In the fall of 2015, Phoebe Petrovic ’18 approached the Yale Herald with the idea for a new form of journalism. Unlike other Yale publications, which focus on print, she wanted to tell stories through podcasts. Today, there are 55 podcasts published on the Herald Audio Soundcloud account. Phoebe is passionate about audio journalism: “I think that it is much more powerful, a much more intimate honest medium. There is an immediacy to it, an emotional immediacy in it that doesn’t exist in print.”
After teaching herself techniques of radio journalism over the summer after her freshman year of college, Phoebe became the founder of Herald Audio, the first dedicated undergraduate audio publication on campus. She had been a member of the WYBC, Yale’s undergraduate radio station, but she felt that the structure of a weekly radio show didn’t allow her to produce more involved and carefully crafted audio stories.
“It can take two weeks to produce a two-minute story,” especially when one is a newcomer to the medium, she says. She isn’t directly involved with Herald Audio anymore, but she is still an important figure in the podcasting scene as a teaching assistant for Mark Oppenheimer’s seminar on podcasting, the first of its kind at Yale.
As a newly established community, Petrovic describes Herald Audio as a place where one can come to learn and experiment, regardless of previous exposure to radio journalism. It is easier to get started than one might think: most of the original productions are recorded on iPhones and edited on free software. Petrovic believes podcasting is a much more democratic medium than others such as film, since a potential producer doesn’t need high quality equipment or a full crew to produce a good quality story.
This does not mean anyone who has the idea of a story can give up a single afternoon and become the podcast queen of campus. Will Reid ’19, the current leader of Herald Audio and the general manager of the WYBC, says it is very labor-intensive to produce even a short segment. He has produced two pieces so far, a narrative piece about the strange encounters between one of his friends and cardinal birds and a journalistic piece on President Donald Trump supporters from the suburbs of New Haven.
“People are often testy when you tell them you are a reporter,” Reid said, recounting his experience of driving out to a diner in the suburbs for interviews. But he adds that “people also feel very flattered when someone approaches them and asks what they think about something.”
Eve Sneider ’19, another podcaster at Herald Audio, says she has encountered similar problems. In one of her series, where she asked funny questions around campus (Phoebe says this genre is called “voxpop”), some students were still wary of being recognized by their voices, despite being anonymous. However, in the end, she found enough people willing to be recorded and published. A deeper issue with podcasting, as Eve explains, is finding interviewees who are not only interesting people, but are also good storytellers.
“You can start talking to somebody, and you immediately know that … the way they talk will not sound interesting to someone listening to a disembodied voice.”
This is one of the biggest distinctions between print and audio journalism, according to those who produce podcasts. Sneider says that when you are writing for print, yours is the only voice that is heard, and the stories of others are filtered through you. Reid says that this creates a “wall of separation,” which can be useful for many kinds of stories. This separation can give rise to a feeling of a more objective perspective, Reid says, but “at the end of the day everything you hear is something someone actually said.”
For Phoebe, podcasts are inherently centered on people, and she finds this very valuable in contrast to other forms of journalism: “The general ethos of print journalism is that the reporter can say something better than the individual, and sometimes that’s true, but I also think it is really important to keep that original voice in.”
The personal and intimate quality of podcasts may be a reason for their recent increase in popularity. According to a 2016 survey by Edison Research, the percentage of adults listening to podcasts across the United States has increased regularly since 2006. The medium of audio journalism seems to be gaining more and more momentum, or as Oppenheimer puts it, “we are in the golden age of radio.”
Oppenheimer is the coordinator of the Yale Journalism Initiative, and in addition to teaching the podcasting seminar he also hosts his own podcast “Unorthodox” produced by Tablet magazine. He has also contributed to “This American Life.”
He says the English department wants to offer courses in different forms of writing — such as playwriting and screenwriting — and having a class focused specifically on podcasting is important because as a developing genre, there are “evolving conventions and techniques for writing for the ear.” According to Oppenheimer, what makes the podcasts special is that they are bringing together the host’s narration with interviews recorded at different times and music and ambient noise. This kind of layering allows for a lot of creativity, but also places pressure on the scripting. “When you’re writing for just the ear, you have to rely on words to do everything,” Oppenheimer notes. Sneider, who is taking the podcasting seminar, also thinks that the medium in which a story is told can dramatically change how the audience perceives it.
Interest for Oppenheimer’s seminar shows that there is a community beyond Herald Audio interested in the genre. He said that he received more than 30 applications for the 12 spots in his seminar. This is a shift from what Petrovic recalls from her freshman year, when she was unable to find any classes on radio journalism. Since then, a college seminar on radio journalism has been taught by Chris Arnold, an oral history class was offered last semester and now, podcasting has its own seminar. However, Petrovic still thinks students interested in this type of journalism develop their craft outside of class.
This lack of formal education, however, is not necessarily a setback for aspiring podcasters. Eve recalls learning how to edit on Audacity through Herald Audio, and now she has already produced several stories. Herald Audio is very community-oriented — Phoebe describes a regular session as “hanging out” together and listening to recordings of each person as if in a workshop. She really values this quality, because this way everyone involved can “experience the story” together and critique each other.
Recently, the WYBC has also established a podcasting department working together with Herald Audio. Reid hopes this will bring in more people interested in podcasting. Already, the podcast department of WYBC is open to new trainees.
Another podcast project at Yale is a series Petrovic is producing for the Yale University Art Gallery. She is working on a nine-part series for the “Small-Great Objects” exhibition. She also mentions a possible future audio guide project for the YUAG.
Yet despite the passionate community, podcasting at Yale remains a mostly underground project. Some tracks on the Herald’s Soundcloud page have over 100 plays, but of nine people surveyed at Bass Cafe, none had heard about Herald Audio, even though almost all of them knew about the Herald itself. Of course, after one and a half years, Herald Audio is an incredibly new initiative, and Petrovic says audio is much harder to publicize than print journalism. She observes that you cannot put “data bits floating in the air” onto dining hall tables, a method of publicity employed by almost every publication on campus. It remains to be seen whether Oppenheimer’s class and the creation of a podcasting department at the WYBC will change the status of podcasting as a niche activity on campus.
Contact Eren Kafadar at email@example.com .