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Hamptons Life

Dec 31, 2018 11:41 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Audio Podcast Fellows: New Medium, Old-Fashioned Storytelling

Kathleen Russo and Roger Rosenblatt
Dec 31, 2018 11:41 AM

Back in the early 1980s, Roger Rosenblatt’s voice could be heard regularly on “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” the nightly news program that was broadcast on PBS stations around the country. Mr. Rosenblatt, a novelist and memoirist, had a long and successful career as an essay writer for Time magazine and as a contributor at “MacNeil/Lehrer,” where he used his four-minute slot to connect with viewers through insightful and moving commentary on subjects as diverse as the state of the nation, the nature of fatherhood, and the wonder of an uncomplicated life. Because this was television, his powerful narratives were paired with imagery designed to heighten the meaning behind the message.

“The images took a lot of ingenuity,” Mr. Rosenblatt explained during a recent interview at his office on the Stony Brook Southampton campus as he recalled the creation of the segment with the show’s co-founder, Robert MacNeil. “It wasn’t just show-and-tell.”

But because it was visual as well as aural, Mr. Rosenblatt soon came to realize that as important as his words were, they had a tendency to take a back seat to the images accompanying his essays.

“It’s so different than what you expect the audience to take from it,” Mr. Rosenblatt said. “I could have written ‘Hamlet,’ and people would say, ‘That’s nice,’ but image always trumps words.”

Fast-forward 40 years, and Mr. Rosenblatt’s voice is back on the airwaves—this time, in a series of essays collectively called “Word for Word,” a new podcast being produced through Stony Brook Southampton, where Mr. Rosenblatt teaches in the MFA in Creative Writing and Literature program.

Available on the WSHU 91.1 FM website in a partnership with the Connecticut-based NPR station, the essays cover the types of topics that have always been meaningful to Mr. Rosenblatt, from politics to the personal—including a commencement speech for his daughter, Amy, which, since her sudden death in 2007, has come to hold much more significance for him.

“Some of the better essays I do are simple—like playing catch with my son,” he explained. “It’s a simple gesture about the whole notion of giving and receiving between child and parent.”

Though in this day and age—when it’s possible to download any TV show or movie onto a phone in minutes—it may seem somewhat old school to go back to audio, Mr. Rosenblatt believes there is much to be gained by using only your ears when processing a narrative.

“I’m old enough to remember when TV started to make its insurgence at age 9 or 10. All the talk was that it would drive out radio,” Mr. Rosenblatt said. “Not only was that not the case, but radio got bigger than ever. You can’t even imitate the effect of radio. Just listen to plays on radio: What’s happening in your head?”

Filling in the blanks with the imagination of one’s own mind is exactly what Mr. Rosenblatt’s new podcast does. Recorded at Cynthia Daniels’s Monk Music Studios in East Hampton, Mr. Rosenblatt said he is pleasantly surprised at how his voice comes across in “Word for Word.”

“She’s exquisitely skilled at recording sound,” Mr. Rosenblatt said of Ms. Daniels. “I hear my voice and it sounds good. I’m just surprised it contributes to the substance as it does. I like that the essay is enhanced by the sound of it, because I write that way and I’m always hearing what I write.”

Mr. Rosenblatt is also pleased by the fact that, as an essayist, his chosen form appears to be an outlier in the world of podcasts—at least for now. “I didn’t want to get involved in a podcast that incorporated interviews. I wish my friends well who do that, but I don’t,” he said. “I’m not sure anyone does essays like me.

“For the moment, I’m the king of the hill,” he added, “which is only 2 inches high.”

“I think it’s the perfect medium for him,” noted Kathleen Russo, the brain behind the new Stony Brook Southampton Audio Podcast Fellows program, which began its inaugural year in September. Currently, the dozen or so students enrolled in the two-semester program meet each Thursday evening at Stony Brook Southampton’s Manhattan Center for Creative Writing and Film in New York City, where they learn everything there is to know about podcasting.

Ms. Russo, a longtime theatrical producer, is a firm believer in this medium. Since 2011, she has produced Alec Baldwin’s podcast “Here’s The Thing” with WNYC, and recently she brought to life “TBD with Tina Brown,” a podcast in which the renowned magazine editor interviews writers, actors, politicians, activists and other movers and shakers in today’s world.

The partnership with WSHU, she explained, provides not only a link for listeners to find Mr. Rosenblatt’s podcast, going forward it will also be a platform for the audio podcast fellows as they move through the year-long course and ultimately begin producing their own original podcasts.

“But we’re also trying to highlight our faculty,” said Ms. Russo, who co-directs the Stony Brook Southampton program with Tony Dec, a content strategist, consultant and sound producer who taught at the Columbia University School of Journalism for five years. Together, the pair developed the curriculum for the podcast program.

Also a key part of the group is Frank Imperiale, who provides the technical expertise to the program and whom Mr. Dec refers to as “the MacGyver of our team.”

“Tony and I will say, ‘Let’s make a copy of that,’ and Frank will have it done,” said Ms. Russo, who admits she is more comfortable with the creative side of the process. “I’m a Luddite. I took an editing class with these guys in the summer. The three of us balance each other well. Frank is tech heavy, and Tony has the academic background in teaching … I’m the idea person.”

Ms. Russo is also the key recruiter for the Audio Podcast Fellows program, and as the halfway point of the inaugural year approaches, she is looking to double the size of the podcast program in 2019 with up to a dozen fellows studying in Manhattan as well as a similar number working at the Southampton campus.

To that end, the second-floor lounge of Chancellor’s Hall at Stony Brook Southampton is currently being outfitted as a fully functioning recording studio, complete with an adjacent black box flexible performance space named for the late David Rakoff, an essayist, journalist and regular contributor to the “This American Life” radio program.

When asked to describe the type of students the podcast fellows program has attracted, Mr. Dec noted that it’s meant for professionals, and the ages of current students ranges from 21 to 80.

“We have students who have done nothing in podcasting and students who have worked on shows,” Ms. Russo explained. “The ones in between are uploading their own podcasts. When it came to editing, we had to break them up into beginning, intermediate and advanced levels. For the most part, even more advanced students had their eyes opened to other areas of podcasting they haven’t looked into.”

The goal of the program is to teach every aspect of the podcast business. The early classes focused on storytelling with students asked to write about their most humiliating experience and then sent out into the field to do “man on the street” interviews at Penn Station. Ms. Russo has also brought professionals in the field into the classroom, including Catherine Burns, artistic director of “The Moth Radio Hour,” to speak to the students.

At this point, Ms. Russo explained that the group is ready to pitch ideas to Kerry Donahue at Public Radio Exchange (PRX), a leading creator and distributor of podcasts.

“Storytelling is really the crux of this,” Mr. Dec said. “We’re trying to find a way to access those stories and turn them into this medium. Writing for audio is different from print, and Kathie is giving them background on storytelling as she gets them ready to pitch their ideas to Kerry.

“Then, next semester, we’ll talk about branding and imaging, web design and marketing,” he added. “This is why we have WSHU for a home for our projects.”

While Ms. Russo feels the Audio Podcast Fellows program is ideal for people in their 50s who are thinking about a career change, she also sees great opportunity for younger participants, as well as those who may be happier working on someone else’s project than creating their own.

“I want to go to our local high schools to do some sort of presentation in the New Year,” Ms. Russo said. “This is the perfect year-long program for kids who might not want to go right to college.

“There are not enough producers and editors to go around, and not enough people who are trained in podcasts,” she added. “All the fellows, no matter what age they are, will be trained to be employed by someone in the podcast world.”

For more information about the Stony Brook Southampton Audio Podcast Fellows program, visit stonybrook.edu/podcastfellows or email kathleen.russo@stonybrook.edu.

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