How LAPD's podcast takes a modern approach to telling the agency's story
From deep dives on controversial topics to profiles of officers on the force, the LAPD harnesses the power of the podcast to connect with the public
Ask most civilians to describe the characteristics of a police officer and they’ll probably give you some combination of the usual stereotypes: “macho,” “donut lover,” or “gun nut.” But what about “articulate,” “charismatic,” or “pescatarian?” How about “ex-cage fighter” or “former stage actor?” You’d be hard-pressed to find anybody outside the profession who’d associate those descriptors with their idea of a cop – unless they’ve listened to the Los Angeles Police Department’s official podcast. In episodes ranging from 20 minutes to nearly an hour, “Our LAPD Story” challenges the public’s preconceived notions of officers, police technology and law enforcement operations through deep dives on controversial topics, first-hand accounts of harrowing incidents and profiles of officers on the agency’s diverse force.
The modern approach to community engagement is the brainchild of LAPD Public Information Director Josh Rubenstein, who left a 25-year career in broadcasting to join the department. When he came on board in 2016, Rubenstein, who manages all of LAPD’s internal and external communications, knew the agency needed to take a multimodal approach to telling their story in order to capture the attention of as many Angelenos as possible.
“I want to use everything in my power to communicate to the public what policing is about today, the complicated work our officers do, the difficult situations they face, the emotions that they have,” Rubenstein said. “The more the public understands what we are doing, the better off we all are.”
One of the more unique initiatives was the podcast. Launched near the end of 2017, it was initially developed as a means to an end; the department had just announced a pilot program to test unmanned aerial systems and were grappling with intense public pushback. Rubenstein was looking for novel ways to be transparent, correct false or misleading narratives about the new tech, and address the public’s concerns.
“We knew that if we had just done a press conference or if we just pushed something out in a news release, the news media would create their own narrative,” Rubenstein said. “There was a lot of nuance to it and we wanted to alleviate the concerns of the public and inform them we weren't going to use drones in an unconstitutional manner. I thought, ‘What about a podcast where we can actually talk about it in a very cogent way where you are going to hear all of the details as opposed to just a couple of snippets?’”
HUMANIZING THE BADGE
The podcast grew from there, evolving from a way to educate the public on topics like UAS and crowd control to a tool for humanizing officers. It’s widely understood among law enforcement that most people’s perception of cops is usually not informed by knowing officers on an individual level. LAPD’s podcast offers a solution to that problem – sharing officers’ lives, interests, work and beliefs with the public through storytelling in a style similar to mainstream podcasts like “This American Life.”
Among the officers profiled: Officer Jaqueline Perea, who joined the department after her brother was tragically murdered; Deputy Chief Justin Eisenberg, who was one of the cops targeted in the Christopher Dorner incident; and Tactical Flight Officer Vanessa Hensen, who is a member of the agency’s elite air unit.
Rubenstein credits the effectiveness of the podcast to its authenticity. Officers are candid about their emotions – the times they were afraid, their moments of doubt.
“Tapping into the vulnerability and the emotions of our officers is one of those ways that we’re being authentic,” Rubenstein said. “If we make them out to be heroes who don't have feelings, then we're not really being honest.”
Here's my latest episode of the podcast "Our LAPD Story"for this one we go back to the night of April 7th -two officers are ambushed at the West Traffic Division front desk. I'm amazed they are alive to tell their story..don't forget to subscribe. https://t.co/gUUCkt0jVY— Josh Rubenstein (@PDPIOJosh) November 16, 2018
The podcast also doesn’t shy away from difficult topics like police use of force.
“It can't be propaganda, because the public is very smart, and they can spot a fake a mile away. That means addressing some of the negative, that helps the validity of these podcasts,” Rubenstein said. “My goal is to build public trust, and I can do that if I'm authentic and honest.”
Given law enforcement’s reputation for being insular, one would assume getting officers to open up is hard. But Rubenstein says he’s been surprised at how easy it’s been so far.
“There's this myth that officers don't have feelings or emotions when they come into work, but they do,” Rubenstein said. “I think they're waiting for someone to give them the opportunity to share these things in a safe environment.”
CAPTURING AN AUDIENCE
So far, the experiment has yielded promising results. The podcast has around 3,000 active subscribers, and those who are listening stay engaged; 91% of people who start an episode finish it – an impressively low bounce rate in an age of short attention spans and content overload.
“The fact that you get someone to hit play and have them listening to LAPD tell a story for 40 minutes is huge,” said LAPD Strategic Communications Officer Mathew Rejis, who works on the podcast with Rubenstein. “Especially in the world of digital media where you're combating the endless scroll.”
For Rubenstein, the length of time a podcast allows to tell a story – and the sense of intimacy it creates – are the biggest advantages in delivering the agency’s message via a podcast versus other mediums.
“In Los Angeles, we spend a lot of time in our cars, so I want it to be something that someone could listen to during their commute. Anybody who's sat and listened to the radio in the car knows there's an intimacy that is just unmatched,” Rubenstein said. “Podcasting offers the ability to almost talk directly to someone rather than feeling like there's distance between the person telling the story and the person listening to the story."
The podcast has made an impact internally, as well. Rubenstein and Rejis say the reaction inside the department has been overwhelmingly positive. In an agency of nearly 13,000 employees, the podcast has enabled many LAPD officers – even top brass – to learn about their colleagues in a way they wouldn’t have otherwise.
“I'll go to one of our divisions and someone will stop me and say that they love the podcast because it tells their story,” Rubenstein said. “We have officers from various backgrounds that have so many different life experiences. And they bring that to work. That is really what makes this such a rich environment. There are endless stories here, and I'm more and more impressed by the caliber of men and women that come and decide to take on this profession.”
TELLING YOUR AGENCY’S STORY
You don’t have to have a background in broadcasting to create a compelling podcast. You don’t even need to spend all that much money on equipment – a couple of microphones, a laptop and some simple editing software will get the job done. And you don’t need a large team, either – LAPD’s podcast is primarily the product of three people. There are a ton of articles and how-to videos out there that break down the basics of creating a podcast; here are five tips to get you started.
- Be honest.
The public won’t buy in unless you’re being real with them. Don’t be afraid to show your officers have emotions or to address difficult topics. The more genuine you are, the more you’ll make a connection. If your message isn’t real, it’ll sound like propaganda and people will tune out.
- Keep things conversational with your interviewees.
Likely there are many officers in your agency who’d be willing to sit down and share their story with an audience. For officers to open up, they need to know they’re in a safe environment. Keep it loose and relaxed.
“Do everything you can to make it feel like you are just having a conversation and that will elicit open and authentic responses from the person you're talking to,” Rubenstein said.
- Get your message out on as many platforms as possible.
Accessibility is key. You need to be on as many platforms (Apple, Spotify, Soundcloud, etc.) as possible. Create as many opportunities as you can for people to find your content.
- Drop the "cop speak."
It’s important to remove barriers of entry for the public to get into your show. Keep in mind the audience is outside the realm of law enforcement and they don’t use the same shorthand or terminology that you do.
“We talk in acronyms and ‘cop speak.’ People want to hear a human being talking,” Rubenstein said.
- Remember, you have two audiences.
Everything you put out has two groups of listeners. Even if your podcast is tailored to the public, there’s also an internal audience. Keep everyone in the loop. Be prepared for potential criticism, as well as praise.
“You always have to be thinking that your message doesn't only go one direction, it's not just outward,” Rubenstein said. “As a communications director, everything you do is dual-purpose, so you need to keep that in mind when you're producing or doing anything externally.”