This week on the blog, we’d like to highlight the innovative way that MacMillian Publishers launched and rolled out their new podcast Driving the Green Book.
Driving the Green Book follows award-winning broadcaster and educator Alvin Hall and activist and social justice trainer Janée Woods Weber as they drive from Detroit to New Orleans, retracing some of the travel routes detailed in the Green Book, the historic 20th-century guidebook for Black motorists and “bible of Black travel during Jim Crow.”
To heighten the storytelling experience, Macmillan partnered with Apple to produce two complements to the podcast: a music playlist on Apple Music and an interactive travel guide on Apple Maps. At some point next year, the pair will also release a curated collection of relevant reading material on Apple Books.
In an email, a rep from Macmillan told me the following:
The Driving the Green Book listening experience is enhanced for Apple customers through a meaningful collaboration that spans Apple’s ecosystem of services including Apple Maps, Apple Books and Apple Music. With iOS 14, customers can explore locations documented in the Green Book with an Apple Maps Guide, offering listeners a deeper understanding and appreciation of these historic sites. Listeners can also hear from the musicians mentioned on the podcast with an accompanying playlist on Apple Music, featuring 13 songs from the likes of The Temptations, The Supremes, and Smokey Robinson. This fall, listeners will be able to learn more about this period in American history, and the works that influenced Alvin and Janée as they developed the project, through a curated collection on Apple Books.
Last week, I spoke with Kathy Doyle, Vice President of Podcasts for Macmillan Publishers, and asked her a few questions about the partnership with Apple and how it came together.
Steve Robinson: Congratulations on your new podcast Driving the Green Book. What’s it about and how did it come together?
Kathy Doyle: Driving the green book started out as a podcast. Alvin Hall, who’s a pretty well-known journalist and educator came to us through some relationships he had with Macmillan, and we sent him and a crew out on the road last year on a 2100 mile road trip from Detroit to New Orleans to really recreate a Green Book-inspired experience.
Of course, the Green Book, the Negro Motorist Guide, was a travel guide used by Black Americans throughout segregation and the Jim Crow law period to navigate safely throughout the United States. It gave them all kinds of travel advice, places they could stop safely. And Alvin, having grown up in the deep South and having experienced sort of the last wave of the great migration, actually was part of that generation and he’s also known as one of the leading experts and authorities on the green book in our country. So he really wanted to do a deeper exploration. And for him, these stories were just deeply personal. So he took this road trip with a co-host and a producer and came back with raw audiotape that we listened to and started to discuss where the format and the arc of how the podcast was going to come together and really recognized that we had something we felt was important. These were stories that are very underreported in the United States that we thought gave meaningful context to just a really critical time in our country’s history. And then of course, by the time he came back and into 2020, we started to recognize that they had an incredible parallel to the racial unrest that’s happening in the States today. So we went to Flatiron books and they joined us on this journey and have now signed Alvin hall, the host, on to do a book next year, based on the series.
Let’s talk about the additional features you’re rolling out alongside the podcast in partnership with Apple. What are those?
We’ve been podcasting since 2007. We have a deep relationship with Apple and many of the other distributors and always just work really hard at being a great partner. So when we started formulating the series and mapping out the schedule, as we normally do, we reached out to our contacts, our wonderful contacts at Apple Podcasts, and started a conversation with them to get some guidance and insights from them as to how best to pull this all together, and we started talking about how we might work together to promote the podcast. We also had thought in our minds and actually included in our pitch to them the fact that we knew we had powerful stories about music from this time period. There’s a lot of music covered in the episodes — time period specific, and also some of the musicians were actually interviewed.
So we knew we could put together a really beautiful music playlist. We also knew we could work with Apple if they were up and open to it, with the books team, to put together some sort of a reading list compiled by Alvin Hall and recommended reading for those people who wanted to dig deeper on this topic and this period in American history. So we’re working with the books team on that front. They launched the playlist tied to the series, which has a wonderful link directly back to the podcast. And then we thought, well, maybe there’s something we can do with maps. Unbeknownst to us, as soon as we mentioned that, they put us under NDA and started to tell us about these incredible features they were developing for iOS 14, which included something called Map Guides. These are curated collections that are very visual and really can help a consumer walk through a road trip via the app in ways that they couldn’t do previously. So it was a perfect opportunity for us to create this immersive listening experience by developing assets that would be well suited to the other parts of the Apple ecosystem and collectively could really bring these meaningful stories to life.
Not only was the timing fortuitous, but remarkably iOS 14 actually launched the same week as the podcast, which we had no way of knowing when we picked our release date. So that was amazing.
Why was it important for you to experiment with these additional features?
We’ve always been multi-platform in our thinking and always thought about what is the best way to communicate a story, what is the best way to leverage all the technology that’s available to us to communicate in an intimate way with our listeners. So we’re always thinking in that regard and when this opportunity came up and we looked at the Apple ecosystem, we knew immediately that we’d be able to have multiple touchpoints if they were open to it.
They were just an incredible partner for this project. We had no idea and no way of knowing that Apple Maps was developing these incredible, powerful features that serve as such a great way to have someone listen and explore at the same time or visually through the map guide. But I think collectively, we just had a lot of innovative people thinking about the best and most important ways that we could take these very meaningful, important stories and deliver an immersive experience in a way that hadn’t been done before.
Do you see this as a one-off or do you think you’ll do more of this kind of thing going forward?
We’ve done other interesting things. For example, we’ve taken a lot of the grammar girl content and put that into courses on LinkedIn. So we’ve done some educational work that again, extends the reach of our audio and our storytelling and our, you know, just consumer-based and educational based information into multiple formats. So we don’t have anything specific on the agenda in terms of doing this again, but we’re always open and, and examining new acquisitions the company has brought on and working with our existing hosts and authors to try and find new and innovative ways to expose our content to as wide an audience as possible. And as relevant to that audience as possible.
How challenging was it to roll out these features?
We were mindful of being a good partner to Apple since they had extended such a warm welcome to us in terms of doing this project. The topic of course was incredibly sensitive. So the editorial process was extensive and expensive and required extensive fact checking and working with Alvin to ensure that nothing we did altered his purpose, his meaning — these were deeply personal stories for him. So I would say it was a very delicate balance with a team that was in constant communication. You know, it was 10 episodes that some of which hadn’t been recorded when the pandemic had struck. So it also presented us with what a lot of other publishers and companies are facing, which is the technical challenges associated of picking up where you left off before the pandemic hit, and then trying to ensure that the production values and sound design and everything all comes together in a very cohesive way for the listener. So that was challenging as well.
What was the motivation behind this enhanced listening experience: was it more about offering an enriched storytelling experience or was it about extending your promotional reach?
For us, it’s truly about the content and just creating the most meaningful experience possible. You know, we thought, ‘sure, this is going to extend our reach,’ but our most significant priority was paying respect to these critical stories and presenting them in ways that we had hoped would help people around the world understand what travel was like for Black Americans during this very difficult, unprecedented time in our country. And then of course, again, making sure that we were being mindful and respectful of the racial unrest in this country that has resurfaced those issues in powerful ways this year.
Just the synergy among these apps. It’s a beautiful way that Apple has brought it together. It really shows the power of their ecosystem when you see the way that you can easily toggle between those core parts, you know, maps, music, podcasts, and ultimately books as well. It’s just an incredible way to tell a story.