Imagine a world without recorded sound. From film soundtracks to car alarms, many of us are so steeped in sound at every moment that we would instantly notice its absence. Since the inception of radio in 1895, we have steadily increased the technology and tools for making and sharing sound. Each step has made it easier and less costly for a person with a microphone and some equipment to capture whatever music or ideas inspire them. When internet radio debuted in the mid-1990s, a world of sound was made even more available. Archives of birdsong and elephant trumpeting, interviews with the famous and the forgotten, and music from all parts of the globe have been digitized and are now easily accessible. A decade later, the first audio blogs, a.k.a. podcasts, premiered. This hybrid medium, which can be produced at very minimal cost, combines storytelling, interviews, archival material, music, and other sounds.
While podcasting was already wildly popular, the past year seems to have been tailor-made for its even greater success. As the pandemic has moved us online and physically apart, the intimacy of podcasts has pulled in many listeners, and the social and political upheaval has made many of us hungry to learn from a diverse array of experts and creatives about what to make of our current world. Teachers of all levels are also increasingly relying on it to extend their virtual pedagogical approach. Episodes often use compelling compositional strategies to hook listeners and augment materials presented in class.
A growing number of academics are becoming involved in podcasting, whether as hosts of their own programs, guests on shows, or editors behind the microphone. Some universities are realizing that this is a new form of publishing that needs to be showcased and mindfully archived. (See, for example, this collection of podcasts produced by faculty, staff, and students at Yale University.) This spring, Humanities for the Public Good is offering a series about podcasting. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow Laura Perry will host a series of events featuring invited guests who are experienced podcasters and audio storytellers, such as James Boo of Self Evident and Rebecca Nagle of This Land. They will discuss the art of crafting audio narratives, how academics can reframe their research for podcasts, and other nuts and bolts of this growing art form. To kick off the series, Perry, herself a former podcast editor and radio show host, will lead a one-hour Zoom presentation on Friday, Dec. 4, "Podcasting at Iowa." [Follow the link to register.]
In advance of this exciting series, we reached out to three UI faculty who are currently involved in producing podcasts to learn about their experiences. Below, they reflect on the benefits to their research and teaching, talk about the tech learning curve, and share a few of their own favorite podcasts.
Podcaster: Trevor Harvey (School of Music), host and co-producer of Ethnomusicology Today, est. 2016
How did you get involved in podcasting?
TH: My main professional group, the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), put out a call for an editor of a new podcast. I’d never done a podcast or even radio production, but my research is partly on music and cyberculture and technology, so I was really interested. I thought I'd be in the background, but that's not the case; I'm the host. I didn't have any storytelling experience, per se, so that’s been a steep learning curve.
Tell us about the process of producing an episode.
TH: I work with several ICRU students on the podcast, and because it’s really a teaching vehicle, it takes longer than it would if I were doing it on my own. The students choose articles from the journal Ethnomusicology to profile. We seek topics that we think will have broader appeal and try to find the voices of diverse contributors and topics. I figure that if a twenty-year-old student browsing through the journal finds something interesting, that’s a good indication that it might have appeal beyond card-carrying ethnomusicologists! We read the article together during our weekly meeting and draft interview questions. Then I reach out to the author to see about setting up an interview. Scheduling turns out to be one of the slowest parts of the process. During the interview, I ask the questions, and the students are present. They do the editing, and an advisory board from SEM, as well as the interviewee, listens to the rough cut.
Where do you record, and what else can you tell us about the technology involved?
TH: I record the interviews in my office in Voxman. I’m lucky because the building is so quiet. When we began, we recorded at KRUI because one of the students worked there, and we originally used their Soundcloud account. KRUI is a student-run organization, and at some point there wasn't clear communication between the new students there and our team, and a bunch of our files got deleted, so we moved things over to a different server. The biggest tech challenge we face is the interviewee’s sound quality. We’ve had people do the recordings from their cars or via poor internet connection and have occasionally had to re-record or just not run a piece because the sound was so bad.
What have you learned as a teacher and researcher from doing the podcast?
TH: While I began by working with a student because I needed help and he wanted to learn about podcasting, I’ve come to see what a rich tool this is for undergraduate research. The students working with me have independent studies, so we develop a close relationship through the semester or year. Currently, I have three students and we meet together once a week to talk through all aspects of a podcast, from content to what’s basically project management. I can see how it’s impacted them. One student has gone on to get a graduate degree in Student Life, partly inspired by our project and the value of this kind of one-on-one mentoring, which she thinks more students should experience. Another is now in a graduate program in ethnomusicology.
As for my research, because I’m not tenure-track, I haven’t had to worry about how the podcast is reflected or valued. I’ve definitely deepened my knowledge because we’re featuring people whose research is in areas that are unfamiliar to me, and I always do background research to be prepared.
What have been the broader effects of this podcast?
TH: I’ve heard from multiple colleagues that they are using it in their teaching. Some of the younger interviewees are using it as part of their portfolio. One guy who was a post-doc was really hands-on with us in creating the episode; he saw it as an opportunity to showcase his teaching style. Another researcher saw it as a way to include the voices of his subjects, and so we interviewed the competitive air guitarist Fatima Houang, who goes by the name Rockness Monster.
What are a few of your favorite podcasts and why?
TH: Musically, I really enjoy Global Hit, which provides short snippets showcasing contemporary music/musicians connected to critical social issues. And when I listen to Alt.Latino, I feel a little bit like the ethnographer listening in and trying to parse out musical meaning and significance from across diverse musical styles and tradition. During COVID, I've enjoyed listening to The Camino Podcast, which highlights the experiences of everyday “pilgrims,” rather than experts or scholars to explore the history, people, and places along the Camino de Santiago.
Rene Rocha (Political Science), co-host of Imagining Latinidades Now, est. 2019
Tell us about the podcast and its relationship to the Mellon Sawyer Seminar, Imagining Latinidades: Articulations of National Belonging.
RR: We wanted to use the podcast to ask the most fundamental question of the yearlong Mellon Sawyer Seminar: What is the Latinx experience? And how much does the diversity of the Latinx population prevent us from talking about it? The three of us who were directing the Seminar—Darrel Wanzer-Serrano, Ariana Ruiz, and myself—took the themes of the symposia and talked about them together before we recorded. Some episodes were a chance for us to preview an upcoming event, or sometimes we gave recaps or invited graduate students or colleagues to join us. The intention was to speak to people at other institutions and also to the greater community; we saw the podcast as a way to involve people who couldn’t attend the events in person.
How was it to do this as a collaborative effort?
RR: I really appreciated doing it with two people who have different personalities but also very different disciplinary backgrounds. [Ruiz is a literary scholar, Wanzer-Serrano is a critical rhetorician, and Rocha is a political scientist.] Because of this, we were each talking about a topic in very different ways right off the bat. As the social scientist in the conversations, I asked, "What does identification mean from a psychological perspective?", which is different from thinking about the question from a very cultural perspective, or from the deep historical ways of understanding the differences in the community. It was also a way to involve our voices and researches with the content of the symposium, since we served more as moderators during the live events.
Your events last spring had to be postponed. What are your plans for the podcast now?
RR: We are holding a culminating event this spring—March 26–27, 2021—that will bring together some of the participants who were scheduled for last semester. We’re going to create two final episodes of the podcast that will pair with this finale to the Latinidades seminar. While that will be the end of creating this podcast, I think it will have a longer life. I know that people are listening to it and using it. It’s been great to attend LULAC meetings, for example, and hear that someone has listened to them. And Darrel has been using them in his classes. Since Darrel is the real tech enthusiast in the group—the podcast was his idea—it also makes sense that he's already on to making his next podcast, Latino 101.
What are a few of your favorite podcasts and why?
RR: I really like The Weeds for its policy wonkyness! They talk about a wide range of political and policy issues, including immigration.
Who We Are is a discussion about systematic racism in the U.S. I like the way that it merges the abstract with journalistic storytelling. I use it in my classes because it compensates for my deficiencies as a teacher; I’m very good at talking about data and history but not with bringing in individual stories.
Nathan Platte (School of Music and Cinematic Arts), co-host and producer of FilmCastPodScene, est. 2020
This podcast is a collaboration between you as a historian of cinematic sound and FilmScene, Iowa City’s independent movie house. In particular, you and Rebecca Fons, FilmScene's programming director, are the hosts. How did the podcast come about?
NP: I’ve only been listening to podcasts for about a year. I have a dog and I needed something to listen to on walks! A student and I started working together to create a podcast that’s related to my current book project on the director Robert Wise, so I was developing these skills. [The Wise podcast hasn’t dropped yet.] I’d met Rebecca when we did an Obermann Conversation together about film and sound and was in the midst of doing a series with FilmScene last spring when they had to shut down because of COVID. The summer was troubling in so many ways, and podcasts were one of the things I was fired up about and also something people could do that might make them feel less isolated. I floated the idea of a podcast to Rebecca and Andrew Sherburne (FilmScene’s Executive Director). I felt that I’d built enough knowledge from the Wise project that I could technically do what we might want to accomplish. So it's a podcast borne of a pandemic!
How does the FilmScene podcast serve your research?
NP: While the Wise podcast has a very clear connection to my book and serves the purpose of allowing me to include sound and tell stories in a different way and to a larger audience, the FilmScene one has less of a clear dovetail to my work. I think of it as “research adjacent”—and I think that's a good thing. We’re focusing on new films and often talking to the filmmakers. Since my work has always been on older films and is steeped in archival research, this has been a big learning curve for me, but it’s really exciting. Rebecca knows the landscape of contemporary independent filmmaking, so she’s a great guide.
Some of the directors we’ve talked with are musicians themselves or are very close to the sound editing process, so I can bring my experience into the conversation. We had a conversation with the sound designer Gary Rydstrom about the documentary Making Waves. He was familiar with my research, which really surprised me because industry people usually don’t read the academic journals.
How do you and Rebecca go about creating an episode?
NP: There are so many ways you can put together a podcast. As the producer, I am trying to become more compositional in my approach. We have both scripted and unscripted dialogue throughout an episode, as well as clips from films and other sounds clips. What I’d like to be doing and what I’m doing are two very different things! You listen to some of these podcasts and get excited to try to do the same thing—but then you have to remember the staff and budget they have. Still, the tools that are now available to anyone with a digital audio work station are really impressive. For the last episode I recorded, we had three guests, media clips, and a tiny bit of music and special effects, like “loud popcorn eating.” There were more than 150 regions [these appear as individual bars in the sound editing program] in Logic, which is the professional version of Garage Band.
An episode takes about twelve hours to create. Rebecca and I meet on Zoom—each with our own mic—and simultaneously record on Garage Band. She sends me her recording via Dropbox, and then I import it all into Logic. Zoom allows you to have different audio streams for everyone, which is nice so that we—or our guests, if we have them—don’t get lost when people talk over each other. That all takes about two hours, and then I spend another ten producing it.
What do you see as the benefits of both of your podcasts?
NP: The FilmScene podcast is just a lot of fun. I really enjoy working with Rebecca and Andrew, and ultimately, I am glad to be using my skills to support a local organization that I care deeply about. The Wise podcast is a way for me to share my research with a broader audience. It’s always bothered me that academic books are so expensive. So much research is stuck behind a paywall. It’s much easier, and frankly more accessible, to send someone a podcast link and say, “Hey, this is what I’m working on these days.” And podcasts have such a different tone. I never want to produce an episode that’s simply an audio version of my podcast; that doesn’t seem useful.
It sounds like you listen pretty broadly. What podcasts inspire you?
NP: I’m still in the gleeful exploration part of this, since I only really started listening to podcasts a year ago. I feel like I’m playing catch up! Dolly Parton’s America really swept me away with how it blends media, outside songs, and archival interviews. Its collage aesthetic is really interesting to me. I love how film sound is very indebted to radio aesthetics, and now podcasts are very indebted to film sound aesthetics.
Meet the Composer is one that I often assign in classes. The host Nadia Sirota is a composer herself, so it’s great to be led by someone who thinks very musically. I also find it amazing that the episodes are produced to meet the composer’s style in terms of pacing and tone. And as a fan of all things archival, I also love Jill Lepore’s The Last Archive. Not only is it a great listen, but its website includes a good page on how they make the show, and how to teach the show.