Teaching Podcasts: reflections on recent experience
I’ve just finished marking my first set of student podcasts. A few years ago I put together a 2nd Year module in Podcasting, which we were able to run this year. It was more popular than I thought it was going to be with 23 students enrolled. I thought it would be a good idea to put down some thoughts on the experience. I’m going to build a playlist at some point using listennotes to compile some of the episodes as examples, but for now here’s this…
The students had two assignments on this module. The first is effectively an academic essay that encourages the students to engage in original research or thinking on the medium of podcasts. I supplied the students with links to some key academic articles via journals that we have access to via the library or those on open-access sites. This was intended as a formative piece submitted mid-module as a means for students to reflect on the nature of the task in hand. The main assignment was to produce a series (more than one) of podcasts on their chosen theme. This could be a group or a solo endeavour. I wanted this to feel like a real-world exercise, so the brief required them to upload their audio to a platform like Anchor and to ensure that it pushes through to platforms like Spotify. This did make marking a little easier it has to be said.
In general, I’m happy with the way the module worked. I was able to to bring in a number of great guests. By luck, the UK’s top podcast ‘Shagged, Married, Annoyed’ is produced just up the road in South Shields and one of the hosts used to be a presenter on our radio station. The students were thrilled to see her and it’s the only time I’ve ever had a queue for selfies in one my lectures. The students also heard from a BBC 5 Live Sports producer, one half of comedy podcast Athletico Mince and University tutor, commercial producer Gaynor Marshall, and arts producer Jay Sykes. These guests all added weight to the module and helped the students realise that producing podcasts is more than achievable.
Across the rest of the module the module first focussed on establishing some of the key concepts of the medium (intimacy, democracy, technologies etc) before getting into some of the more practical elements and some close listening to key examples. We also looked at studio recording, location kits, editing, mixing and hosting. Although of these seemed to work well, although I did make a deliberate decision to make offer the module without prerequisites. In plain English, this means that students did not need a foundational module to opt into the class. This meant that in addition to Media Production students who already knew how to record and edit audio, I had students from Film Production, Journalism and Film Studies. Whilst these students were able to pick up the key skills quickly, some some more work was probably needed to help everyone produce something with a little technical polish and flair.
It was exciting to share some of my own research with students and try to get them to engage in some of the key topics. In general, they were able to respond to some of the key debates; especially around the all important differences between radio and podcasting. They certainly saw this as a challenge, not least as the field is new to them. I only wished a few more of them had walked across the square to the library to borrow a book. (This is not an uncommon experience it has to be said).
One thing that we did do to amplify some of the professional aspects of the module was to record an episode of the New Aural Cultures Podcast in a class. I set the idea up with the class, recorded a short opening statement and then assigned the students a studio each to record their thoughts on the experience of making podcasts. I found this to be really interesting as it showed the value of the module and where students saw the future of the audio medium
I think my key observation, is about an apparent disconnect between the podcasts that we (as tutors) want students to make the podcasts they actually want to make. This is clearly reflective not only of the nature production based assessments but also of differences between the podcasts we (as academics) and they (as students) listen to. Talking to students it is clear they favour podcasts such as Joe Rogan over more complex listens like RadioLab. To anyone who’s taught audio this shouldn’t come as a shock. By and large, as tutors we consume polished productions with high production-values. We listen to award-winners, the complex, the nuanced, and the technical. Our students, though, favour the loud, the funny, the unformatted and the popular. Whilst my examples came from the former, the work submitted fell into the latter. Basically, I got chumcasts.
This is no bad thing, as part of what I wanted is for students to do this for real. All their shows were posted online for real listeners. Some projects have continued after deadline. The assessment was framed to reflect this, as it assesses conceptual, practical, and professional skills. However, I would liked to have heard more ambitious work that showed a greater range of technical, creative, or narrative skills. Many of these things, though, are quite nuanced and students may not notice they are there in the work they hear. My students offered lots of different format ideas, with some really clever ideas about how to give their podcast an edge. However, by using a ‘chat’ format they also favoured catching up with each and chatting about their own lives; so whilst I might not have learned a lot of new information about the world I feel I’ve got to know my students a LOT more. Again, this comes down to understanding processes and being able to recognise that whilst some podcasts are very chatty, they direct that chat in a specific way that includes and involves the listener. When the module runs again, I will explore ways to direct students into becoming more focussed, either by the use of briefs, templates or a checklist of things that they need to do.
It is possible to blend these formats. podcasts such as ‘You’re Dead to Me’ is able to mix a studio ‘chat’ with detailed research and a format that ensures strong interactions. A recent discovery for me is ‘I secretly recorded my boyfriend’, again another chumcast that mixes the format of a review show with a relationship/lifestyle podcast. it’s made by people who work in radio, so it’s sharp, tight, and focussed.
The problem I think is about how we (as academics) see assessment. The vast majority of podcasts demonstrate fewer craft skills than formats like documentary, drama, or live speech. They also can be a lot longer. I didn’t set fixed time limits to begin with, although it soon became apparent that the students were easily going for 40 minutes or more. This makes for a long listen where the content evolves but skills (that we’re looking for) are pretty much consistent throughout. For an assessor, this means we can spot listen across an episode (especially the later ones) to get a sense of skills and performance. Although, for these podcasts I did listen to at least one episode in full. Another podcast tutor told he limits the students to 5 minutes and whilst I think this is a little rigid, I certainly think a cap is needed. It’s one thing for a student to recognise that 40 minutes might be a long length in terms of the ecology of podcasts, it’s another for us to spend that time listening. That said, by being independently hosted I could listen on the move in real-time, like a real listener. In some way, the professions-facing element is perhaps more important than the technical.
I will post links once the marks are all out there, but as an example of what can be done here is a Masters project. This is a major project from MA Radio course. The student wanted to make a podcast series and to achieve the goals of both the assessment and the subject, we agreed to focus on key interviews using narration and a common structure.
As I am writing this a paper presented by Strong (et al) at the WJEC dropped into my feed and much of what the authors discussed was evident in my experience; that learning ‘by doing’ is important and whilst technical and productions need to be taught, students need to make things that they enjoy. Obviously, the content of courses varies as not all departments are as well-equipped as we are (4 studios, location kits, pro editing systems etc) and not every student will have had prior experience or learning in audio; consequently results, experiences, and outcomes will vary, but here are my final thoughts.
- Students needed a template. This could include a requirement for interviews or other recordings.
- There is a disconnect between the work we’d like to students to make and the work they want to hear themselves
- Podcasts do have a different skillset and we need to ensure that rubrics reflect this. Some pragmatism is required.
- Making the experience ‘real world’ adds an important dimension to the experience. However, some teaching of marketing skills might be pertinent here
- Focus is important. All good podcasts have a clear sense of what they do and stick to it rigorously.
- Although location pods allow for easier editing (if they use multitrack) a studio can radically improve sound quality
- Set some time limits. A healthy minimum and a realistic maximum per episode, or a total for the series/sample. This encourages focus and editing.