Speakers discuss podcasting’s academic potential

Photo provided by Liz Covart.

VCU African American Studies Instructor and host of the NPR Story Lab podcast “Do Over,” Chioke I’Anson, spoke with fellow podcast host Liz Covart, creator “Ben Franklin’s World,” on Feb. 21 at a podcasting workshop in The Valentine House.

The speakers discussed the technicalities of the industry, their careers and the future and potential of podcasts, which I’Anson said became “conceivable” with the popularity of iPods.

“I think (podcasts) could be an integral part of education,” I’Anson said. “The skills you have to learn to produce a good podcast are really just good human communication skills.”

Universities are beginning to use podcasts more as academia begins to recognize “media-type work.” I’Anson said he sees more departments using the medium for things like course trailers.

Many college students might already be familiar with the medium — according to a 2017 survey by the Edison Research Center, 27 percent of people between the ages of 12 and 24 had listened to a podcast within the most recent month. Overall, listeners were seen to have received more undergraduate or postgraduate education than the general public.

“(A podcast) is a piece of media that can do work for you even when you’re sleeping,” I’Anson said. “It’s now your stash of promotional materials.”

He recently taught a class called Podcasting While Black, which explored the communication strategies of Civil Rights leaders and other members of the African Diaspora. Students created their own podcasts as part of the course.

“I wanted to help the students express themselves through this medium,” I’Anson said. “The difficult thing is to figure out the difference between what’s interesting to you in the moment and what’s going to engage.”

Covart said she realized there weren’t podcasts about early U.S. history when she discovered the medium. Covart was motivated to start “Ben Franklin’s World” in part because she didn’t want to be on the “traditional” job market.

“I really loved the front-line type of work,” Covart said. “Like any good historian, I researched (podcasting) for 18 months.”

Covart’s audience, measured by total downloads, increased month to month. Now, “Ben Franklin’s World” is downloaded about 100,000 times monthly. Interviews with historians serve as the core of each episode. During part of the interview, she asks the guest hypothetical history questions, discussing what might have changed if a historical event happened in a different way.

Podcasts enable creation of niche content, Covart said. Many people listen to them alone or with headphones, making the experience feel more personal. She believes oral storytelling is one of the best ways to learn.

“For a lot of us, it’s like brain candy,” Covart said. “If you produce a weird show that connects with people, you don’t need a huge chunk of the population (to succeed).”

By designing a show around an obscure topic, creators have a “built-in” audience that enables the creation of a digital community, Covart said.

“People will say listeners love to be a fly on the wall,” Covart said. “No. They want to be part of the conversation, they want to participate.”

I’Anson started off with terrestrial radio, which he says is much more expensive to produce than a podcast. With some shows, the producer’s salary is the only necessary cost and there are fewer limitations on content.

“A lot of podcasts took what was great about terrestrial radio and did all that and more because they didn’t have to worry about FCC (regulations),” I’Anson said. “Podcasts are strangely more accessible than television.”

Covart didn’t have technical skills when she began working on “Ben Franklin’s World.” She said it took about 10 episodes to feel comfortable with the interview process and both speakers said it was challenging to get used to the sounds of their own voices.

“You’re going to go through those feelings,” I’Anson said. “You push through because you’re making the content.”

Georgia Geen Spectrum Editor 

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