‘You have to tell a good story’: Students in sound studies class hone their podcasting skills

Students in Mary Caton Lingold's sound studies course listen to podcasts produced by their classm...
VCU students visited Mary Caton Lingold's sound studies course, where they listened to podcasts produced by Lingold's students. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

The lights were dimmed as a couple dozen students and faculty gathered in a classroom in Hibbs Hall at Virginia Commonwealth University. 

They were there to listen to nine podcasts produced by students in Mary Caton Lingold’s seminar class, Sound Studies: History, Technology, and Culture. Lingold, Ph.D., an assistant professor of English, teaches the seminar through the College of Humanities and SciencesMedia, Art and Text Program, a doctoral program of the Department of English, School of the Arts and the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. The program is designed to help students prepare for careers in academia or media-related fields, and Lingold’s class explores sound and the relationship between the environment and sound.

As part of the class, Lingold wanted the students to produce a podcast. She believes it is important to learn the technical aspects of sound and sound production, not just the academic theory. Wednesday’s event provided a communal listening experience, allowing students to hear from people in the audience as they discussed the finished products. Lingold said many of the students had prior professional experience before enrolling in the class, and some even had a background in podcasting and sound production. 

“Most of the pieces don’t necessarily have to do with sound, but you have to tell a good story,” Lingold said. “It’s good writing. I’m a big believer that if you want to learn about something, you need to do it.”

Mary Caton Lingold speaking in a classroom.
Lingold, an assistant professor of English, teaches the class with an eye toward the technical aspects of sound and sound production, not just the academic theory. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Connor McCormick is a doctoral student in the Media, Art and Text Program who has an interest in film. He produced a podcast about the Byrd Theatre, the historic cinema on Cary Street.

“It seemed relevant to my interests, because it is a theater,” McCormick said. “Also, it is a staple of Richmond. I’ve lived here my whole life, so I grew up going to the theater. I have friends who work there. They gave me a behind-the-scenes look. I thought it would be interesting.”

The piece explored a well located in the basement of the theater and the changing role of cinema in people’s lives. McCormick said the challenge was to put together a coherent story. He said he had hours of audio recording and had a difficult time cutting it into a coherent story. 

“I was trying to do so many things,” McCormick said.

McCormick added himself as a narrator to give the podcast more structure, and that allowed him “to take control of the story,” he said. He had done some production work in audio through music, but never in the podcasting format, he said, adding that through the process, he learned a lot. 

“It was really interesting to switch gears to look at something a little bit more journalistic or artistic that was more sound and noise based rather than music,” McCormick said.

Connor McCormick: Byrd Theatre

Some of the podcasts, like McCormick's, brought people into specific settings. Allison Bennett Dyche, a student in Lingold’s class, did a story on the Minneapolis-based Juicy Lucy — a cheeseburger with cheese inside the meat instead of on top. Laura Cramer’s podcast, “Coin Toss,” dropped listeners into a frenzied build-up ahead of a $100 bet between friends Ace and Ross over a coin flip.

While many of the student pieces were journalistic, some were experimental. Clayton Harper, a doctoral student in the program, did a fictional piece about a young man reflecting on his life and his parents. The piece was supposedly recorded on the prairie in Nebraska. Zachary Acosta-Lewis, also a doctoral student in the program, produced a piece on an internet subculture called Randonauts, which use random number generators to guide their lives. The audio layered together multiple sounds, giving the piece an ethereal sound. 

Trey Burnart Hall created a podcast about a labor dispute in Harlan County, Kentucky. Rather than having a strong narrative, the podcast weaved together music, poetry and audio clips from the protests. Hall called the project “Sound Quilting #1: Harlan County Reprise.” He chose to use the term quilting because it is a common art form in the Appalachian region and reflected the way the material was weaved together. 

“There was an infinite amount of material,” Hall said. “It was sifting through the material and creating one quilt.”

"Juicy Lucy" by Allison Bennett Dyche

Most of the presenters had various iterations of their podcasts, and the one played Wednesday was the current version.

Lingold said putting together a podcast is a challenging process. The students recorded hours of audio and had to trim everything down into a five-minute, well-produced presentation.

“Audio is all about cutting,” Lingold said.

She said some of the students are looking for ways to find a wider audience for their podcasts. Robb Crocker, a former journalist, explored public housing in Richmond for his podcast. He wants to create a larger piece than the one produced for the class. He said the challenge was finding a voice on the subject.

“It’s trying to get out of my wheelhouse and not want to just report on it,” Crocker said.

Participants seated at a table.
Robb Crocker, far left, is a former journalist and explored public housing in Richmond for his podcast, while Trey Burnart Hall, hands clasped, created an episode about a labor dispute in Harlan County, Kentucky. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

Lingold had assistance in crafting lessons for the class. Dyche, director of the VCU Student Media Center, led the class workshop on podcasting and is writing her doctoral dissertation on the topic. Chioke I'Anson, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of African American Studies, is a radio producer who has worked with NPR. I’Anson, who also teaches podcasting classes, worked with Lingold’s students during the semester. Oscar Keyes, Ph.D., the multimedia teaching and learning librarian at VCU Libraries, helped the students understand the technology associated with podcasting. And to understand sound, Lingold invited Stephen Vitiello, a professor and chair in the Department of Kinetic Imaging. He produces artistic sound projects and spoke with the students about his work. 

In the end, Lingold wanted students come away with some real-world skills. 

“It’s a huge industry and hopefully my students can walk away with some technical abilities and have something to put in their portfolio,” she said.

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