COM9: Slay It by Ear: Building a Better University Podcast

43 episodes ago in February 2018, Julie Bartucca, Tom Breen, and Ken Best decided to launch UConn360 – a podcast from the University of Connecticut to tell stories in a different way.

Julie explained how she had an idea to start a podcast thanks to her mini-obsession, and Tom had experience with podcasting plus was full of knowledge about quirky UConn history and lore, and Julie wanted to make it happen.

Julie, Ken, and Tom had a few goals for the podcast:

  • Elevate the brand without feeling like “marketing”
  • Engage key audiences
  • Tell UConn’s story in a new way, with a tone different than current print/digital means
  • Provide a peek into lesser-known areas that may not rise to the level of being covered in publications

Like many projects we take on, the UConn360 team had to get approval from the right people. They realized they first needed to establish themselves as experts, and then advocate for the freedom to tell stories the way they desired while still supporting UConn’s goals.

In order to achieve this, the podcast needed variety in its stories. Each episode begins with news about UConn and ends with some history of the university. The middle sections are small segments Julie, Tom, and Ken research to talk about interesting stories at UConn – highlighting that diverse experience.

Have a plan…then don’t have a plan…then have a plan.

Tom recommended that you have a plan…but keep it flexible. He explained that having a podcast plan or outline is important, but it will likely change as you get to work. The first thing, he suggested, was to determine what tasks need to be performed and how the labor will be divided. “Three heads are better than one,” Ken explained, and he also discussed how the different tasks (such as story development or audio engineering) appeal to each team member’s strength.

You need stuff

UConn360 spent roughly $1,400 on equipment at the beginning, which included microphones for every speaker, headphones, a mixer, and a computer to record into. There’s also “non-physical” stuff that the team recommended a podcaster consider, which includes an editing software (such as Audacity), a podcast hosting location (like PodBean), and possibly a subscription to a music service.

Slide titled "provisions for the journey." Behringer Xenx X 1222 USB 16-channel mixer. Heil Pro 20 microphones (4) with six foot XLR cables. Atlas desktop mic stands (4). AKG 4-channel amplifier headphone box. Good headphones (AKG K 92 and Sennheiser DH 380 pro). Zoom H2N portable recorder with accessory kit. Mini mac computer. Comprex audio to IP link for connection to radio stations.

Obstacles

Bad audio

Julie played the first-ever UConn360 episode. It didn’t sound…great. The hosts sounded like they recorded in a tin can. The team explained the poor audio was because they only used one microphone, and weren’t in a great room for recording. Now, the team records in an adequate studio (while Julie says that’s not always necessary) with one microphone per person (that’s much more important!). The other secret to great audio is a mixer to adjust the levels of each speaker, as well as using proper audio editing software or a free system such as Auphonic to help with cleaning up the audio.

Institutional voice

“People aren’t going to listen to you if they’re bored, and you get one chance with listeners,” said Tom. While this can be scary, he explained, there are ways to capture the institutional voice without making it a snooze-fest. Challenge yourself to find great stories but don’t cross a line.

Not knowing your own limits

The team warned that while you may take this on as a passion project, it can easily become a lot of work and take more time than estimated. Understand what you are capable of – and also your limits. These limits can come from workload, budget, or colleagues.

Homogeneous voices and topics

While there is a lot happening at UConn, the team acknowledged that the podcast could possibly fall into a pattern of telling the same story over and over, from the same general point of view. In order to combat this, they check themselves with a running spreadsheet of ideas and identify what topics they have covered (and those that haven’t been covered enough).

Flubbing an interview

Ken recommends a few ways to avoid bad interviews:

  • Prepare. Research your subject.
  • Be quiet. Listen and let your subject explain.
  • Get full sentences from your subject.
  • Use open questions to avoid one-word responses.
  • Think “inverted pyramid,” meaning ask the most important/best questions at the beginning, so that you’re not rushing through the important stuff at the end.
  • Ask, “is there something you wish I’d asked?”

Determining success

The team explained that podcasts are slow to grow, so “success” can look very different for each campus. For UConn360:

  • The content works in many ways, including being re-packaged for student radio and on social media.
  • Episodes are pitched to editors and reporters across the state and nation

Podcasters can also measure their success beyond “number of downloads” by looking at social media engagement about the show, awards won, as well anecdotal feedback and reviews.

But you’re not done…

ABP. Always. Be. Promoting! UConn360 has been promoted on social media, on busses, and even the college radio station. Tom explained that not everything will work out, but it’s worth a try. For UConn360, Instagram stories have proven to be a successful technique, much to their surprise!

You can listen to UConn360 anywhere you get podcasts, or find it on Twitter @UConnPodcast.