Having discovered South Caucasus, Americans Billie Stirewalt and Vladic Ravich decided to develop the culture of podcast journalism in this region. With MYMEDIA support they set up an English speaking podcast project Taxi Taxi, which gives listeners the experience of exploring the region.
Founders of the project told us, why the popularity of podcast culture is growing so fast in the West, and how to develop it in the Caucasus.
In the USA the culture of podcasts has been actively developing for the last 8 years – from 2008 the number of listeners increased almost by half – from 9 to 17% by the beginning of 2015. Today about one third of Americans have listened to a podcast at least once. "There's a golden age for podcasts in the US right now, but we didn't notice it in Eastern Europe or Caucasus", says Vladic Ravich, a co-founder of Taxi Taxi. This is why one of the goals of the project is to spread podcast culture in the region.
"The first advantage of a podcasts is its multitasking ability. I can wash the dishes and listen to a podcast. I can go to work in a crowded "marshrutka" and be in another world", he explains.
With podcasts people don't have to spend their time for reading. The attention span is very small and writing journalists always have to fight for clicks. Podcasts work differently: if you like them, you subscribe, and they automatically arrive on your phone. This is how the community gets built around them, which is so hard to achieve in print and photo journalism.
Moreover, podcasts create an intimate atmosphere. "When you see some babushka on TV, she's almost diminished, because you already know what she looks like. But when you hear her voice - it's you grandmother, you do the work of imagining her", says Vladic.
According to Billie Stirewalt, the second co-founder of the project, podcasts give journalists more artistic freedom. " You get a lot more human moments, and it's much easier to compile material – it's easier to get a microphone around than to get a camera around".
Billie in in Chiatura. Photo - Ian Lipsitz.
Billie and Vladic were inspired by several American podcasts, such as This American Life
, which invented the format about 20 years ago, RadioLab
, which pushes the envelope for experimentation and has amazing production, and Reply All
with their radical creative decisions.
How to make a good podcast?
There are certain difficulties in working with podcasts. "Speaking in microphone is difficult – something you have to get very confident in doing. It also takes forever to record a podcast. It's not so difficult to collect the recordings, but the production time gets several hours per minute. So it's easy to get started, but it's way more difficult to make something good out of it".
Vladic also emphasizes the importance of experimenting and getting outside of one's comfort zone. "We don't need classic pyramid stories: here's a person, an example of a larger issue and then we get to the issue".
"Our principle is - don't tell me, why the story is important, tell me why you actually care"
Billie and Vladic hold weekly radio clubs in Tbilisi, where they teach local journalists how to work with audio formats and demonstrate different approaches in audio storytelling. "It's not limited to BBC telling you "Here's the news". We want to show how to be artistic, experimental and straightforward".
The guys don't have much experience in podcast journalism themselves, but they are not ashamed to admit it. "I've worked in some radio before, but it was a live audio podcast, so the sound part and constructing the narrative have been new to me. Vladic has a lot of journalism experience. So we are combining our forces", Billie says.
It doesn't matter, how much experience you have, thinks Vladic. There are amazing resources online, which are quite accessible. Vladic and Billie listen to podcasts and read on how to make them, and then immediately pass their knowledge to other journalists. "It's used to be hard when the technology was very expensive – but it's not any more".
TAXI TAXI: American podcast project in South Caucasus
The project has 2 main goals: to help local journalists learn to work with audio storytelling, and introduce Caucasus to the western audience.
Vladic and Billie themselves discovered the region not so long ago. Billie came to Georgia for an internship 3 years ago and decided to stay there. Caucasus attracted her with diversity of landscapes and traditions. "In a tiny country with just 3.5 million people one could find mountains, deserts and canyons, different languages all over the country and different village cultures", tells Billie about her hiking tours over Georgia.
Vladic was born in St. Petersburg and immigrated to New York as a child. He came back to the Caucasus because it was a place his Russian would be useful as a journalist. "Foreigners are attracted by the unique mix of people and contrasts in the region. Whenever you go to a bar, you meet someone with PhD there. But it does not necessarily help them to find a job", shares Vladic his impressions on Georgia.
Vladic lived in Azerbaijan for 1.5 years, and visited Georgia and Armenia numerous times. Now he continues to coordinate the work of Taxi Taxi from New York. Distance does not hinder to coordinate the work, but it's way more difficult to find freelance journalists without a personal contact, he confesses.
Nevertheless, there are enough candidates, and now the founders are selecting stories that local journalists from all over the region pitch them. Taxi Taxi will help the journalists with equipment, and editing of the recordings, but authors will be given maximum freedom in their storytelling.
The only thing that still remains uncertain is who will end up a main target audience of the podcasts: Americans or Caucasians. "The target audience is anybody who speaks English, as all podcasts will be recorded in this language, and one should have a great command of the language to be able to understand something as satiric as a podcast", says the team. However, it is obvious that the first people who will jump on it are the Americans who studied the region. Ideally, the team expects that local journalists will start producing their own podcasts in Georgian, Armenian or Azeri, and in the end will fully eclipse their English analogue.
But the guys are not going to fight for clicks.
"The best podcasts are like long articles. We want to make a product of a high enough quality that people want to spread, discuss and recommend it to each other offline", says Vladic.
The founders are going to create an active community around podcasts and get the audience participate in creating their content.
Podcasts will be published approximately once a week. Now there are 3 podcasts on the website: about 70 languages in Georgia, Georgian-Russian war and a country musician, who sings American music but has never been to the United States.