College News

Listen Up: UA Faculty, Staff and Alumni Take On the Podcast Craze

Two people sharing headphones and laughing
Listeners enjoying a podcast at their local coffee shop.

From the Winter 2019 Collegian | In today’s digital landscape, long distance creative collaborations and friendships are only a phone call or Facetime away. Dr. William Justin Morgan, Robin Turner, and William “Boden” Robertson take advantage of the technology at their fingertips as much as they possibly can. Although they’re in different states, this trio carries on a conversation about linguistics and graduate school for over an hour. But when the conversation’s over, they don’t just hang up the phone. They turn off their microphones, edit the content together on their computers, and post it online, where hundreds of people can listen to their thoughts. This isn’t just a group of friends chatting about the things they love—it’s The GradLings Podcast.

Over the past decade, hundreds of thousands of podcasts have popped up around the globe, serving every interest from the daily news to lifestyle improvement to Harry Potter. According to Edison Research, over 30 million podcast episodes are available for download on different streaming sites, such as Spotify, iTunes, and SoundCloud. And unlike other media, podcasts are cheap to produce and free to the public.

While podcast-mania has opened more doors for traditional entertainers and storytellers, it’s also allowed people from all backgrounds the opportunity to share their insights and ideas. Because podcasts are relatively easy to create, they allow people to carve out a space for their own niche interests. This has been an advantage for many up-and-coming academics, like the GradLings, who use the platform as a way to share their research and ideas about improving academic life.

Morgan, Turner, and Robertson, who all studied foreign languages and linguistics as graduate students at UA, started The GradLings Podcast as a response to conversations they had around the dinner table about their field. They realized, after late nights discussing their struggles and successes, that other graduate students might benefit from what they had to say.

“In our conversations together, we thought, ‘Why aren’t we including other people on these conversations?’” Williams said. “And we were sure that other graduate students were having conversations with each other in their own cities. We wanted to try to bring graduate students together. We thought that it would be interesting to give other students a platform and a way of expressing their ideas—and not just about their research, but about their experiences as graduate students.”

Through three seasons, the trio has talked to graduate students from all over the country, interviewing master’s and doctoral students about their research as well as their experiences as graduate students at different institutions and in different subfields. They’ve also discussed issues that they’ve faced in academia—things like imposter syndrome, setting and keeping goals, and standing up for oneself as a graduate student.

“Our guests bring their own perspectives on these issues,” Turner said. “We’ve talked to around 25 graduate students from all different disciplines. And for me, the big takeaway is that, no matter how different the field or how alone you may feel in your endeavors, you’re really not the only one.”

Graduate students aren’t the only academics breaking into the podcast world to share their research and passions. Many members of UA’s faculty are using the platform to collaborate with their colleagues from all over the world, discussing their new findings in a generally more accessible way than other channels have offered in the past.

UA psychology assistant professor Alexa Tullett teamed up with Dr. Sanjay Srivastava of the University of Oregon and Dr. Simine Vazire of UC-Davis to start The Black Goat Podcast. The podcast, which began as an advice column for psychologists studying research methods, has since evolved into a discussion about up-and-coming ideas in the field, allowing Tullett and her co-hosts to cover a wide range of topics they all enjoy discussing.

“The reason we decided to do a podcast is that they’re more collaborative in nature,” Tullett said. “A blog, for example, is typically written by one specific person and makes one specific point. Podcasts tend to be more conversational. It’s more fun to do something where you’re having a conversation with other people about the things you love. And, if you’re just listening to a podcast, it feels like you’re involved in the conversation, even though you weren’t there when it was recorded.”

Like Tullett, Dr. Jim Bindon, a professor emeritus in UA’s department of anthropology, enjoys the conversations that arise while recording his podcast, Speaking of Race. Created by Bindon, UA assistant professor of history Dr. Erik Peterson, and University of Oregon professor Dr. Jo Weaver, the podcast focuses on the biological and behavioral effects of race on today’s society. For Bindon, it was important to make these discussions accessible to anyone, no matter their background.

“We’ve received really good feedback from other anthropologists and laypeople alike,” Bindon said. “It’s because we’re telling people things that they, for the most part, didn’t know before, and, usually we’re doing it in a way that they can understand. And that’s really important when you’re talking about a subject that’s so important in society.”

For Bindon, one of the most exciting things that happens with the podcast is when the team discovers it’s being used in the classroom. Professors from institutions all over the country have assigned episodes in their syllabi, and have had great reactions from students who enjoy hearing the material laid out in a conversation that they can listen to on their own time.

“We did a four-part race and IQ session going all the way from 19th century to present day,” Bindon said. “The format and the way we talked about it was really accessible. I’ve had emails with faculty members at other institutions who have used those episodes in their classes. Knowing that has been great.”

As podcast academia begins to expand, some faculty members find it useful to go ahead and teach students at both the undergraduate and graduate level the skills they need to create their own podcasts. Dr. Michael Altman, assistant professor of religious studies, has taught digital humanities courses to students of all levels, where they learned the ins-and-outs of podcast creation. But for Altman, the most difficult part wasn’t necessarily teaching students the technical skills they needed—it was creating a captivating narrative that would appeal to an audience with a wide range of backgrounds.

“I think one of the hardest parts about creating a podcast is thinking about what you want to say with it,” Altman said. “One of the biggest challenges is pushing students to be creative and think outside of the box.”

Despite the connections that occur within specific podcast communities, a challenge that podcast creators face is connecting with other podcasters. To help address that challenge, UA’s Center for Instructional Technology recently created a group specifically for people involved in podcasts.

Here, anyone associated with the University who has a podcast or is interested in creating one of their own can connect with others and share their insights on how to build a successful podcast.
“If you’re starting out in podcasts, things can get complicated,” Kevin Halbrook, assistant coordinator for the Center for Instructional Technology, said. “It’s nice to have someone who can help with different things, like getting set up on streaming apps or figuring out the software.”

As the podcaster community in Tuscaloosa begins to grow, those who have been established for years hope to see new and innovative ideas emerge from the future podcasters on campus. Until then, they encourage you to put in your headphones and enjoy their conversations.

Do you know other UA faculty, students, or alumni with their own podcasts? Let us know! Email sbbolin@ua.edu.