Fun fact: I hired Sarah when I was working at Oakland Schools as the director of communications services many moons ago. With her journalism and government relations background, I just knew she’d be phenomenal in #schoolPR, but she has taken her work to the next level, earning multiple national awards. Read on to learn all about Oakland Schools’ award-winning podcast, Educationally Speaking.
Why did you decide to start a podcast at Oakland Schools?
As an Intermediate School District that helps to provide services to 28 school districts in southeast Oakland County, Oakland Schools has a distinct opportunity to take a leadership role in providing a voice for key issues related to education. Every ISD or school district has a Facebook. They all have a Twitter. Very few have a podcast. It is a unique medium that catches people’s attention and also allows for important topics to be thoroughly researched and discussed in a way that other forms of media don’t allow.
How did you pitch it internally?
It seemed like an idea that had always been bantered about since I started working for Oakland Schools four years ago and it was always on our radar as something that would be something really ground-breaking and fun to try. We just needed to carve out the time, take the reins and make it happen.
How was it received at first?
I’m happy to say that I think Educationally Speaking has always been received positively. People seem hungry to engage with this information and enjoy doing so in this format. And, for better or worse, the pandemic has also brought a lot of education issues under scrutiny. Now not just people with children are invested in what is taking place in education settings, but entire communities as well. The podcast has really allowed us to explore some of these issues in depth.
What do people internally think about it?
You’d have to ask them! Lol. It’s been interesting to watch the growth of the podcast in that way. All it took was for one colleague to say “yes” to that first episode (thank you Dr. Julie McDaniel!) and when that went well, others started to want to be a part of it.
Soon, I received emails from colleagues with episode ideas or asking to be included as a guest. It gets easier every time I have to put a show together. Instead of having to explain the podcast in full detail before I get a “yes!” the “yes-es” come a lot faster.
Has it helped external audiences learn more about Oakland Schools and its services?
I certainly hope so. One problem we have consistently encountered at Oakland Schools is we are often asked what exactly it is an ISD does. So, when we created Educationally Speaking, we decided we would talk about topics that are relevant in education, but also bring to light how Oakland Schools can assist our local districts with those concerns.
For example, we have an episode titled, “Student + Breakfast = Achievement,” that discusses how eating breakfast before school can have a tremendous impact on a student’s ability to learn. In particular, this past year, with the pandemic, thousands of local families were left without direct access to food when school went virtual. This episode details how Oakland Schools was able to bridge that gap by forming community partnerships and it listed ways local families could continue to receive outreach.
Each episode includes show notes that provide a list of resources for how listeners can receive help with the topics discussed in that episode. The podcast highlights the value we provide to the local community.
Has the podcast helped you in your role as communications specialist?
Hosting the podcast is the dream role I never dreamed I would have. I have thought of many career possibilities but never once was one of them to be a podcast host. I am stunned at how being a host uses all of the skills that I have garnered from my other jobs, particularly my time as a journalist. However, I had no idea the level of pre-work involved. I’ve learned that recording the podcast is the easiest part.
In addition to recording, I also have to research the topic, interview guests, write a script that is digestible to all listeners (not just education experts!) and make community connections to ensure the podcast is heard in circles other than just Oakland Schools. It has made me a stronger communications specialist because it has allowed me to really dive in and care about topics related to my job, which, in turn, helps me to better tell those stories in other avenues I manage for OS, such as social media.
Have you received industry recognition for it? If so, what?
Yes! We have actually received both national and statewide recognition. Our first season was recognized with an honorable mention from Ragan Communications and, just the other day, we were notified that we won a Golden Achievement Award from the National Schools Public Relations Association.
The podcast was also featured in the National School Public Relations Association’s This Week Newsletter, which is sent out to members nationwide, followed by a feature in the Michigan School Public Relations Association‘s Minute newsletter which is sent to members all across Michigan.
Additionally, we had the privilege of being asked by AASA, The School Superintendents Association, to have our superintendent author an article about why a podcast can be a useful communication tool for school districts and other ISDs. That article went out nationally in early June this year.
How do you stay organized and plan out your episodes?
Lucky or unlucky for me, I have a “nose for news” as they used to say. Now, instead of thinking “Oooo, that would be a great news story,” I think “Oooo, that, right there, is a podcast idea,” then I email the thought to myself so I can sit on it for a bit a mull it over. I usually bounce it off of the rest of the comms team here too so I can get their take as well.
My second step is then to look at it from Oakland Schools’ point of view. Is this an education issue OS helps local districts with? If so, how? I then find out who in the organization is involved in doing that kind of work and talk to them about what resources OS offers. If it seems like a viable topic, we continue forward and I ask them to refer other guests to me that they know are experts in the subject area.
We then all meet and I write a script from that conversation, then we record! After we record is when it gets kind of busy in terms of multiple moving parts as we have really amped up our social media and community relationship efforts surrounding the podcast. Now it takes a whole team of us to promote each and every episode and we have written out a step-by-step plan of who does what task and when. It is run like a (mostly) well-oiled machine.
What is your favorite part about the podcast?
Probably the feeling that I am hopefully making a difference, no matter how small. When we did the podcast episode, “How to talk to your kid(s) about race, racism and anti-racism,” that was an idea that selfishly stemmed from me being interested in exploring this discussion with my own children. But after I was done creating the episode, not only had I personally learned so much, but I was also proud of the piece because I felt like it could be helpful to so many
other parents out there.
It also gave a tremendous platform for one of our school districts, West Bloomfield, to basically get on a microphone and highlight loud and proud all of the work they had been doing in this field. I loved that I was able to provide some super hard-working teachers with the opportunity to have their efforts recognized. Everyone deserves that.
What are three tips you have for anyone interested in starting a podcast at their school or in their district?
Have an objective for what the podcast is supposed to be about and who your target audience is. This will help guide you as you begin those first few episodes. Once you get more established, the episode ideas and guest possibilities become easier to achieve.
Don’t limit what your podcast can be used for. While it’s important to have an objective for the podcast, it’s also important not to stifle it. When we started the podcast, I never would have dreamed it would be syndicated on three different local radio stations. I thought our podcast was just for a very niche group of people super interested in education but have become immensely proud of the fact we have fully integrated this work into the communities we serve.
Just do it! Like I said, at Oakland Schools, we talked about it for a while before we actually began working on this project. It just started with one day deciding to stop talking and take action. And I was lucky to have the management support to do that. Was it terrifying? Yes! But is it also supremely gratifying and well worth the effort? Absolutely.
Where can our readers connect with you and listen to the podcast?
Feel free to connect with me personally on LinkedIn.
As for the podcast, more detailed information and additional episodes can be found on Oakland Schools’ website here.
The podcast was also recently syndicated on three separate radio stations. You can tune in: