the district decide to start a podcast?
Uva: For a number of years, we had been doing an annual magazine-type publication called Clean Water Works. Each year, each issue focused on a different area of the district's work. So everything from plant operations, water quality, industrial surveillance, stormwater management—all the different broad array of topics that a sewer district is involved with. We did that for eight issues and somewhat exhausted the large focus areas of our work. It seemed like a good time to pivot to something that was more timely and quicker to produce than a magazine. A podcast was a way to [feature] a lot of different voices within our organization, giving employees a chance to talk about their jobs.
Friedman: Sewers are underground, for the most part, meaning that people don't see them, … , and yet they're paying the fee so that we can treat their water as it comes to us and put it back into the environment clean. So I think this podcast and most of the outreach that we do is an attempt to help put a face to the name, a face to the bill. I think that it's really important to connect those dots for folks because then they see the value and what they're paying for.
What kind of listener do you have in mind as you’re creating the podcast?
Uva: I think it's really a mix.
We do an annual in-person open house called the Clean Water Fest. It's held at one of our facilities. It's every year in September and upwards of 2,500 people come to this one-day event and learn about all the different aspects of the district, from the sewer maintenance crews to the folks that run the plants and the laboratory. They get to really go in-depth and talk to the people who do this every day. So that's certainly a primary audience [for the podcast].
Then, just talking to the layperson who doesn't really know much about what we do and speak about it in a way so that they can understand it.
Can you talk a bit more about the benefits of doing a podcast versus other media?
Uva: We're always looking at costs and if we're spending ratepayers’ money wisely. Podcasting seems a much more economical way to explore a lot of topics.
[Another benefit is] the economical nature of being able to do a topic in an hour and the ease with which you can then deliver that content without having to rely on a mailing list that is always out of date as people move. It's just all around a more modern and updated way of delivering information. I think more people are listening to podcasts now than sitting down with a print publication.
How many times has the podcast been downloaded?
Uva: I think on average we're getting anywhere between 300 and 400 streams per episode. Surprisingly, one of the episodes that had the most listens was one on data and stormwater management. It had about 700 listens. So I would say our audience is still fairly small right now, but we seem to be growing a little with each episode.
Any advice for other agencies that might consider doing a podcast?
Uva: I think there may be a little apprehension to try something like this because there are a lot of unknowns, [such as] if the content is going to be compelling or not. You don't know the logistics. But anyone can do a podcast with a real minimum of investment.
Friedman [laughs]: People love tapping the table. They tap the table like it’s their job. People will tap the table and be too close to the microphone.
But at the end of the day it's supposed to be a humanizing podcast, and that kind of just holds it all together.