Podcasting in the Classroom

Students are embracing a different type of storytelling.

By Amanda Fretheim Gates

Podcasts have been around for years, but they started to get popular when mobile device companies and app developers created podcast-organizing apps for users. Listeners no longer had to be at their computers with high-speed internet to listen to a favorite podcast—they could listen while on a run, in the aisles of the grocery store or during their commute to work.

Since the early 2000s, podcast listenership had grown slowly. Then, enter “Serial,” the investigative journalism podcast that launched in fall 2014 by This American Life. The podcast became a hot topic in workplaces, in living rooms and online around the world. “Serial” made history, with more than 80 million downloads in just its first six months. After it launched, it was the fastest podcast in Apple history to reach 5 million downloads. It not only became a gateway to the medium for first-time podcast listeners, it opened up doors (and ad dollars) for media companies and startups.

“After ‘Serial,’ we saw an uptick in students asking about podcasting and learning how to do it,” said Chris Ison, Hubbard SJMC associate professor. “Students were asking about how to get into radio more. We have one of the best public radio stations in the country in St. Paul and they do podcasts. It only made sense to offer it here.”

Over the past decade, the public’s familiarity with podcasts has increased by more than 20 percent, according to The Infinite Dial study, which is the longest-running survey of digital media consumer behavior in America, published by Edison Research and Triton Digital. Forty percent of respondents said they listened to at least one podcast in 2017, up from 27 percent in 2013. Of the survey respondents, 15 percent listen to podcasts weekly versus only 7 percent in 2013, with more than half of them listening to more than two podcasts per week.

“One of the great takeaways from the survey is that once people start listening, they keep listening,” said Steve Nelson, director of programming at National Public Radio (NPR) and a ’95 graduate of Hubbard SJMC. “What we believe is happening is that people who discover podcasts, once they can find the content they want, they’re hooked. We’ve seen podcasts grow slow and steady and that’s good for an emerging medium.”

A School Answering the Call

To respond to student requests, as well as keep with its mission of creating courses that meet the needs of professionals in an ever-changing industry, the School began offering podcast training as a special topics class. The Podcast Production and Storytelling course (Jour 4990) was first offered in fall 2016, and is scheduled again for fall 2017. Taught by Sarah Lemanczyk, a program advisor at the U ’s radio station, Radio K, the class was modeled after how she trains students and volunteers at the radio station.

Lemanczyk has a long career in news and audio production, working and freelancing for WNYC, MPR, NPR and other radio stations. She sees the growth in podcast listening as a huge plus for the industry, and one that opens up more jobs for grads. “Podcasting has certainly created a resurgence in audio storytelling and revitalized audio production,” she said. “We’re always going to need people who can tell stories. It’s only the medium that changes.”

In the class, students start small, because many have not had audio experience before. Students record a “vox pop,” short for vox populi, which in broadcasting terms means an interview with the public. “A vox pop helps them learn how audio is different from gathering news on film, and how to tell a story using audio,” Lemanczyk said. “It also gets them used to talking to strangers.”

Throughout the semester, the students continued to hone their audio skills. At first, said Lemanczyk, their stories were very linear, just like news stories. But by the end of the semester, they were pulling together pieces in different ways and creating mini three-minute podcasts. “It was fun to watch them learn and grow and watch them get comfortable,” she said. “I wanted to get them out of the pyramid habit [of newswriting] and teach them how to let go of their words and to trust their tape.”

Students who participated in the rst class came into it hoping to expand their skills, understanding that more and more employers would be seeking potential employees who could tell stories across all platforms. They ended up walking away with a lot more. “Sarah really helped me understand techniques and appreciate the detail that goes into a quality story,” said Joe Rush, a fall 2016 grad who took the class before graduating. “As someone who mainly had explored storytelling via writing, I was blown away by the impact a variety of voices and natural sounds can have on a story.”

Engaging the Ear

Whether a podcast is covering crime, politics or a favorite TV show, or even communcating with employees or shareholders, it has a different purpose than a newspaper article or broadcast reel. Podcasts are very character-driven, very intimate. Audio journalists need to engage the ear, and it takes planning to map out the elements of a story and organize them in a way that holds a listener’s attention.

In class, Lemanczyk emphasized the importance of details to humanize a story and make it more universal for the audience. “You can’t give them the entire sky,” she told her students. “Just talk about the cloud you see. Let the audience get the sky from that.”

Lemanczyk had her students read Working by Louis “Studs” Terkel, which features stories from his famous Chicago-based radio show that told oral histories of common Americans. How could they tell these stories with audio today? It’s not just about conducting a good interview and writing good copy, said Rush. It takes planning and focus to make good tape, and the class emphasized that. “Narrowing our oftentimes lofty ideas can be diffcult, but it allows you to find the balance between overarching themes and the specific details that keep listeners entertained,” he said.

Working at the top podcast publisher in the country with nearly 10 million unique monthly listeners, NPR’s Nelson is pleased his alma mater is offering more opportunities in audio production and helping to groom future podcasters. It’s a different type of storytelling, and students can learn a lot about how differently stories are told for the ear, he said. “It’s the most human way to communicate. If you can broaden your skills as a storyteller down the road, you’re going to be very valuable in the profession, or any profession. If you can tell a compelling story in a meeting with eight people around the table, you’re going to be far more successful than if you couldn’t.”