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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Sunday, April 14, 2024

Students explore audio storytelling through courses and podcasts

By January 2015, about 17 percent of Americans have listened to a podcast in the past month, a figure that has risen from nine percent in 2008, according to an April 2015 report by Pew Research Center. This trend in audio storytelling has also come to Tufts, as students enroll in courses on radio journalism and experiment producing podcasts successfully.

“When you are watching TV, it's like you are in a theater, you are in the audience, you are watching something that happened to somebody else. When you are listening to a radio story that's done well, you are right with the microphone, you are in the middle of the action,” WGBH News ReporterCraig LeMoult (LA '98) said of good audio narrative.

When LeMoult moved to Boston, part of his dream was to teach a class at his alma mater. This semester, he is teaching an ExCollege course about radio journalism and audio storytelling, a class that quickly filled up since registration. He was surprised at how Tufts students are genuinely enthusiastic about radio and the audio narrative.

“I was thrilled on the first day of class, when I asked everybody to introduce themselves and tell me what they've been listening to, and every single person has been listening to public radio and podcasts,” LeMoult said. “It was really exciting to be in front of a classroom of students who really care about audio storytelling, who really want to be able to do it themselves. [It's] hugely gratifying.”

This enthusiasm about audio storytelling is not unique to LeMoult's class: Tufts Podcast Network (TPN) has focused on producing student-created podcasts since it was founded in 2013. Having made some reputable podcasts, including "the Blind Date" series, the student group launched their new website that showcases the stories they produce. 

Xander Landen, the current executive editor of TPN, said the group got the inspiration for the Blind Dates Series from the Boston Globe project. 

“It was based on the Boston Globe [project] where they have people fill out questionnaires and they matched people, they go on a blind date, and each person recounts their experience on the blind date after it happens,” Landen, a senior, said. “We decided to do this in a podcast format.”

This program boosted TPN’s engagement with the Tufts community, as the group played matchmaker. Although not a completely journalistic project, the show has been a success, according to Landen.

“I think we are going to continue to do it this semester because people who did it had a lot of fun with it,” Landen said.

Currently, TPN is producing several other projects as its membership continues to grow. Its more journalistic project, a new collage podcast, titled "Sound Line," has just come to being this semester, in which various podcasters each contribute one section of the program about different news topics, a format which is largely similar to the NPR show "All Things Considered."

“We all work on one project, and everyone’s doing shorter stories in Boston area, in the Tufts community, and contribute every week.” Landen said.

From a non-journalistic angle, a show called "For Lack of a Better Word" has been gaining wide popularity,in which the podcasters discuss words that are not existent in the English language – their meanings and people’s first-hand experiences of using such words.

Senior Cooper McKim, who started TPN on campus, said he was first drawn to podcasts such as "The Truth" and "Snap Judgment," and the narratives in them. A huge radio fan, McKim noticed that there previously was not a group about podcasts at Tufts, motivating him to create this space on campus. TPN now posts podcasts every weekend and continues to grow.

TPN is a reflection of a bigger change in the audio medium itself. Following the success of the podcast series "Serial" in 2014, popular attention and curiosity has been increasingly drawn towards podcasting, which has remained low-key despite existing for a decade. To LeMoult, it was the well-produced content and the skilled storytelling that made Serial a popular podcast, and subsequently brought podcast as a medium to the forefront.

“Because people were hearing about this one podcast that was so good and so successful, they started saying ‘what is this podcasting thing, should I check it out? What other kinds of podcasts are there?’” LeMoult said. "It truly did introduce the whole idea of podcasting to a lot of people who would never listen to one before.”

Storytelling is the key word for LeMoultMcKim and Landen. Storytelling makes the audio medium special, because to them, audio has a unique power to virtually transport the listeners to the scene that the story describes.

Landen used the word “captivating” to describe his listening experience.

“It really forces you as a listener to imagine and recreate the situation, really think about and consider everything that's being told… there is something very captivating about just the human voice,” Landen said. “Sometimes I will read a news article, it could be hard for a news article to hold my attention, whereas when there's someone carrying me through the story, telling the story with their voice, I'm more likely to keep listening because that's like someone is talking to you.”

Aside from the content and the perks of the medium itself, technological advances have been a strong helping hand in the popularization of podcasts and audio storytelling – with the ubiquitous smartphone, podcasts and audio content have become readily accessible and easy to produce, which makes more people willing to participate. As a result, the variety of podcast shows has become unprecedented.

“There're so many [podcasts]… I mean, there are so many, no matter what you are interested in there's a podcast that you can listen to, and that you will enjoy,” LeMoult said.

However, LeMoult doesn't think that the podcast boom necessarily implies a crisis for traditional radio journalism.

“I know WGBH and WNYC and other public radio stations are very involved in creating new podcasts,” LeMoult said, " They see what's happening; they see that people are going this way, and they say, ‘well, let's get in on that!’”

One challenge that traditional radio stations are confronting right now, however, is the mass movement of quality radio personalities into podcasting.

“Some of the podcasters who I love the most, I loved them while they were on the radio," LeMoult said. "People like Alex Blumberg, who started the Gimlet network of podcasts, who had been my professor in Columbia; 'Serial' - that came from people who worked for 'This American Life', the show that really inspired me to start radio.”

However, thinking about the future, LeMoult said, “I just see it as a growing world of audio storytelling.”

Correction: The previous version of this story mistakenly identified Craig LeMoult as a Senior News Reporter from NPR, when he is in fact a News Reporter at WGBH. In addition, the article misidentified LeMoult as an alumni of Tufts who graduated in 1988, when he actually graduated in 1998. The Daily regrets these errors.