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Adventures in (longer) podcasting

About a year and a half ago, I started a podcast for the Yellowstone Wildlife Sanctuary called 2 Minutes in the Yellowstone Ecosystem. Since it was recorded as a live radio spot, the two-minute format was pretty much baked in. By the time I added the intro, outro, theme music, and sometimes sound effects, the average episode was 3-4 minutes long. In November of that year, with about 30 episodes online, I was promoted from Education Director to Executive Director and my priorities shifted drastically. We kept the radio spots going for another couple of months, with the new education person, Courtney, helping out. Then it faded away.

I learned a lot doing those first 30 episodes. Some of my key takeaways were:

  1. Adobe Audition is a great audio editing tool. There’s definitely a learning curve, though. When you switch from recording or editing a track to editing a multitrack session, it feels like they yanked the whole user interface out from under you and made you relearn key parts.
  2. If you’re used to working with websites, blogs, web-based advertising, or the print world, you’ll be quite surprised at the statistical data you can’t get on a podcast. You can get “hits,” which is a wild overestimate of your reach, or “downloads,” which is a wild underestimate. The host (PodBean in my case) can tell you all about your listenership on their platform. When you try to figure out what’s going on with Apple/iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, Spotify, and their ilk, you’ll find that each one gives you different information and some barely tell you anything at all.
  3. On the other hand, simple stats can give you a feeling for trends and which topics are wildly popular and which ones people didn’t care about.
  4. A good way to compare episodes is to look at how many listeners (or downloads, or hits, or…) you get in the first two weeks. You still need to consider trends, though. A wildlife successful episode from two years ago may have gotten 200 downloads in two weeks, but if your podcast is much better-known today, 200 downloads in two weeks might be considered a flop.
  5. No matter where your podcast is available, marketing is on you. If you don’t promote it, the podcast hosts and aggregators won’t, either.
  6. Creating written transcripts sounds like a great idea, but nobody cares. Most of our episodes never had a single visitor to the transcript page, so I stopped doing them.
  7. Unless your reach is a lot better than mine, don’t expect listener feedback. Except for some friends that probably didn’t listen to it telling you how great it was. And that one friend that says statistically, you’d maximize listenership by making each episode six minutes longer, using shorter episode names, adding comprehensive show notes, inviting more guests, speaking with a Scottish accent, hiring a professional editor, releasing each new episode at 5:23 pm on a Friday, and having Taylor Swift write you some new theme music. We all have that one friend.

A few months ago, after nearly a year off the air, I decided I missed doing the podcast and I wanted to bring it back. I took a look at the stats and found that, lo and behold, I still had listeners! The download rate had dropped dramatically during the hiatus, but we were still getting a few thousand feed hits (a few hundred downloads) per month. Yep. It was definitely worth reincarnating. This time, though, I wanted to bring everything in-house and escape from fixed-length format imposed by the radio world. If a topic takes ten minutes to cover, I’ll spend ten minutes on it. If it takes an hour, I’ll spend an hour.

Since I hadn’t been paying for air time or studio time for a while, I had a few bucks in the budget to pick up a couple of USB Blue YetiCaster microphones with Radium III shock mounts and Compass broadcast boom arms. I ordered the equipment and went to work analyzing statistics (I love putting statistics on spreadsheets) and deciding what topics would work well for the new longer format. In the meantime, I started editing and releasing the last few recordings from 2018, which had never been published as podcasts.

The first episode in the new format was a 21-minute monologue about wolves. Even though we’d just come back from a year off the air, it broke our record for best first two weeks. The next was a 20-minute dialog with Courtney about chronic wasting disease. It did even better. Last week, we released the third, which spent 43 minutes discussing how animals end up in wildlife sanctuaries. It featured a phone interview with Laurie Wolf, Acting Education Bureau Chief for Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. It hasn’t been up for a full week yet and it’s done almost as well as the CWD episode did in two weeks.

Clearly, the longer and more flexible format is working, although I’m not going to count my chickens before curiosity kills the cat that’s crying over the spilt milk. We’ll keep experimenting, and if you’re interested I’d love to have you give the podcast a listen! You can visit or search for “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Book Review: “Hawks Rest” by Gary Ferguson

Why am I writing a review of a book that came out over eight years ago? Because it went out of print — which made me unhappy because it is one of my favorite pieces of nature writing — and it’s coming back now. I spoke to Gary Ferguson this morning, and he said it looks like Hawks Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone will be coming back out this fall. When I have details, I’ll share them here.

Luckily, I am a cyber-packrat as well as being one in real life, so I still have a copy of the book review I wrote for the Carbon County News shortly before the book came out. So here, direct from April of 2003, is my review of Hawks Rest:

The wait is over for Gary Ferguson fans. His latest book, Hawks Rest: A Season in the Remote Heart of Yellowstone, is here, with another dose of the evocative nature writing we’ve come to expect of him.

Last June, Ferguson strode through the front door of his Red Lodge home and took the first step of his 140-mile hike to the most remote spot in the lower 48 states. This book describes both the trek to Hawks Rest, which is just south of the Yellowstone Park boundary, and his stay in the remote wilderness. How far can you get from a road in the continental United States? A paltry 28 miles — an easy day’s ride on horseback or a long day’s hike.

The trip was ostensibly about a lot of things. Writing Hawks Rest for National Geographic. Fixing up a Forest Service cabin. Counting various species of wildlife. Fixing fences. The book, however, reveals as much about its author as it does about the wilderness he visited. Clearly, the trip was also about a catharsis for Ferguson, perhaps a return to his days as a Forest Service ranger. This would be an opportunity for him to step away from the craziness of the human world and retreat to the seclusion and renewal of Mother Nature.

Seclusion, however, is one thing he found little of. Between rangers, trail crews, hikers, riders, outfitters, hunters, a camp for troubled juveniles, and backwoodsmen of all shapes and sizes, he encountered over 600 visitors in his months in the backcountry. Nature, he found in abundance, and he describes it with typical Fergusonian flair. His prose ranges from flowery descriptions of the grandeur of the area surrounding the Hawks Rest area to more factual recitations of the goings-on, but never settles into a dreary “this morning I arose at 6:48 and had a bowl of granola” journal format.

The combination of his wonderfully descriptive writing style and an encyclopedic knowledge of flora, fauna and the geological features of the area draw vivid mental images of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. One piece of advice consistently given to novice writers by grizzled veterans is to write what you know. There’s no question that’s what Ferguson is doing. He knows and loves his subject matter, and it shines through in the writing. Having achieved grizzled veteran status himself with over a dozen books under his belt and his work appearing in over 100 magazines, he continues to educate, enlighten and enchant readers with his tales of the relationship between man and nature.

If you know Gary Ferguson, you won’t be surprised to hear that he pulls no punches when describing the things that offend and annoy him. His writing has matured as he has matured, and his feelings are expressed more clearly than in his earlier works like The Yellowstone Wolves. The groups most targeted by his blunt criticism are those using political clout to exploit wilderness areas for their own financial gain. Take this excerpt as an example:

“…I’m constantly amazed at the degree to which outfitters are wrapped in a victim mentality. Emerging from this profession, at least in the Thorofare, is a mean-spirited paranoia, a constant griping about wolves and city people and anti-hunting groups destroying a way of life; in short, it’s one of the most self-indulgent whinefests ever to unfurl in the land of the Great Divide.”

A far greater part of the book, though, is dedicated to the plants and animals of the Yellowstone ecosystem; especially the elk which dominate the area and the wolves that obviously hold a special place in Ferguson’s heart. He speaks of his critter encounters with fondness, and evokes both fascination and chuckles. I still can’t get the image out of my mind of his surprise meeting with a large grizzly bear where, in his words, Ferguson was “watching him with my pack turned slightly so that should he suddenly look up, my skinny ass will look bigger than it really is.”

Unlike most of his previous books, Hawks Rest is going straight to paperback instead of going through an initial hardback release. The publisher, National Geographic, is sending him on a publicity tour to promote the book, and he’s starting here in his hometown of Red Lodge.

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