2 women and man speaking to each other

What You’ll Learn

NTCA has rolled out it’s brand new Smart Rural Communities Podcast. How is the association using podcasts to help tell the rural broadband story?

Guest Speaker

Laura Withers

Show Notes

Transcripts have been lightly edited for clarity and readability.

Andy Johns: How is NTCA using podcasts to share the word about their Smart Rural Community program? That’s what we’ll be talking about on this episode of StoryConnect: The Podcast. I’m your host, Andy Johns with WordSouth. Joined once again by Laura Withers, who’s VP of Strategic Communications for NTCA. Laura, thanks for joining me.

Laura Withers: Thanks for having me, Andy.

Andy Johns: I think this is the third or fourth time you’ve been on with us, so we always appreciate the time. We are recording this live at the center of the rural broadband universe this week at NTCA’s RTIME event in Phoenix, Arizona. I know you’re busy, so I appreciate you stopping by the booth. What we’re going to be talking about is the Smart Rural Community podcast that NTCA has just put out. Full disclosure: WordSouth is working with them on that a little bit, but I wanted just to kind of get you to give us an overview. What is the Smart Rural Community podcast?

Laura Withers: Well, I think some of our members know that we’ve had this Smart Rural Communities program for six years, and we had an opportunity this year to invest in some new digital communications initiatives. We set a couple of goals for 2020 to help us do that. One of those goals was to help our members tell their story. And what a great way to do that through the Smart Rural Communities program, which is really about helping them brand themselves as smart communities, giving them some tools to market themselves and their communities as on the leading edge of technology. And then NTCA’s job, I think, is to take those stories and share them with a broader audience in Washington and also with anybody who might be interested in the topic of rural broadband and how small companies are helping to bridge the digital divide. So we really thought that the podcast would be a great way for us to do that, and also a way for us to connect with members on their story.

Andy Johns: Excellent. And I guess we should go over just a little bit about what the Smart Rural Community program is, just in case somebody is listening who hasn’t been involved with it before. So, give us a quick rundown of what the Smart Rural Community program is for the folks who haven’t heard.

Laura Withers: Sure. So it was actually something that was the brainchild of NTCA’s CEO Shirley Bloomfield back in 2013 and Josh Seidemann, who is our VP of Policy. And they were hearing a lot at the time about smart cities and sort of this concept of cities using technology to be more efficient and more nimble. And they thought, well, we can do this in a rural community. And at the time they were really thinking that they were going to go out and create a pilot Smart Rural Community, both as an opportunity to talk about technology and broadband and small companies. But also, how those technologies really improve people’s lives in small towns. What they found is that our members are already doing that and have already enabled these smart communities. We really didn’t need to do a pilot. We just needed to help them tell that story and really make that more well known.

So over the six years we have added other components to the program, including a grant that allows companies to get a small grant to help them start a smart application in their community. We have grown the annual awards program, that we call the Showcase Awards, to promote the cream of the crop of the companies that are becoming Smart Rural Communities and really celebrate them and bring them up on stage and shine a light on what they’re doing. And then we have also recently added a branding component that allows companies in our membership to purchase a license to get a marketing kit that allows them to market themselves as a smart community without having to go through the award application or really wait for that process. So it’s kind of like the eBay Buy It Now option, where you can sign up on our website, get access to the marketing kit immediately, and start using it for outreach in your local community.

Andy Johns: Sure. Just another tool folks have to share what they’re doing and that they’re doing something different and that not everybody has something like what they have in their community. So certainly some good tools there. You talked about it a little bit earlier, but getting into the digital initiatives. And I’ve been in podcasting since I was having to plug it into the computer and download it before smartphones. The numbers have grown big time and you’re starting to see, I think, the recent numbers that came out were more than half of Americans have downloaded a podcast in the last month. It’s really kind of booming. What led you guys to think this is a good channel for us to highlight some Smart Rural Communities, some of NTCA’s work?

Laura Withers: Well, I have some perks of my job and some of my perks are taking something that I really love and trying to bring it to our membership. And so I am like you a big fan of podcasts, and I listen to them when I’m in the car, when I’m driving, when I’m in the garden. I actually listen to the New York Times podcast every morning when I get to work as I’m checking email and doing other stuff. So I enjoy it. I think it’s kind of a nice way to get updated on something in a somewhat passive way while even maybe you’re at the gym on the treadmill. And you know, we thought about this in terms of, I know that a lot of our members are traveling great distances, and they’re in the car a lot. They might be in a part of North Dakota where one office is a hundred miles away from another office, and they serve these vast areas.

So I had this concept of trying to take advantage of their drive time and give them something to listen to while driving, rather than asking them to maybe read another email or tune into a webcast. So I’m hopeful that some of our members will take advantage of listening to these stories and learning from them, while they’re doing something else. We also reached out to our members before we made this transition and moved away from things like Rural Telecom Magazine, for example, so that we could explore more digital communications. We did a survey, and we actually asked a lot of our committees, do you listen to podcasts? Is it something that you enjoy? And I’ll be honest, it was a very mixed response. Some people, who are big fans, are excited about this. Other people don’t know anything about it or have never listened to one. So I think we’re going to have to do a little bit of an education effort as well with our members.

Andy Johns: Sure. Absolutely. What we’ve seen before in the podcast genre is that for it to really take off, you need a murder mystery involved. So if there’s a way that we can find a telecom murder mystery, then I think we’re really set for success there.

Laura Withers: Well, and maybe you guys can help us script that, because I would have no idea how to even approach that. But, you know, solving crimes in rural America, I don’t know. We’ll figure it out.

Andy Johns: So the first episode, the topic went to Pelican Rapids, Minnesota. Tell us a little bit about the first episode.

Laura Withers: So the first episode was a way for us to first and foremost explain, like we just did, what this program is about to somebody who may be listening to this because they Google “smart communities” and come across it. We’re hopeful that this podcast can also be relevant to just anybody that’s interested in learning more about Smart Rural Communities. So what we did is we talked to Josh Seidemann, who really has been promoting this program on his own and helping grow the program over six years, about how it has grown over that time. And then Josh kind of became our reporter in the field, if you will. Although we did not send him out to Minnesota, he was able to do this through technology from our office in Virginia.

Andy Johns: Through the power of high speed broadband.

Laura Withers: Absolutely. And Josh introduces the story of our vague and Pelican Rapids, Minnesota, and walks us through some of the ways they have used technology to support their community. Josh also speaks with Caitlin Stoecker, who is a representative of our vague and was a part of the Smart Rural Communities application that are being made and was awarded in 2019. And Caitlin actually grew up in Pelican Rapids and went to elementary school there. And so she has kind of a fun story about how this community really has a special place in her heart. And her work with our vague took on a new meaning when they went in and provided high speed broadband to them.

Andy Johns: Excellent. And what’s next? I know you guys are already working on the next episode. What’s on the docket?

Laura Withers: Yeah, so one of the really cool things we’re doing here in Phoenix is we’re trying to show people the value of this program through a virtual reality demonstration that we’re going to have on the show floor here.

Andy Johns: It’s very cool idea.

Laura Withers: It was the idea of Carolyn Just, who’s our PR Manager, and Carolyn has a background in working for PR firms. And her concept was to bring somebody into a rural setting without having to make them get on a plane and go out there. So our next episode is going to share the story of Rainbow Communications in Kansas. And Jeremy Olson, who is a local farmer supported by their broadband, who’s been able to bring precision agriculture to his business through having high speed broadband. The virtual reality demonstration is going to actually take us to that field and show us the life cycle of a doughnut. Because who doesn’t want to know how their doughnut was created as they’re munching on it? And show us the milling process, the production process, the baking process, and even to the very final component of a broadband enabled POS system in a local small business. So we’re going to hear from Jeremy and Jason in the March 2020 episode.

Andy Johns: Excellent. It’s such a cool idea to see it from the field all the way to the customer’s hand and broadband is with it every step along the way.

Laura Withers: And I am most excited to see how our members figure out how to put an Oculus headset on and not look like complete fool trying to figure out how to step through a farming operation from downtown Phoenix.

Andy Johns: Correct. Right. I hope everybody’s holding onto something or sitting down or something. I’ve seen those videos of people falling over, so we’ll try to avoid that. But it’s really a cool idea. And we’ve got Carolyn scheduled to be on an episode here shortly to talk a little bit more about that after it happens. So Laura, anything else to add about the podcast? It’s available on Spotify, iTunes. We’ll put a note to it in the show notes for this episode so people can find it. Anything else to say before we wrap up?

Laura Withers: I hope somebody listens to it, and if you do and you have a story to tell and you have feedback or something that has touched you about the story, please, please, please contact us at NTCA.org or reach out to us by email. We would love to hear from anybody that actually listens to it.

Andy Johns: Sure, sure. That’s always rewarding to hear from folks. So, well Laura, thanks for everything that you do in the industry and thanks for sitting down with us for this episode.

Laura Withers: Thank you.

Andy Johns: She is Laura Withers, the VP of Strategic Communications for NTCA. I’m Andy Johns with WordSouth. We have a few more episodes that we’ll be recording here in Phoenix at NTCA’s RTIME event. But until we talk again, keep telling your story.