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Project: The Magic Pill, a podcast and 21 day exercise challenge from Boston’s NPR affiliate, WBUR

What do you do when facts bounce off?

Our communities and our nation face increasing problems with political polarization, and a frightening rise in the number of people who are being taken in by fake news.

the-magic-pill-header-1In our fast-paced social media era, how can we give people a new experience of complex topics and help them arrive at a shared appreciation of the facts? How can we create community around an important issue?

That was the question our team asked ourselves in developing The Magic Pill, an innovative NPR podcast aimed at helping people understand the benefits of exercise, and the science of motivation in a way they could take action on.  After all, who hasn’t had the experience of knowing that exercise is good for them, but not actually doing it, or feeling confused or frustrated when one day butter is reported as bad for your health, the next day good? We wanted to help listeners arrive at a place where they could balance incoming information about health AND have their own experience with it.

Most journalism is designed for passive consumption — I write, you read; I film, you watch; I record, you listen. We asked ourselves, “What would happen if we designed journalism to act on?”

In combination with health and science journalist Carey Goldberg, and Dr. Eddie Phillips, who works for the Veterans Administration and is the director of the Institute for Lifestyle Medicine, we developed The Magic Pill, a podcast that is also a 21 day exercise challenge.

  • Podcasts are short, fast and fun — somewhere between six and ten minutes.
  • They’re delivered via email to the subscriber’s inbox each morning for 21 days.
  • Everyone who signs up gets their own “Day 1” of the challenge, and gets 20 days of email with bonus material and episodes.

This was a huge departure from WBUR’s typical method of developing, producing, and delivering a podcast.

  • We used human-centered design practices to develop the idea. Instead of coming up with an idea and hoping people liked it, we started first with people: young and old, black and white, NPR listeners and non-listeners. We asked what their days were like, how they used media, what their needs were. This gave us vital insights that allowed us to match what we developed to what listeners told us they needed.
  • The November Project climbing stairs at Harvard Stadium. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)We used Agile project management methods to organize our team. Developing a new podcast usually takes more than a year; we were able to bring Magic Pill from focus groups where we uncovered needs to launch in less than six months.
  • We used email to deliver the podcast instead of iTunes. This allowed us to get to know listeners a lot better, and for the first time we could respond to user behavior. For example, if a user didn’t open three episodes in a row, we could send them a special bonus episode with tips about how to get back on the wagon with exercise. Email delivery turned out to bring in many people who were first-time podcast listeners, as well.
  • We were able to use technology to be smart about approaching listeners who we felt would be the most interested. Typically when launching a new product, WBUR had simply used broadcast methods — on air promos and social media that went out to all listeners/followers with the same message. We were able to segment our audience based on their social media interests and find people who were interested in fitness or in a healthcare profession and invite them specifically to subscribe.

But did it work?

  • 7,000 people signed up during the launch period — unheard of for an unknown podcast with unknown hosts.
  • 90% said they would rate it 3 or 4 stars and would recommend it to a friend.
  • 44% were first-time podcast listeners.
  • The conversion rate (the number of people deciding to support the station) jumped from six-tenths of one percent to 4.6%, a major finding as the station moves towards digital membership.

If you’d like to experience it for yourself, you can sign up here.

Nick Quah, writing on HotPod: “It’s always a wonder to find a place that’s doing strange and wonderful things. One such place is Boston public radio station WBUR, which will be launching an experimental 21-day fitness podcast project called The Magic Pill.” More.

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