Spotlight

Public Podcasts: A Superintendent Reaches the Digital Natives

by Jay Haugen

“Hello. My name is Jay Haugen. I am the superintendent of the West St. Paul, Mendota Heights and Eagan area schools. It is Sunday, Oct. 15, 2006, and I am at my home computer recording what is called a podcast ...”

So began my venture into the world of digital broadcasting, a world that enables anyone with a home computer and a decent microphone to communicate with words, music, pictures, art and video for about as much effort as it takes to write an article.

People can subscribe to podcasts, but unlike the local newspaper they don’t have to wait for delivery — podcasts show up on their computers the instant they are available. They download much like a song on a CD so anyone with an iPod or other MP3 can automatically download them to their devices and then listen while they’re doing something else, like driving or walking or eating. Because they can be archived and easily searched, those with an interest in a particular topic can listen to a podcast weeks or months later.

Immediacy Valued
I decided to try podcasting as a way of connecting with digital natives, that growing proportion of our population for whom digital communication is a way of life. Digital natives carry multiple communication devices at all times, get their news from online sites and blogs and put paper communication in the same category previous generations put vinyl records.

Podcasting also has proven to be an effective way to share time-sensitive information. Recently, when we announced $1.6 million in budget reductions, I was able to explain why in the next day’s podcast. Staff members and parents without iPods listened on their computers, and I found the immediacy of this form of communication helped them understand why difficult decisions were made and lessened the fear that inevitably accompanies budget cuts.

If you are not a digital native, your head may be spinning at the thought of podcasting. Once you get the hang of it, though, it’s truly not that hard. Most Sunday nights I sit down at my computer and write a message for the community to hear on Monday morning. After my thoughts are on paper, I open Garage Band, a program that came preloaded on my Apple computer that allows me to record my voice. The microphone is next to my computer, partially buried in a pillow to reduce the “inside a bowl” effect. When I’m ready, I simply push the record button on the Garage Band screen and start talking.

After the recording, I play my words back to hear if they are acceptable. Invariably, I will have misspoken or don’t like the inflection in my voice at some point so I rerecord the objectionable parts and cut and paste them into the original — a simple task in Garage Band.

Next I add photos by dragging them from a digital photo album or from e-mail attachments sent by staff members. In as little as 30 minutes, I can record and edit the sound for that week’s podcast and add one or more pictures.

All that is left is to publish it to the district’s website, the easiest part. One of the choices in Garage Band is to send to iWeb, another program that came preloaded on my Apple. When I launch iWeb, it puts my podcast in a template. I fill in a title, add captions and a description of the podcast, check my work, and hit publish. One minute later it is published to my iMac account and sent to subscribers. On Monday morning, we place a link on the district website so it can be accessed by everyone.

Growing Popularity
So far, I have recorded 15 podcasts, each about five minutes long. At every community event I attend, I field multiple inquiries, statements and questions about my podcasts. Subjects have included referendum information, mandatory testing, school funding, the importance of early learning, budget cuts, open houses and celebrations of accomplishments in our schools.

My listeners are primarily those who connect better with spoken words than written ones, who tell me they sense more sincerity when they actually get to hear information. In some respects, their remarks remind me of the feelings my parents had when they listened to FDR’s fireside chats.

The provider of our district website recently added support for direct publishing of podcasts. Although I have enjoyed sitting over a microphone after everyone in my house is tucked into bed on Sunday night, it’s nice to have the option of podcasting from my office on Friday afternoon. We also see video podcasting in our future since it is just as easy as what we are doing now.

If you haven’t yet experienced a podcast, I invite you to listen to mine at web.mac. com/jckhaugen. You also can access it at www.isd197.org if you’d like to see how it is integrated on our district’s website.

“Thank you for listening to this week’s podcast, and join me again soon for our next broadcast. Have a great day.”

Jay Haugen is superintendent of Independent School District 197 (West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan), 1897 Delaware Ave., Mendota Heights, MN 55118. E-mail: jay.haugen@isd197.org