Starting an Academic Podcast / Notes from PODFest 2022

PODFest 2022Yesterday the Digital Resources and Innovation committee of the POD Network hosted the first ever POD Fest, a two-hour online event aimed at helping educational developers make more use of podcasting in their work. About 40 colleagues gathered to hear advice on podcasting from a couple of experienced podcasters, Bonni Stachowiak from the Teaching in Higher Education podcast and Catherine Ross from the Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning podcast. In the second hour of the event, we moved to breakout room to discuss various topics, with all discussions recorded for future potential use as episodes of the POD Network podcast, Centering Centers.

Readers of this blog know that I’m a podcast and proponent of podcasting for both student learning and professional engagement, so I was very excited to hear what Bonni and Catherine had to say! See below for some highlights from their presentations. As for the breakout sessions, my session was a little meta, focusing on launching a podcast at a center for teaching and learning. We had a great conversation, and I got to meet Tom Pantazes, one of the producers of ODLI on Air, a new podcast from the Office of Digital Learning and Innovation at West Chester University. Look for that conversation in the Centering Centers feed in the new year.

Bonni Stachowiak started her presentation (slides available here) by answering a question I like to ask my podcast guests: Can you tell us about a time when you realized you wanted to be an educator? Bonni got her start early, as a five-year-old pretending to be a teacher to her stuffed animals. That early passion for teaching hasn’t gone away, and it’s something that fuels her consistent podcast work. She launched Teaching in Higher Education in June 2014 and hasn’t missed a week since! Don’t worry, she’s planning to take a couple of weeks off in 2014 when she hits ten years.

Bonni’s podcast is the big one in our field, with over 440 episodes and over 3.4 million plays. I don’t know of any other education-focused podcast that sees numbers like that. Bonni shared that consistency is one of the reasons for her stellar statistics, since more episodes means more listens and since really good episodes have a long tail of listeners, in that some people find and listen to those episodes months or years after they air.

I was grateful for the very practical advice that Bonni shared in her presentation, advice that resonated with my experiences as podcaster. If I counted right, she had five main points.

  1. Consume and curate before curating. That is, listen to a lot of podcasts before you start your own! You’ll have a much better sense of the medium and of the genre you want to target.
  2. Don’t start a podcast. By this, she meant that you shouldn’t launch into this unless you’re passionate enough about it to produce on a consistent basis. Whether that’s weekly or monthly or a batch of episodes, start with commitment or don’t start at all.
  3. Be authentically and imperfectly you. It’s fine to admire other podcast hosts, but don’t try to be them. Be yourself, and be okay with things not going perfectly. See her episode 100 for some inspirational stories of failure.
  4. Tell a story. She’s fond of a prompt she learned from professional podcaster Alex Blumberg: “I’m telling a story about _____. It’s interesting because _____.” Find a prompt like that that works for you and use it every episode.
  5. Shrink your audience. Bonni finds it intimidating to imagine her actual substantial audience, so she imagines she’s making her podcast for just one person. She imagines a woman in her 40s who moved into teaching in higher education a couple of years ago.

Catherine Ross it the executive director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia University. Her vice provost suggested a few years back that the CTL start a podcast. Catherine was initially skeptical, but after talking it over with her staff, who had lots of ideas for a podcast, she got excited. Catherine had been leading workshops around the idea of dispelling “dead ideas” in teaching and learning, borrowing from Diane Pike’s 2010 keynote, “The Tyranny of Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning.” These are myths that persist even though we have research showing they’re not true. Catherine and her team built their podcast around that idea. They launched in 2020 and have posted over 30 episodes since, with over 32,000 total listens.

The audience for Dead Ideas in Teaching and Learning is both Columbia University faculty and the larger educational development community. The podcast features a mix of interviewees from within and outside Columbia, and it tends to focus on one or two themes each season (semester), like this season’s them of “rigor” in teaching and learning. Catherine shared some of their process, which involves multiple staff members suggesting guests and handling the technical and marketing work for the podcast, but also Catherine herself interviewing guests and hosting the podcast. Catherine likes to have a pre-meeting with teach guest, so they can get comfortable with each other, and she’s learned to script out five questions ahead of time to keep the interviews focused and interesting.

Catherine also shared a couple of great stories about the impact of Columbia’s podcast. She interviewed Jesse Stommel for the podcast about ungrading, which prompted a number of Columbia faculty to reach out to the CTL to ask about resources for ungrading. That prompted her team to generate a number of resources for faculty, using the podcast episode as a starting point. Catherine also shared that one of her senior staff was reading Susan Hrach’s book on embodied learning, which prompted Catherine to invite Susan on the podcast. That led to more CTL work on learning in spaces, including workshops for faculty and roles on classroom design committees. It was clear to me that Catherine saw the podcast as a generator of good work at the Columbia University teaching center.

I’m really thankful that the POD Network sponsored this event, along with Auburn University’s Biggio Center. I hope to see more great audio work from my educational development colleagues in the coming months!

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