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Ordinary Young People Doing Extraordinary Things: A New French Podcast

A new podcast series by the French Development Agency (AFD) explores the power of audio storytelling to inspire and engage young audiences.

This is a guest post by Caroline Castaing, Head of Outreach Communications at the French Development Agency (Agence française de développement – AFD).

Sustainable development work is an investment in the future. And to make such an investment, development organisations need public support. We need young women and men to be fully informed and involved. That’s why our AFD (French Development Agency) sees engaging young people as an investment in our common global destiny.

Within the AFD’s communications department, the outreach section is like a rebellious cell. Our job is not to build the AFD brand, but to offer a public service: help young people find their place in a world in transition. In our view, our outreach strategy for youth is an act of development.

Young French citizens know what is at stake with the SDGs and understand the gravity of the climate crisis. They agree that inequalities are unfair. Yet, their awareness doesn’t always turn into actions. Sometimes the task feels too big for them to tackle. Problems like global injustice seem so far away, and solutions seem too high for one young soul to grasp.

To help inspire them and identify with global challenges, we developed a podcast series that profiles ordinary young people who have done extraordinary things. The podcast series is called So They Did It, a tribute to Mark Twain’s famous quote “they didn’t know it was impossible so they did it”.

Our podcast tells personal stories about inspiring people like Arnaud Assoumani, a paralympic athlete who raised awareness about discrimination in schools in Mayotte and the Comoros Islands, or Seraina Eldada, an interpreter on the Aquarius rescue boat in the Mediterranean Sea. They talk about where they come from, their epiphanies and what moved them into action. Their stories help make what is “faraway” seem closer, universal, tangible and intimate. Having young people – i.e. peers – show that change is possible is very inspiring, and can encourage our audiences to take action themselves.

For our first season, we produced 6 episodes, releasing them on all major platforms every two weeks between May and August 2020. We were expecting 5,000 downloads, but ended up with nearly 10 000! We even reached the top 5 Apple podcasts with our 3rd episode. That’s why we have decided to commit to two more seasons. Season 2 will be dedicated to artists: graphic novelists, musicians, artists, film directors and actors. Season 3 will focus on entrepreneurs.

While podcasting is very trendy, let’s face it: it is not on the same scale as Netflix. Yet, it is a very powerful way to reach young people. It gives communicators freedom in choosing their tone of voice, and the audio format encourages listeners to use their imaginations. Podcasts also allows for longer conversations and reflections than most social media or videos formats.

To take the potential of podcasts further, we have now begun to collaborate with schools and invite high school students to participate in podcasting workshops. Participants listen to a podcast about the SDGs, invent a narrative and record their own podcasts in class. We are also partnering with Binge Audio, a major actor in French podcasting, to address sustainable development in one of their main podcasts: Program B (300 000 downloads per month).

We’ve learnt some very precious and enlightening lessons from this experience:

  1. Work with people who are recognized in their field

You don’t start a podcast series alone, from scratch. This is not just a “technical” issue. You need to work with people who already have an audience and know what it takes to build a successful format. In our case, we worked with French platform Louie Media.

  • No subjects are off limits, too dry or too complex

In France, some of the most successful and well-known podcasts dare to address difficult subjects like incest (“Ou peut-être une nuit” – “Maybe Just One Night”), menstrual periods and masculinities (“Les Couilles sur la table” – “Balls on the table”).

  • Invest in promoting your podcast

Podcasts is becoming a crowded field. To get the word out, you may need to pay for sponsored posts and tweets. To engage audiences, you can organize games or contests.

  • To engage young people, you need to involve their peers

Young audiences may not listen to experts. However, they will pay attention and relate to other young people who share their experience and personal journeys.

  • Audio is a very powerful medium

It was amusing to watch high school students listen to podcasts. They are so used to videos and images that audio can take a while to get used to. While listening, they don’t know what to do with themselves or where to look.  This discomfort promotes emotion, introspection and questioning.

Development communicators have long recognized the power of storytelling. But audio storytelling is on the rise, and peer-to-peer storytelling may be the most convincing tool of all. Young people won’t believe us when we tell them they “can do it!”. But a peer can show them their potential.

So here is our story for our peers in communications: when we began, we weren’t sure that launching a podcast was possible. In the end, we did it.

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