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Feb 6, 2018 12:01 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Stony Brook Southampton Will Welcome Audio Podcast Fellows In August

Feb 6, 2018 2:16 PM

“Tell me a story.”

From our earliest years listening to fairy tales at bedtime, we learn that having someone tell us a story can be gratifying on so many levels. It sparks our imagination as we visualize the scenes being recounted. It opens our minds to new worlds and ideas we may never have considered. And sometimes it just offers a comforting escape from reality.

“Everybody loves a good story,” said Kathie Russo, the producer of Alec Baldwin’s “Here’s the Thing” podcast series. “With the focus on technology in our culture, we’ve drifted away from storytelling. That’s what’s so great about podcasting—it’s about that art of storytelling and the pleasure of being read to.”

A podcast—a digital audio file that can be downloaded from the internet onto a computer or smartphone—is a story you can take anywhere. Listen in the car on the way to work, before bed as a way to unwind. Get hooked on a series, like the runaway hit “Serial,” and binge-listen to a whole season on a long car trip or overseas flight.

Ms. Russo is taking her lifelong appreciation for good storytelling into her new role as director of Stony Brook Southampton’s new one-year Audio Podcast Fellows program. Set to launch in August, the program will accept just 12 students in its first year.

She said that as far as she knows, this is the first comprehensive program of its kind in the country. “Through our research, we found that there are classes in podcasting being taught at universities all over the country, but we didn’t find anywhere that had a full-blown program dedicated to it.”

In the past five years, more than 300,000 podcasts have been produced. Instead of saturating the market, they feed a growing number of enthusiastic listeners. Episodes of seasons one and two of “Serial,” an investigative journalism podcast from the creators of “This American Life” that tells a nonfiction story over multiple episodes, have been downloaded more than 250 million times.

The Audio Podcast Fellows program was conceived as a way to meet the booming demand for skilled producers, editors, writers and other professionals to keep churning out fresh, top-quality podcasts, while providing students with new career opportunities.

As special projects coordinator at the college, Ms. Russo brings two graduate students every year into her work on “Here’s the Thing.”

“These are graduate students in creative writing, but it dawned on me that this was something we could teach them that would give them something else to do with their writing skills,” she said.

The Audio Podcast Fellows students will learn all phases of podcast production, including in-studio and off-site sound recording, and mixing stories with the latest digital editing technology. Topics will include storytelling and narrative construction, writing for the ear, adapting writing for broadcast, and editing the spoken word, as well as strategies for marketing and distribution.

In the second semester, students will head into the field, working in internships designed to hone their skills.

One of those internships will be with Connecticut-based WSHU Public Radio, where Program Director Tom Kuser is an enthusiastic supporter. “Our role here is to give the work they produce some air and promotion time. In the past the college has produced podcasts from Billy Collins, Alan Alda and a number of others, so we’re looking forward to having some really good content come out of this.”

Mr. Kuser noted that the beauty of the podcast medium is its flexibility. “First, you can listen whenever you want to, it’s not appointment listening. Second, the podcast can be something more in depth or different than you’d hear on the radio. On the radio, there are only so many minutes in an hour that can be devoted to a subject. With a podcast, you’re not restrained in terms of length. You certainly want to keep things to a reasonable length, but if 22 minutes is the right length of time to deal with a topic, you can go 22 minutes. If it needs eight minutes, then it’s eight minutes.”

He said the plan is to make some of the resulting podcasts available on the WSHU website. “I think they’ve got some real potential for content that I’d love to feature on our website and talk about on our air. Hopefully, that will give the content producers and the students who contribute to those products some exposure they would not otherwise be getting if these productions just lived on a local computer server.”

Throughout the program, students will take advantage of two Stony Brook classroom and recording locations: the newly renovated David Rakoff Studio on the Southampton campus, and in Manhattan, the Center for Creative Writing and Film.

“Kathie and I came up with the idea for this program together,” said Robert Reeves, the associate provost for the Southampton Graduate Arts program. “I’ve built a program a year since we’ve been part of Stony Brook, but I would never have thought of doing this without Kathie because she has the experience.

“The world of arts and communication is changing,” he continued. “The gatekeepers are going. It’s the great democratization of art, and you have to adapt.”

“It’s like the Wild West of audio right now,” Ms. Russo agreed. “This is an experiment, and we’re going to see how it goes. We launched a film program four years ago, also with 12 students, and it’s now one of the top 50 film programs in the country.”

Asked about the target student population for this, Mr. Reeves said, “There is no clear qualifying experience for this. I think a candidate chosen for this program will be someone who has demonstrated storytelling ability in some other area. I’m curious to see who it appeals to.”

“The ideal candidate for this could be someone in their 50s who wants to make a career move,” Ms. Russo said, “or a high school grad taking a gap year. It could be anyone with the passion to learn to do this.”

Tuition for the two-semester program is $8,000, and Ms. Russo said most classes will meet in the evening to accommodate people with existing day jobs.

“Everyone we’ve talked to so far has been really excited about it,” she said. Visiting faculty and guests who have already committed to the program include Ophira Eisenberg, host of WNYC’s “Ask Me Another;” Victoria Lang, producer of the musical FOUND; and Catherine Burns, artistic director of The Moth Radio Hour.

For more information about the Audio Podcast Fellows program, visit stonybrook.edu/podcastfellows.

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