Sonic Opportunities: Libraries and Podcasting
by Daniel Story
Libraries have long served at the forefront not just of information services, but of community and scholarly creation. These days, that creative work is more diverse and more digital. Podcasting is among the most exciting of these rising interests for the way it can engage communities not only as listeners, but as participants in telling their own stories. Our experience at the university library at the University of California–Santa Cruz (UC–SC) confirms what many other libraries are finding: Helping patrons jump into the world of podcast creation is a meaningful contribution to community engagement, whether that is in scholarly form or via more grassroots expressions.
|Libraries have an opportunity to help their communities share their stories in this powerful but accessible medium.
Even a cursory glance at one of the major media streaming platforms reveals the runaway popularity of podcasts. You can find podcasts covering every conceivable topic, from broad categories with mass appeal to niche offerings—and Americans are listening. According to Edison Research, cited by Statista, 116 million Americans reported that they have listened to a podcast sometime in the previous month, and that number has been steadily rising for more than a decade.
But as established as podcasting appears today, in many respects, it remains a relatively new phenomenon. Yes, early internet DIY-ers pioneered digital audio syndication way back in the ’90s, but it took some time to catch on. The term “podcast” was not even coined until 2004 (by The Guardian writer Ben Hammersley 1), and significant spikes in new listeners did not really begin until the 2010s, with sensations such as Serial and The New York Times’ podcast The Daily. The platform Spotify—now a mainstay in podcast streaming—did not take the plunge until 2019. All of this underscores that as much as podcasting has grown by leaps and bounds, it is still relatively wide open to newcomers armed with good ideas. Add to that the fact that the technical hurdles for podcast creation are substantially lower than for many other forms of media production, and it becomes clear why so many are so excited about the possibility of making their own splash in the podcasting world.
Libraries hold a meaningful stake in helping their communities find creative ways to connect and communicate about the stories and issues that matter to them. In supporting your users in expressing their creative impulses, even a small amount of guidance and encouragement can go a long way. That is what we’ve tried to do in our support of podcasting here at UC–SC.
Podcasting at UC–SC Libraries
Interest in podcasting has grown on our campus over the past few years. We’ve seen this primarily in instructors utilizing podcasting assignments in their courses, as well as in students and researchers exploring podcasting as a medium for communicating their interests to broader audiences. In response, UC–SC libraries have developed a support structure for audio work that covers three key areas. To start, we offer spaces and in-house equipment for recording and editing. This includes a basic recording space, which is a simple sound-treated room that operates on a bring-your-own-equipment basis. This is popular for quick recording sessions. For those who are looking for a more professional setup, we will soon offer a second recording space that will come fully equipped for interview recording and editing. Finally, we offer a specialized computer lab with 12 iMacs and two PCs, each of which comes with a range of audio-editing software, including GarageBand, Audacity, Adobe Audition, and Logic Pro X. With these three spaces, students are able to complete most of the steps of the podcast production process on-site if they want to.
These resources are popular, to be sure, but not everyone’s recording projects will be feasible in a space like ours. Some may want to work for longer hours in their own private space. Others will need to record audio out in the field. For these and other needs, we offer a range of equipment that can be checked out and taken home, just like a library book. Our most popular checkout item is the Blue Yeti USB microphone, which is easy to use and produces high-quality sound for solo recording and sit-down interview scenarios. Many students don’t need to go beyond this mic to produce a good-quality podcast. For those who need more versatility or functionality, we have a number of portable recorders: the Zoom H1n, Zoom H2n, and Zoom H6n. We also offer four condenser studio mics with table stands, a PreSonus audio interface for connecting mics and instruments to a computer, and audio accessories kits that contain cables and adaptors that, among other things, make it possible to connect a mic to a smartphone. Patrons can book these items in advance, as well as request extended checkout for projects that might take a bit longer to complete. This equipment has easily been one of the most popular resources we’ve offered for audio work on our campus.
Finally, in addition to our spaces and checkout equipment, we offer a set of programs in support of audio production. We hold workshops on a regular basis that cover a variety of topics around audio creation, including walk-throughs of common audio-editing software and recording equipment, interviewing techniques, and tips on project design. We’ve developed resources that compliment and expand on these workshop offerings. 3 And for individual instructors and students, we offer more tailored support in the form of project consultations and customized training.
A Project of Our Own: Stories From the Epicenter
Supporting audio work in these ways has proven to be an effective combination. Delving into podcast production ourselves has moved the dial up still further. Our recently released 10-episode series, Stories From the Epicenter, documents the experience and memory of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in Santa Cruz County, Calif. Combining audio production, local history, and community collaboration, Stories From the Epicenter has not only helped us advance our support of audio work within our own library, it has also spawned new connections for the library around the campus and in the local community.
The idea for Stories From the Epicenter emerged from our interest in leveling up our own podcasting skills, but it also reflected some serendipitous timing. Just a few months after I began my position at UC–SC, Santa Cruz commemorated the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. As a newcomer to the region, my limited knowledge of the quake centered around hazy memories of national news coverage focused on the damage done in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif. But with local commemorations underway, I learned of the devastating effects of the earthquake on the communities of Santa Cruz and nearby Watsonville. Both places suffered substantial damage to their downtowns, which was extensive enough that it took years to fully recover. As I took part in our library’s own commemorative efforts, I learned about a set of oral history interviews that we held, which were recorded just a few months after the earthquake. As I listened to them, I was captivated by the power of hearing survivors describe their experiences, and I wanted to find a way to share these stories with a wider audience. Producing a podcast seemed like the perfect avenue.
The project started small. At first, our focus was solely on the handful of oral histories we had, but we soon realized that we would need additional voices to contextualize these perspectives within the broader experience of the community. This led me and my team to conduct more than 30 new interviews with earthquake survivors, many of whom were in key positions in the emergency response and subsequent rebuilding process. These perspectives were important to commit to the historical record. They also gave us compelling material with which to tell a more well-rounded story.
With interviews in hand, we turned to mapping out our episodes in more detail. Storyboarding and scripting on paper were helpful, but we found that the most productive work happened within our audio-editing software as we listened to interviews, sliced them up, rearranged them, and listened again. As stories began to take shape, we brought in archival clips of news reports, a selection of sound effects, and music to help accentuate the dynamics of the story. If all of that sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it was. In addition, just a few months into the project, the COVID-19 pandemic set in, which meant that much of the recording and the bulk of the editing had to be completed in improvised home studios. Dividing episodes among the team members—student assistants Thomas Sawano and Madeline Carpou and me—made this work more efficient and provided added richness. We were aided by two community partners—the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History and Santa Cruz Public Libraries—both of which helped us shape the story we told as well as each taking the lead in producing an episode of its own. The end result was a 10-episode series that tells the story of the quake, the recovery, and the ways the community has remembered and commemorated this transforming event over the years.
We released Stories From the Epicenter on Oct. 17, 2020, which was 31 years to the day after the earthquake struck. We were delighted by the reception we received—generous coverage in the local press, a strong community turnout to our virtual launch party, and airtime on local community radio courtesy of The Kitchen Sisters Present.
We have seen the effects of this endeavor in our ongoing work to support podcasting here at UC–SC. Stories From the Epicenter helped us get to know the software and equipment that we offer to our patrons in a much more granular way along with exposing us more fully to all of the ins and outs of managing a complex audio project from start to finish. Plus, interest in Stories From the Epicenter has opened more opportunities for me and others to address groups about the project and about the work of podcasting more broadly.
Here at UC–SC libraries, our multipronged approach to podcast support alongside our own production endeavors have combined to make our library a strong resource on our campus and in our community when it comes to audio creation. However, you don’t need to tackle all of these areas to be effective. Sometimes, simply pointing people to a handful of well-chosen resources on the web can be enough to get the ball rolling. If you can offer a quiet space, equipment, or both, all the better. At its core, podcasting is about communication—speaking and listening. Libraries have an opportunity to help their communities share their stories in this powerful but accessible medium—a medium that centers the human voice.