The WCS Wild Audio Podcast launched in June, 2022 in an effort to share inspiring stories of conservation work taking place in the terrestrial and marine strongholds where WCS works in more than 50 countries globally; at the five New York City-based zoological parks WCS manages (including our Bronx Zoo headquarters, the New York Aquarium, the Central Park Zoo, the Queens Zoo, and the Prospect Park Zoo); and in cross-cuting programs focused on Indigenous Peoples' rights, wildlife health and pathogen spillover, climate change, and the illegal wildlife trade, among others.
We wanted the podcast to be lively and engaging while journalistically rigorous—with the ultimate goals being to advance science communication, to expand the public's understanding of both field-based and zoo-based conservation practice, and to inspire listeners to become active advocates for the protection of nature and biodiversity. A key objective from the start has been to make our stories as jargon-free and accessible as possible to non-scientists while leaning in to voices on the ground in the places where we work.
One year after our launch we have produced more than 40 episodes covering topics ranging from the conservation of Nigeria's Cross River gorillas (Season 2, Episode 6) and Uganda's lions (S3, E4), to the impact of landscape degradation on critical carbon-absorbing peatlands in Canada (S1, E8) and the lives of local people in Mesoamerica (S1, E13), to the creation of a sustainable market for rice farmers that protects Giant ibis and other wildlife in Cambodia (S3, E7).
While we enjoy the 20-40 minute podcast format consisting of a conversation between a host and guest, we chose a different direction. The media universe has grown so large and diverse that it can be hard to hold a given listener's attention for a half hour squeezed in at lunch or before or after work/family time, especially when there is so much content vying for our attention. We felt we could produce the most effective and professional podcast if we put an intense focus on a shorter duration episode.
We chose an episode length of 5-10 minutes, using a journalistic/reportorial approach. What we hoped would make our podcast stand out is what had attracted each of us to WCS in the first place—the passion and commitment of a very mission-driven staff working in New York City at our zoos and aquarium and around the world in Latin America, Africa, Asia and dozens of coastal seascapes. While our budget did not allow us to travel, we knew that our staff were proud of their work and eager to share it.
For an organization like WCS, with staff spread out across the globe in every time zone, finding ways to record sound for the podcast was both a challenge and an opportunity to connect directly with many national staff whom we might otherwise only see at international conferences. Taking advantage of the audio format, we were able to bring the sounds of wildlife to our listeners, whether a charging gorilla in Nigeria, a jaguar in the forest of Latin Ameria, or a whale in Arctic waters.
We knew from our existing relationships with staff that they had powerful stories to tell, but we also knew how busy conservationists are, and also how peripatetic—often disappearing into the field for a month or longer at a time. We wanted the first episodes we produced to resonate not only with listeners of the podcast, but internally with staff to gain their trust and faith that this was something we were committed to and that was worth their time. The enthusiastic early feedback we received reassured us it was.
The strategy for reaching the public consisted of three priorities: 1) produce the most engaging episodes we are capable of; 2) ensure that the podcast is broadly distributed to the major platforms for podcast listenership; and 3) promote the podcast widely via WCS's social media handles and extensive lists of supporters. It quickly became clear that Apple Podcasts comprised our largest audience, which enabled us to track our podcast's downloads, listenership, and global audience distribution on that platform. A relationship with the PBS show "Nature" brought the podcast to thousands of additional listeners.
Since our launch, we have tracked a steady growth in our audience. Taken together, our episodes consistently receive 1200-1400 downloads a month—putting us in the top tier of nature podcasts. We have established branded social media for the podcast at Twitter/X, Instagram (adapted from a pre-existing account with 2K+ followers), and Facebook [see Links] while leveraging WCS’s 1.15M social media followers to promote all episodes. Apple Podcasts carries roughly 2,500 nature-themed podcasts on their platform and we rose to #9 in our first two months on their list of nature podcasts.
The podcast has been invaluable as an "explainer" for journalists wanting a quick primer on subjects we cover. For example, we produced episodes to clarify the stakes of global policy conferences long delayed by the covid pandemic, including the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Special Episodes, 11/2/22 and 11/9/22) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (S2, E2), attracting interest from journalists at the AP, Reuters, and AFP wire services that reach millions of readers and demonstrating the value of the short-form podcast format for media.
Episodes have helped build public support for the designation of the fantastically biodiverse undersea Hudson Canyon near New York City as a National Marine Sanctuary (S2, E8) and assisted Fordham University in launching its Green Plan, inspired by Pope Francis's encyclical calling for protection of the planet (S2, E15). A recent episode featured U.S. Sens. Chris Coons (D-DE) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) discussing groundbreaking bipartisan legislation for conservation funding (S3, E13).