By Travis Dolence and Nathan Rundquist, Minnesota State University Moorhead
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past several years, you’ve noticed that the number of podcasts on the market has exploded. From politics and true crime to more niche topics like fly tying and pen collecting, podcasts have become a vehicle for companies and individuals to get their message out to a mass audience. The popularity of podcasts should not really come as a surprise. In many respects, podcasts are simply the most recent incarnation of radio, a mature and still very successful technology. However, unlike radio, which requires a room full of equipment and a network of stations to reach the world, podcasting can be accomplished with a modest amount of gear and access to the internet. During our current period of social distancing, this simple format seems to be flourishing even more, allowing people to share stories and providing listeners with access to entertainment and information.
When we began this project at New Rivers Press, we had in mind a few concrete goals: we wanted to promote our books, contribute to the literary community, and provide our interns with a useful hands-on educational experience that would benefit them in several fields after graduation.
Fortunately, we didn’t have to look very far to find models of book and literature podcasts—a quick Google search will turn up a plethora of podcasts about books, writing, and publishing. These range from shows produced by well-established powerhouses such as Publishers Weekly, Tor Publishing, and Riverhead Books to smaller independent offerings such as BookRiot and LeVar Burton Reads.
Literary podcasts can cover a wide variety of topics from writing tips to author interviews and even readings of new and innovative works of prose created specifically for audio. Rather than limiting our topics, we went into this process with an agnostic view of what our episodes would consist of, and while most of our offerings have been author interviews, we have also had podcasts related to intern experiences at our press and discussions of craft.
One of the primary tenets of the New Rivers PodLab is that the enterprise is a student-led initiative. From the beginning, even in planning stages, we envisioned student interns taking control of all aspects of podcast creation. To meet this goal, we geared our purchase of equipment in hopes of creating a near turn-key podcast studio that would allow for high-quality recordings but limit the technological hurdles that students would have to contend with. Like most audio productions, this means starting with decent quality microphones. Our grant also covered mic stands, pop-guards, a standalone digital recorder for field recordings, and a small mixing board. Our total cost for all of these items was $865.
Opportunities and Challenges
Did we ask for too little money? Should we have been more ambitious in our request? Should we have bought more expensive equipment? There was a period of time following our initial award when we debated these questions. However, after using the equipment for several months we realized that any anxiety about being under-funded was unfounded—our equipment was more than adequate for the job. The only additional funding we should have accounted for was the costs of hosting a podcast online—the fees for a year subscription to SoundCloud would have been good to account for in addition to the hardware we purchased.
However, it was during this same period, after several podcasts had been created and shared via SoundCloud, that we ran into what has become the ultimate challenge of our podcasting project: staffing. We probably should have realized it, but built within the intern-centered staffing was an issue that we still struggle with—how do we manage podcast production and keep continuity of training up with an ever-revolving staff of interns? For the most part our interns come to us as juniors and seniors, and many are with us for only a semester or perhaps a year. By the time a student has been sufficiently trained in by other students, it is not uncommon for that student to graduate within a few months.
Additionally, while the recording is a rather straightforward affair, editing the podcast, including adding introductions and music can be a time-intensive endeavor. For NRP, this has meant that we have created fewer episodes than we originally envisioned. Fixing these issues has required faculty to try to be more active in the podcast scheduling process. We have also tried to encourage interns to create shorter, less complicated recordings—a fifteen- to twenty-minute episode is just as useful, just as successful, as a fifty-minute one.
Benefits to Students
Even with the challenges we have confronted, the PodLab has offered real educational benefits for students. As a teaching press, we have students involved in every facet of our operations. Working in book teams in the Practicum in Publishing class, as interns in our design department, or as interns within our main office, students participate in screening and selecting our manuscripts, staging readings and events, composing and editing articles for our blog, controlling our social media platforms, marketing our books and events, editing our manuscripts, and designing the covers and interiors of our books. This work often goes toe-to-toe with professional books—our publications have been finalists for Minnesota Book Awards and have won Midwest Book Awards and ADDY design awards. Our books have received starred reviews in Kirkus and have been featured in Library Journal and the Star Tribune.
Adding a podcasting wing to our productions has allowed our students even more opportunities to hone marketable skills that will assist them in pursuing jobs after graduation, both in the publishing industry and out of it. This is clearly visible in our author interview podcasts that are conducted by students. Recording these episodes requires students to communicate directly with authors to schedule interviews and create engaging content that gets to the heart of the creative process and provides students with the chance to practice interviewing and project management skills that are applicable to everything from author contract negotiations to book marketing. Even if our students do not pursue publishing after their time with us, the skills gained from working on our podcast, such as project and time management, written and verbal communication, and attention to detail, are integral to any workplace.
Considering starting a student-led podcast? Here are a few suggestions:
- Invest time in establishing workflows. You may want to investigate using simple project management software to help keep projects on task.
- Create documentation and procedures to ease transitions. Students will graduate, and you’ll need an easy way to onboard new students once the old guard has moved on.
- If possible, consult with radio or audio people in your institution about equipment and soundproofing.
- Invest in a dedicated space for producing podcasts. This alleviates the need to continually set up and take down equipment.
- Make sure to let students know the amount of time that is invested in the editing process, but make them aware that sharing responsibilities is okay.
- Work with students to set up guidelines for podcasting, but resist the urge to micromanage. Allowing students more creative freedom will help to them feel invested.
- Encourage students to find podcasts they enjoy. Just like learning to write poetry by copying the “masters,” students can learn a lot by listening to podcasters who have come before them.
- Encourage students to experiment with form. We had a student post an essay-format episode recently, which was a successful shift from our typical interview and reading formats.