Lessons in Audio Storytelling from #PodX

After both my Leading Lines co-producer Cliff Anderson and my wife told me about the PodX podcast convention in Nashville this past weekend, I decided I had to go. Podcasting has been a big part of my professional life in the past few years. Cliff and I and some colleagues launched our educational technology podcast Leading Lines back in 2016. More recently, I partnered with Vanderbilt Student Media to launch VandyVox, which builds on work I’ve done with faculty across campus around podcast assignments for students. And I’ve used podcast assignments in my own teaching, starting up the cryptography history podcast One-Time Pod with my students. My wife has her own podcast, Core Stories, which is why the conference caught her eye. I was excited to find out about PodX, which featured a pretty amazing set of speakers. And, even better, it was held at Nashville’s Music City Center, just two miles from my office.

Given my work in the interview podcast Leading Lines, I found Emily Siner‘s session, “The 7 Deadly Sins of Interview Podcasts,” really useful. Siner works for WPLN, our local public radio station, and produces the podcast Movers & Thinkers. Each episode features three guests on a theme, interviewed by Siner in front of a live studio audience. During her session, she shared some of her strategies for better interviews, framing each around a “deadly sin” to avoid. Her first sin was sloth, that is, don’t be lazy; prepare beforehand. She’ll Google-stalk potential interview subjects and conduct pre-interviews with them before deciding to feature them on her podcast. She also tries to write her questions into a story arc, which I thought was excellent advice. I shared this advice on Twitter, and Bonni Stachowiak, host of the most excellent Teaching in Higher Education podcast, recommended Power Your Podcast with Storytelling, an online course from Gimlet Media’s Alex Blumberg. Bonni tweeted an example of her use of Blumberg’s storytelling approach:

“I’m doing a story about x. It’s interesting because y.” There are so many faculty members doing these incredible things that by following that formula, I’ll never run out of compelling stories.

That reminded me of the prompt that Vanderbilt instructor Robbie Spivey gave the students in her “Women Who Kill” course for their podcast assignment: “When we talk about women who kill, we need to talk about X because Y.” I think these story templates are really useful, since they provide a narrative structure without being too restrictive. I can see them useful for an interview podcast like Leading Lines or the kinds of audio essays and documentaries we feature on VandyVox.

Siner had more great advice for interviewers during her “7 Deadly Sins” session. Start with an interesting question for your guest, not a softball. Don’t be concerned with sounding smart; it’s okay to ask “What do you mean by that?” You’re a proxy for the audience. Don’t send your questions to your guests in advance. Give them topics or themes, but specific questions can prevent spontaneity. I’m on the fence about this piece of advice. I like to keep my Leading Lines interviews conversational, but I find that our guests, most of whom are academics, like to think about examples or stories to share in advance. I keep a couple of questions in my back pocket to surprise our guests, and I follow the conversational trail where it goes, but I think some of our guests, at least, come across better when they know some of the questions in advance.

Another of Siner’s deadly sins was gluttony: Don’t invite an abundance of similar guests. Your show needs guests who don’t look like or think like you. I’ve found that this takes proactive work. Leading Lines is an educational technology podcast. We could feature white men in every episode, pretty easily. Our gender balance on the podcast is pretty good, but I’m always aware we need more faculty of color. Siner had some advice for me when I asked her for strategies to address this point. She suggested asking your guests for recommendations for future guests, something I know Bonni Stachowiak does well. Siner also said to keep a running list of potential guests you meet in the rest of your work life. In her case, she’s a news director, so she’s always meeting people in the course of reporting stories. In my case, that means paying attention at conferences for diverse voices for Leading Lines.  This theme came up in a later session, too. Amanda Nelson, who produced the Book Riot podcast, shared their podcast’s mandate: at least 30% of authors and hosts need to be people of color.

Speaking of that later panel and the role of diversity in podcasting, Nelson was on a really engaging panel on women in podcasting. I was reminded once again of how gender plays out in digital spaces, and it’s usually in pretty terrible ways. Rabia Chaudry, host of the Undisclosed podcast, noted that lots of podcast hosts have to put up with abuse from critics, but the crap that female hosts get tends to get personal, with offensive comments about the hosts’ bodies or families. There are also death threats, which Chaudry has received and reported to appropriate authorities. Amanda Nelson from Book Riot talked about the steps she’s taken to remove information about herself and her family from online spaces, a defense against doxing.

Nelson also noted that on her book review podcast, most of the authors reviewed are women and most of her listeners are women. But she’ll get the occasional email from a male listener, asking when they’ll cover “dude books.” Her typical response: “I don’t think books have gender.” That’s a good comeback, but it’s unfortunate that women in podcasting have to respond to these kinds of comments. I can’t say that I’ve gotten any feedback from Leading Lines listeners asking for “lady edtech.”

The panel also talked about imposter syndrome, and the challenge of promoting one’s self in a culture that doesn’t always respond well to self-promotional women. Chaudry drew a distinction between promoting one’s work and promoting oneself, arguing that women shouldn’t hesitate to the former. Nelson was once again pithy, stating that if a mediocre white man can do a thing, then there’s no reason a capable woman or person of color shouldn’t do that thing.

I had been wanting to photograph this piece of Nashville art by Christian Moeller for a while. The PodX lunch break was the perfect opportunity.

Later on Saturday, I went to a session on non-fiction storytelling with Alex Akhavan, who produces a legal podcast called May It Please the Court. He mostly told stories from his podcast, but he shared some useful advice for history podcasters, like my students when they contribute to One-Time Pod. He said, “Write the parts that are a story.” (I think that was a line from a documentary on Hamilton.) Leave out dense facts that aren’t relevant. If you really can’t say goodbye to a tangent, make it a bonus episode. This seems like especially good advice for academics, who tend to want to include all the things. Akhavan also encouraged us to “be thorough,” diving into our stories again and again to find the threads that really work. Know why you find the story interesting, and convey that excitement to your listener. And some more good advice for academics in podcasting: Share your scripts with family members or other non-experts. That’s a great way to get feedback on wonky topics.

The final panel I attended at PodX was titled “Stories for the Ages: Why We Love Scripted Audio Tales.” It was an all-star panel, featuring Jeffrey (Welcome to Night Vale) Cranor, Jonathan (The Truth) Mitchell, Lauren (The Bright Sessions) Shippen, Sarah Rhea (Girl in Space) Warner, and more. I was mostly there as a fan, since I’m not involved in any fiction podcasts like these. But I did have one takeaway for my work in educational development. In response to a question about storyline work, Lauren Shippen described her planning for a 16-episode season of the Bright Sessions. She divided the season into two halves, each with a narrative arc, with a climax of sorts in the middle. And each of the halves was further divided into 4-episode blocks. That didn’t sound like a bad way to plan a semester-long course! How often do faculty and other instructors think about the narrative arc of the courses they teach? I know some do, but I like the idea of building more courses that way, thinking of the student experience over time in our courses.

That reminded of comments made by Derek Price, co-host of the Scholars at Play podcast, during a learning community meeting here on campus a couple of years ago. Price drew a parallel between prepping for a podcast episode and prepping for a class session. Scholars at Play is structured kind of like a graduate student seminar, with deep-dive discussions of different texts in each episode. Price noted that his prep for these episodes felt a lot like preparing to lead a discussion-based undergraduate class. You have some directions you want to go that you shape with questioning, but you also want to leave room for participant contributions and useful rabbit trails. That parallel works for me, and I can imagine something similar around editing in podcasts and synthesis work in a class situation.

I’m really glad I took the time to attend PodX this weekend. The panelists and speakers gave me a lot to think about in my various podcasting work at Vanderbilt. I’m now even more excited to pull together the second season of VandyVox, and to try my hand at creating a narrative non-fiction piece for my class cryptography podcast. My students have produced great episodes, but I haven’t done one yet!

I’ll finish this post with a few podcast recommendations from the convention. Some of these, like The Truth, are old favorites, but most were new to me.

  • The Truth, a short fiction anthology podcast that regularly amazes me
  • The Bright Sessions, a fiction podcast about a therapist who specializes in patients with superhuman abilities
  • Within the Wires, “found audio from an alternate universe” with each season its own story
  • The WALKING Podcast, in which journalist Jon Mooallem walks in the Pacific Northwest (“no talking; just walking”)
  • The History Chicks, a history podcast focusing on women in history (“half the population, several thousand years of history, about an hour”)
  • Long Distance, a non-fiction podcast featuring stories in the Filipino diaspora
  • Zigzag, a podcast about two journalists turned entrepreneurs as they attempt to build an ethical tech start-up

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