Posted on January 3, 2008
Podcasts as a side dish, not the main course
Fighting against boredom is a big part of teaching. One of the struggles I face as a teacher is finding a balance between reviewing the assigned reading (and the assigned viewing, e.g. professional online work) and being too repetitious. Students who avoid doing the reading want the teacher to provide a full regurgitation, which obviously would be a waste of time for the students who completed the reading.
I’ve gone through phases when I tried to review the reading as little as possible during class, in an attempt to force students to read the assignments. That was never very successful. It seemed that less referring to the readings led to fewer students actually doing the reading.
Alan Stavitsky, a journalism professor and associate dean at the University of Oregon, came up with a neat way to solve this problem — and I think it might have a useful application outside the classroom as well.
Stavitsky used to do an in-class review of the assigned readings, which created a big boredom problem in his class (as I can easily imagine). However, many undergraduate students really do need some guidance as to what the teacher expects them to take away from the readings. So Stavitsky started recording a weekly podcast, transferring the repetitive material he used to deliver during class into an optional online supplement — an MP3 file. (All this is documented in an article in the Winter 2007 edition of the academic journal Journalism & Mass Communication Educator.)
Working from an outline, Stavitsky employed a conversational style similar to his lectures to relate the basic concepts of each chapter … The recorded audio file required no additional editing (p. 401).
The audio files ranged in length from 15 to 28 minutes, depending on what the material required. Stavitsky also supplied “brief text notes on the chapter,” which the students could download and use together with the podcast.
A doctoral student conducted a study assessing the results of the first semester’s application of this material, and the students’ response was quite positive. An average of 87.6 percent of the students who responded to the survey (209 out of 249) said they listened to each of the podcasts at least once (p. 402).
The application to daily journalism? It occurred to me that a weekly podcast on a particular topic or beat area could prove very popular with members of a community.
Think of it this way: Local radio mostly gives people the shortest possible news bites. Talk radio expands on certain topics but tends to be long on opinion and short on facts. It’s pleasant and diverting to listen to a knowledgeable person explain to us, in plain language, an issue that we would like to know more about. (It’s really boring to listen to someone read a news story.)
I’m imaging a weekly podcast from the education reporter, or the reporter who covers local government, or the business reporter who covers a key local industry, if you have one (e.g. aviation in Seattle, or military issues in a base town). In part it’s a recap of the news of the week, but that’s not the point of the 15 or 20 minutes served up. The point is to add context, to increase understanding, and to fill in some background and connections that the listener might have missed. Exactly what Stavitsky was aiming at with his podcasts about the week’s assigned reading.
I’ve listened to a lot of incredibly boring and badly produced podcasts from newspapers. I’ve also heard newspaper people say that podcasts failed to attract an audience, so that’s the end of that, and their newsroom won’t be doing any more.
I see a huge connection between those two sentences in the previous paragraph. Huge.
A podcast is ridiculously easy to produce (plug a microphone into your computer) and costs virtually nothing. The content can be supplemental, even valuable, and can enhance what you already do. It can help you build up an audience for a particular reporter, or column, or your newspaper as a whole. Of course, you’re not going to sell any ads on it right away — maybe not for the first year. Get over it already! You need an audience first. If you can create an audience, you’ll be able to attract advertising.
The way to survive — to make sure journalism survives — is to start doing stuff that real people actually value.
Think outside the traditional medium and its delivery methods. Think about drive time, commuting time. Check out these two non-journalism independent podcasts and notice how they are promoted and archived:
- Coffee Break Spanish: Learn to speak Spanish while you’re drinking one latte a day.
- SCTRCST (Scootercast): About once a week, DaveM talks about scooters — you know, those two-wheeled vehicles that are smaller than a motorcycle and bigger than a moped.
I’m not saying copy their topics — no! That is NOT what you should do! I’m saying you should think about how your expertise can be leveraged to attract a loyal audience.
Oh, and a P.S. — if you don’t promo the podcast, prominently and continually, forget about it. People are not psychic. They won’t find your podcasts (or understand why they should download one) unless you promote the podcasts.