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Tiny Radio in Class: Podcasting Returns to Campus

When 99% Invisible blew through its fundraising goal on Kickstarter by four times, the "tiny radio show about design" brought renewed attention to the lost art of audio podcasting. It also piqued the attention of Associate Professor John McArthur, director of undergraduate programs for the Knight School of Communications at Queens University of Charlotte in North Carolina. McArthur had been seeking out a topic to try in a pilot seminar he was holding this spring as part of a department exploration to figure out how faculty and students might interact in a more collaborative way on campus.

And that's exactly what happened. In the course of the seminar McArthur's students used podcasting as a mechanism to learn how to compose arguments in the form of telling a story. Plus, it gave them a chance to interact with faculty in a mode that put them in the role of "producer."

How a Podcast Report is Put Together

In an era of quickly produced videos that go viral on YouTube, the concept of producing a podcast may seem a bit antiquated. Why go audio when visual rules the day? McArthur doesn't see it that way. "The issues that arise with video creation -- especially for YouTube video creation -- is that [it's] both visual and aural," he says. "I come from a school of thought that believes that by isolating one mode of communication -- in this case aural -- we can pay very close attention to the writing, the narrative arc, and design principles of the podcast." The audio nature of a podcast helps the students focus on the story-telling without having to pay attention to the visual aspects. In that way, it acts as a scaffold to move into video creation if that's a follow-on goal.

McArthur, who has written about podcasting for Communication Teacher, points out another reason to stick with podcasting: No special equipment required other than a computer or other mobile device to do the recording; Audacity, a free open source editing program; and SoundCloud, a free online service for uploading and sharing audio and music. To enhance the quality of the recording, some students also used plugged an external microphone into their devices.

The specific assignment was for students to put together a podcast "that told the story of something through the eyes of the campus community." To jumpstart the effort, the entire group collaborated on a podcast that explored public art. McArthur acted as the producer. The focus was on a specific statue of "Young Diana: Goddess of the Hunt," that has stood for 70 years in the main courtyard on campus.

"I conducted interviews in class in front of them. Then as a group we used Audacity to edit. In the process of doing it together, I was able to show them how to do noise reduction, volume enhancement, and how to sequence the different times and sounds so they would merge appropriately." That served as the extent of their "training," he notes.

McArthur directed students to free background music that could be downloaded from Royalty Free Kings. Some used copyrighted music in their podcasts, "which from an educational perspective is kind of OK," he added, "but from a distribution perspective is not." That led to a discussion of copyright issues and fair use guidelines.

The result, which can be heard online, is remarkably professional -- akin to the kinds of stories that appear in This American Life or NPR. A narrator introduces the topic as music underscores the audio, then a second person -- an expert -- speaks, she's introduced by the narrator, and the story continues, interview building on interview.

Slowing Down for Speed Bumps

From there, the students were off and running. Each student became a producer on at least one seven- to 10-minute podcast, using class time for group work. Their topics varied widely: the absence of graffiti on campus through the eyes of the students who live there; the concept of "access" on campus, including swipe cards; the experience of studying abroad. Then there's Max Kaczynski, who covered speed bumps.

Kaczynski, who has recently graduated with a double major in business and organizational communication and is on his way to graduate school in Switzerland, was motivated to report on his topic after writing an editorial on the subject for the campus newspaper. "I was annoyed with the speed bumps because there are so many. I think they're inappropriately placed. They're ridiculous," he says.

For the podcast exercise, however, Kaczynski had to go beyond his previous written coverage. McArthur told him to do some background research. He discovered that an early use surfaced at Washington University in St. Louis, where Chancellor and physics Nobel Prize winner Arthur Compton introduced speed bumps after noticing how fast drivers passed by the main campus building. Over the course of preparing the podcast, he spoke to "eight or 10" people, eventually using segments from the three "best" interviews in the recording.

Kaczynski had a couple of false starts, he acknowledges. For example, his opening narrative was "slow and long. I spoke slowly. I wasn't happy with it." So he typed out the verbiage and tried it again, this time with the script.

Although as a campus DJ Kaczynski was familiar with the concepts of putting together recorded segments, he'd never done storyboarding before -- the process of ordering the various elements of the story. Also, one of the earliest sessions in the class was dedicated to "how to listen to a podcast." Until you've done that, he observes, you don't notice "how dynamic and complex the actual podcast is."

Learning how to put his content in order was another big lesson for him. "I had all these audio quotes, and I thought, what do I want to say? I did it backwards. I did the interviews first, then the research, so my initial questions didn't really connect to the research. If I did it again, I'd flip that process, so I could bring to my interviewees more information, so they could answer more questions -- more of what I was looking for."

Kaczynski adds that he also learned how to use music intermittently -- its absence as vital to the telling of the story as its inclusion. "I took audio out during one of the interviews in the middle, where there's a long pause, and you can hear the guy breathe," he recalls. "I would never have thought about that. But that catches the listener's attention. What's going on?"

Learning the Value of Details

In the course of the seminar, McArthur took students through instruction in narrative design, the use of "evidence" to support the topic -- whether from narrator, interviewee, or research report -- and editing. He also covered the use of color, "how to increase the interest you might want from an aural reporting."

Once the podcasts were completed, they were uploaded to SoundCloud for public consumption, which allowed the broader campus to listen to the productions.

McArthur plans to repeat the course in spring 2014, with one change. "Students want multiple opportunities to produce," he explains. So they'll each probably create a series of podcasts in order to "apply what they learn from building one to the next one and increase their learning."

The surprise for most students in the seminar, he says, was "how much time you could spend on just one little detail that may not even be noticed by the audience, but might make all the difference for their understanding of the podcast -- the spacing of words, the vocal filler, the sound of the laugh, those little details could really change the meaning."

Although McArthur sees obvious application for lessons in podcasting for those students who want to be in radio specifically, the broader point is to make others "aware that students can produce documents that aren't always in written form." Faculty and students on campus have taken an interest in the concept of podcasting "as an outlet for student expression, and that's really cool."

As for Kaczynski, he doesn't expect to continue with podcasting. "I don't listen to them," he admits. His preference: to move up the scaffold: "Doing a video blog would be better."

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