Last summer, Michael Errigo found himself with a rare opportunity.
He was about to enter his second consecutive year as an editor of The Diamondback’s arts and entertainment section. Students typically only hold the position at this university’s central publication for a year, which doesn’t leave much room for making dramatic changes.
Errigo wanted to start something entirely new. How about a podcast?
He is not the only college student to have that idea and follow through with it. A trio of Stanford University computer science students also started one this semester. Two who wanted to open a conversation about sex at Cornell University did, as well.
Though there are not published statistics on student podcasting, students on campuses across the country are producing podcasts to creatively broadcast stories, a trend parallel with the continuous expansion of the medium overall.
“It feels to me, especially in New York City, like everyone’s making a podcast,” Kerry Donahue, the director of the radio program at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, said.
The renewed popularity of podcasts kick-started in October of 2014 with that suspenseful weekly story of a high schooler convicted with the murder of his ex-girlfriend. The true crime podcast “Serial” hit 5 million downloads faster than any podcast prior, according to Apple, and it sparked a burgeoning national interest in podcast production, Donahue said.
Its effects on the industry are most visible in listenership.
Between 2012 and 2013, the number of podcast download requests on the podcast hosting company Libsyn only increased by 300 million, according to Pew Research Center’s “State of the News Media 2016” report. Between 2013 and 2014, that difference more than doubled when download requests increased by 700 million.
Many of these listeners are quite young. “The Infinite Dial” survey for 2016 reports that 27 percent of respondents ages 12 to 24 listened to a podcast in the last month, the only age group to exceed 25 percent. That same statistic was only 11 percent in 2013.
Student-created podcasts did exist at this university before “Serial.” Nick Keninitz and Joe Bradshaw started one covering campus sports in August 2012 from the basement of Caroline Hall. They continued to produce “Shell Shocked Sports” beyond their graduation and until December 2015. Testudo Times, a publication about campus sports, also started one in July 2014 and still releases weekly episodes.
Then there were the post-“Serial” podcasts. Another sports publication, The Left Bench, introduced a podcast in November 2014. Though it only lasted a couple months, the group introduced another in 2015 that ran for 11 months. In 2016, it has had seven different original shows, four of which are still active.
Errigo’s creation, “The Dive,” currently has five episodes, as well as two “The Dive Extra” segments.
Many are drawn to podcasts because listening to them can feel like eavesdropping on a conversation, Donahue said.
For creators, that provides unique storytelling opportunities.
As someone who loves to write about being Muslim in America, BuzzFeed staff writer Ahmed Ali Akbar said he often finds it difficult to communicate his message through writing on a website where readers are more likely to associate the piece with the company than him.
This fall, he began hosting the new BuzzFeed podcast “See Something Say Something.” Each episode features conversations with different Muslim guests, a structure Akbar uses to communicate Muslim experiences in a natural rather than explanatory manner, he said.
“Podcasting has really allowed me to embrace that voice that I’ve always had but sometimes struggle to translate into non-serious non-memoir writing,” he said.
He has enjoyed seeing that listeners relate to the stories he shares and has found that he also has non-Muslim listeners who learn about the culture through the context of the conversation.
“If you’re biased toward thinking you can understand something, there’s a better shot of learning something if you listen in,” Akbar said.
Michelle McGhee has a similar approach with her podcast “Three Unicorns.” She and two other black women studying computer science at Stanford University discuss their experiences in classes and internships just as they would in a closed conversation.
“We’re making it for young people just getting into the tech industry, specifically women and people of color or anyone that’s not represented in the tech industry right now,” McGhee said.
“So basically we’re making it for ourselves because it’s something we wanted this summer going into internships.”
Errigo drew inspiration for “The Dive” from “This American Life.” He and other writers tell stories in semi-scripted language, speaking directly to the listener, though some episodes also have conversational interviews.
Just as there are a range of podcasting formats and genres, there is also a divide in who is creating the shows. At one end, there are podcasts made by anyone with something to record with.
Becoming increasingly common, however, is media outlets investing in the medium. BuzzFeed started two podcasts in early 2015 and now hosts seven. The New York Times created a podcast team this past March.
“The Dive” is a college-level model of this type. Central publications at other universities, such as the University of Texas at Austin and the University of California, Los Angeles, have branched into audio, as well.
“I think that it’s something that outlets can have as a complement to their coverage,” Errigo said.
“It shows creativity. It makes it easy for people to listen in their car ride home.”
Podcasts often find their audiences through word of mouth, Akbar said.
“Like a blog, it’s so diffuse,” Akbar said. “How do you find out about a blog? Somebody tells you.”
Perhaps that provides an advantage to student podcasts. They are being produced at the same school that their target audience attends, where conversation about campus activity is constant.
Plus, they tend to cover topics that are on students’ minds.
For “The Dive’s” fourth episode, Errigo’s team had planned out and begun creating a review of the film Moonlight, a segment about feminism on campus, and a third section about LGBT issues in the election. Then, a few days before The Diamondback was set to release it, Trump was elected.
“That to me was … indicative of ‘ok this is what the podcast is gonna be,’” Errigo said. “It’s gonna be what people are talking about on this campus, and so we changed that whole podcast and we did a whole podcast dedicated to the election.”
One of the most exciting things about podcasting is how much room it has to expand, Donahue said. While more people than ever have listened to a podcast — 36 percent, according to Pew Research Center — that means nearly two-thirds of the American population has yet to be exposed to the medium.
“There’s a sense that it could just grow and grow and grow,” Donahue said.
Or not. Concrete analytics are yet to emerge showing how much of an episode listeners engage with after downloading it, she said. Once they do, advertisers might be disappointed and back out.
But for student creators who are working within campus bubbles and often without advertisers, Donahue said none of this really matters.
As for The Diamondback, Errigo graduates in May, but his co-editor and staff have the tools and skills to continue.
“I’m hopeful that in five or six years I can be out in the real world and still listen to ‘The Dive,’” he said.
Listen to The Dive
Listen to See Something Say Something
Listen to Three Unicorns
Featured Photo Credit: Feature photo courtesy of Patrick Breitenbach on Flickr.
Teri West is a junior journalism major and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.