Writing for the Ear: Advanced Podcasting Workshop

We are clearly in a golden age of podcasting. Many of the shows that we associate with the medium have first lives as radio shows: This American Life, Radiolab, Snap Judgment, etc. But they all now have more listeners, by orders of magnitude, in their downloadable podcast form; what’s more, many of them do extended, more ambitious versions, or versions that keep all the original (read: obscene) dialogue, for their podcast audiences. Then, of course, there are the audio shows that have no existence on terrestrial radio: Serial, 99% Invisible, WTF with Marc Maron, and others. The podcast has become the medium for the most innovative radio nonfiction—indeed, for the best creative nonfiction today, radio or otherwise. In this course, we will study the medium, including its deep history and origins, and collaboratively produce a series of podcasts on undergraduate life at Yale, for (we hope) a wide national, even international audience.

Every week, we will have reading or listening, or both, in the history of nonfiction (and occasionally fiction) audio. We will journey from the early, transglobal, empire-sustaining innovations of the BBC to the legendary radio work of Orson Welles; pick up with the beginnings of underground and community radio in the United States; and read and listen widely in the work of the great legends of what might be called the public-radio era, from the mid-1970s on, including Joe Frank and the Kitchen Sisters. Special attention will be paid to contemporary radio documentarians and storytellers like Jay Allison, Glynn Washington, Ira Glass, Scott Carrier, and The Moth under artistic director Catherine Burns.

Simultaneously, drawing on that history, we will dive right in and produce our own podcasts. Using audio resources available at Yale, as well as those that we will purchase, we will learn basic techniques for audio production: recording, cutting audio, sound design. Students will be expected to select a topic for the final project by the second week and begin reporting and collecting “tape” (not tape, but the term lives on) by the third week. Students will have to choose topics that a) focus on Yale undergraduate life, and b) do not conflict with one another. That way, we will finish with a 12-part series of podcasts that together can make a season of a show about undergraduate life at Yale (I’m tentatively calling it Undergrad!, but I hope we can do better). We’ll post them on our own website, but we’ll also get big distribution, I am sure … but more on that later.

In-class workshops, in which we listen to each other’s tape and critique it, will be the center of this course. The other center will be the considerable time spent reporting and editing, on software that you may just be learning. The other center will be writing the script that will hold your podcast together, the connective tissue. Many centers, it seems.

Radio editing is very time-intensive, as is radio-listening (there is no way to “skim” two hours of listening). You can spend three hours just trying to get one second of tape to sound just right. So this course will require a lot of hours. While it should be the most fun course you ever take, it is not a good idea to treat it as a gut or a breezy fifth class. If you work hard, you’ll probably get a good grade; if you don’t work hard enough, it may be difficult to pass.

Prerequisite: Strong comfort in learning new software, or at least eagerness to try.

Students are encouraged to apply by Wednesday, December 7, at noon, but interested students are also welcome to attend the first class meeting.

The standard application form can be found on the Applications and Deadlines page.

Special application instructions:

1. Although you won’t be held to this, if you had to decide right now, what topic would you choose for a short podcast episode about undergraduate life?

2. In lieu of a writing sample, you may email an audio production to the professor at mark.oppenheimer@yale.edu.

Undergraduate Course #: 
W 1.00pm-4.00pm