Some argue that government communication is an oxymoron — and for good reason. Public agencies deal with complex issues, operate in environments with a low-risk tolerance, and are governed by strict communication laws. And that’s before anyone brings up the dreaded F word: funding.
The City of Agoura Hills’ podcast, The Good Life Agoura Hills, challenges that assumption. The podcast shows that government communication can be fun and digestible, even when it comes to challenging topics. Just as importantly, communication is not just about information sharing. It is about building relationships and meeting people where they are.
A sobering start
The genesis of the Good Life Agoura Hills is rooted in a serious incident. On Nov. 8, 2018, the city (pop. 19,825) was in an all-too-familiar situation. It was a hot, dry, windy day. Late that afternoon, powerful Santa Ana winds turned a nearby brush fire into what would later become the Woolsey Fire. The massive blaze led to the unprecedented, total evacuation of several cities, including Agoura Hills.
According to Deborah Lopez, who was elected to the city council just two days prior, the fire underscored the need to modernize the city’s communication strategies. During the fire, the city mostly relied on email and landline phones to communicate.
The city began revamping its communication strategies in 2019. The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic a year later accelerated these efforts.
The most immediate, visible change was an expanded presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Nextdoor. In 2022, the city built on that work by launching a monthly podcast, which brings on subject matter experts to discuss the biggest — sometimes most contentious — issues and projects in the city. Topics range from the city’s housing element and water conservation to the upcoming Wallis Annenberg Wildlife Crossing.
“We have to be in those spaces so that we’re giving people accurate, timely information and [the city’s efforts have] just come such a long way over the last four years,” Lopez said. I’m a believer that you have to meet people in various mediums to get your message across [and] to keep their attention.
“I don’t think you can overcommunicate with your residents … because everybody has a different manner in which they ingest information.”
Despite the sometimes-somber subjects, the city is not afraid to rely on levity to spread its message. In one opening skit about water conservation, David Pedersen, the general manager for the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District was on the receiving end of a (staged) full-body tackle from the water district mascot. Not to be outdone, the school district asked to recreate the opening of Beverly Hills, 90210 in its episode.
“The Good Life Agoura Hills podcast is a sterling example of creative, effective communications by a forward-thinking municipality,” Pedersen said. “The entire team at the city of Agoura Hills should be commended for creating a series of informative podcasts that address issues of interest to the community in a fun, easy-going way. This is the future of communications for public agencies and a model for the rest of us to follow.”
Clarity and community
The podcast solves several long-standing problems. First, it allows the city to reach more people than it did through in-person and online workshops. These workshops are held when a large city project needs resident input and last about two hours. From 2020-22, 263 people viewed a live workshop.
“We would go through so many resources and only have, let’s say, ten [to fifteen] people showing up,” said Ramiro Adeva, the show’s host and the assistant city manager. “Now, we’re a smaller city … but when you are trying to reach the masses, that’s hard to do when you try to … get this information to [people] and there aren’t any bodies there to absorb it.
The podcast, which is available on major podcasting platforms and YouTube, has 2,611 views on YouTube alone. On average, viewers watch 70% of any given episode.
This greater reach naturally results in more effective outreach efforts. The city has always tried to stay connected with local businesses. However, scheduling a workshop about available resources and programs that works for the majority of business owners is functionally impossible. Creating a podcast episode about those resources with a high-profile community member is not.
The podcast’s format also means that business leaders can access that information on a platform and time that is convenient for them.
From a policy perspective, the podcast helps clarify complex topics and combat misleading information. “We are the liaisons between the legal, technical, wonky part of state policy and our residents,” Lopez said. “The podcast is able to bridge that and explain things that will affect [residents’] lives. We can’t ignore the housing element because it’s wonky. We have to be able to explain it to people because it will affect them.”
Just as importantly, the podcast’s down-to-earth, cheerful nature allows people to put faces with names. This helps increase trust, transparency, and community. Greater trust, combined with better information, helps incorporate more voices into the decision-making process. It also makes it easier for city officials to get buy-in for public projects.
“We [made] it a very personal experience so that you are actually connecting with leaders you might not otherwise connect with in a different format,” Adeva said. “We show [residents] that these [officials] are people; they’re people just like you and [me] … You can’t just walk into the superintendent’s office and meet the district head honcho.”
Meeting people where they are
Perhaps the scariest thing for any prospective podcast personality is not the upfront costs. Rather, it is what to say when they are in front of the mic. Agoura Hills has had no shortage of material.
“The Good Life Agoura Hills podcast is a community treasure,” said Dr. Dan Stepenosky, the Las Virgenes Unified School District superintendent. “It brings in diverse voices and resources from our community. It has infectious energy and positivity. It’s exciting to watch it grow, get better every day, and provide connection for all.”
For Council Member Lopez, the podcast is a way to get closer to her constituents. She passes on feedback from her constituents to staff, who respond by bringing in relevant experts on the show. She then draws attention to the podcast through her own communication platforms.
For residents, the podcast is an easy way to stay informed about important local issues. “Being a busy mother of two kids and having a full-time job can be exhausting,” Karen Henderson said. “The city’s podcast has made it easy for me to remain informed on important issues affecting the community at a time and place convenient for me and I’m grateful for this resource. And the humor sprinkled into the episodes is entertaining and appreciated.”