You’ve probably downloaded it to your smart phone or computer, or at least heard about it from friends – “Serial,” the investigative reporting podcast that examines the 1999 murder of Baltimore teen Hae Min Lee and her convicted killer, ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed.
The on-demand show is a national sensation that has been downloaded more than five million times and averages 1.5-million listeners per episode, according to The New York Times.
With the growing popularity of “Serial,” journalists are taking note of the changing industry and exploring the time-tested audio storytelling model. The University of Oregon (UO) School of Journalism and Communication (SOJC) has watched the boom and in response, offered undergraduate and graduate audio-storytelling classes during the winter term.
“Audio scratches a totally different itch, and it fits into a different place from a user standpoint,” says journalism area director Mark Blaine. “One of the reasons you see the rise of the podcast is because it is mobile. People can stream it and download it on their phones and then layer it into their lives. It doesn’t require your full attention. You can drive and listen to a podcast. You can’t drive and watch a video.”
Riley Stevenson ’14, suggested a class on audio storytelling last year after her own podcast.
Stevenson, and current student Reuben Unrau, started their own podcast, “This Oregon Life,” with the help of KWVA, the UO’s campus radio station, in the fall of 2013. Staff at KWVA helped the duo learn the editing software and station protocols, while the students taught themselves the production process.
Their podcast was a success and went on to win a Best Regularly Scheduled Program Award at the National Student Electronic Media Convention.
Stevenson wanted to make sure other students could learn this new craft, so she pitched the idea to Blaine.
“As ardent NPR and podcast listeners, we felt that audio-storytelling courses were largely absent from the SOJC curriculum,” says Stevenson.
Blaine considered the proposal and with the cultural response to “Serial,” the classes were greenlighted as experimental courses.
The UO allows departments to teach experimental classes before they receive formal acceptance in to the curriculum. This allowed the SOJC to quickly add the new courses, capitalizing on the popularity of the new medium.
According to Blaine, the SOJC has radio roots in its history, but the audio storytelling classes are the first of their kind.
Radio broadcasting has been a part of the SOJC, but has seen a decline in interest with the advent of digital and visual media. The school’s last radio class was taught in the winter of 2002, with students learning newsgathering and production.
“For a long time, radio was a key part of our curriculum,” interim Edwin L. Artzt Dean and professor Julie Newton says. “Increasingly with podcasts and digital media, we have come to understand the rising interest of our students, media industries and the public audiences in audio storytelling.”
The undergraduate class introduced students to traditional story forms in broadcast writing, fundamentals of interviewing techniques, emerging platforms of podcasting and Web storytelling, and text and audio editing basics. They also explored the ethics surrounding traditional broadcast journalism and alternative storytelling models.
The SOJC hired Rebecca Galloway, a seasoned veteran in digital media, to teach the undergraduate class. She used her professional network to enhance her teaching with more than a dozen classroom visitors. Students met with NPR’s Tom Goldman and Jane Greenhalgh, and 2005 graduate of the journalism master’s program Jes Burns from local station KLCC, and did a Skype interview with four-time Emmy-Award winner John Hockenberry.
“I wanted the students to hear from real people working in the radio business so they would know how others had humble beginnings,” says Galloway.
As part of the collaborative experience, the students were tasked with posting their work on a class web page.
The graduate class was taught by SOJC instructor Sung Park and Ketzel Levine, who has worked for NPR for more than 30 years.
Their teaching focused on hands-on experience in field recording, interviewing and editing an audio story for broadcast and other contemporary media platforms for short form audio productions.
“We taught more traditional radio broadcasting, like NPR,” explains Park. “The first half of the term we told stories through sound and basic interviewing. The second half was dedicated to script writing, voice coaching and audio storytelling.”
The SOJC, Newton, Blaine and Park understand that audio storytelling isn’t going away and journalism students are interested in the revival of the radio model.
“One of the strengths of the SOJC is our ability to experiment with course offerings, allowing our students put their best ideas to use in solving some of the issues that media are facing today,” Newton says.
Blaine wants to keep the momentum of the two classes moving and to continue offering SOJC students a new skillset by offering ongoing workshops.
Story by Celina Baguiao