New Project: Public Work, a public humanities podcast

A few weeks ago Amelia Golcheski and I launched Public Work, an interview-style public humanities podcast that features lots of voices from Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage . Amelia and I have been working on Public Work since the Fall of 2017, and we’re excited to have an actual podcast out in the world after all that time. You can hear us on iTunes and on SoundCloud, and you can get updates on new and upcoming episodes @PublicWorkPod on Twitter.

Are you thinking about starting a podcast at your institution? What follows is an overview of some of the work that went into this project, with attention paid to some of the resources needed to pull it off and some thoughts on project longevity. There are lots of resources online for folks interested in doing podcasts, so I’m thinking of these reflections as more thoughts that might resonate primarily with people working in academic contexts: students, faculty members, librarians, postdocs, etc.

The first thing to note is that podcasts are a lot of work! That work takes on many different forms, but the main tasks have been:

Creating and workshopping the concept for the podcast and its format, writing the project description, creating a logo, creating the project website and Twitter account, reaching out to interviewers and interview subjects, learning how to use digital recording and editing software, recording interviews and other podcast content, editing audio content, gathering content for episode descriptions and show notes, tracking down music on Creative Commons, creating an RSS feed for the podcast, getting the podcast approved by iTunes, promoting and publishing the podcast, booking more episodes, recording again, editing again, everything again, basically.

Amelia and I are the two people doing the majority of this work! I am compensated via my postdoctoral fellowship (though I have to keep an eye on how much time I spent on this project, as it does eat into my 40 hours of compensated time per week, even during a semester when I’m not teaching a course) and Amelia is paid for ten hours of work per week (via an awesome arrangement Robyn Schroeder set up with the JNBC before she moved on to her cool new job elsewhere!). We spent the fall meeting weekly to discuss the approach we wanted to take with this project, to map out its scope, scale, timeline, and afterlife, to identify resources and skills we had as well as stuff we needed to get (and to determine what stuff we didn’t need), to seek out potential collaborators, to “pilot” the approach by working closely with the interviewers on our first two episodes, and to plan ahead for a spring launch. I could imagine shorter or longer timelines for this kind of work, but I don’t know if I’d take on a podcast project at this scale in, say, a semester-long class. That being said, with the right planning and resources, a series of micro-episodes around a specific concept could be cool to do with a class, but I’d want to build in semester time to either pitch and refine a concept or collaborate with interested students on a project of our own devising.

There are, of course, other people working on and around this project. Our idea is that many of our interviews will be conducted by current Public Humanities graduate students. Students are (and have been!) invited to pitch ideas for interviews and episodes, with the understanding that they’ll be responsible for “booking” their desired interview subjects and for recording said interviews. Amelia and I are available to offer advice on recording equipment and interview mechanics, and to  help book recording studio space if needed. We also edit the completed interviews and deliver the episode in its final, public form. And we have autonomy over the project: we decide what interviews, interviewees, and topics seem like ideal fits. I was worried about a set-up where we were doing all the work and we were viewed as an extension of the Center’s marketing and self-promotion, but we’ve thankfully be left to our own (podcasting) devices so far.

That being said, Amelia and I are interested in representing the range of voices and topics that make our Public Humanities community such an exciting place. We also hope the podcast framework is a useful motivator for students interested in networking with admired practitioners in their fields of interest, and it also can serve as a public declaration of particular research interests and as an extension of their public professional identities. On the other hand, interviewing someone “on the record” can be challenging, technical issues can arise at the level of recording even under the best of circumstances, and our students are super busy doing lots of other cool and exciting things. So we’re also keeping an eye on this dimension of the project and modifying it as needed. For example, we’ve started interviewing students in our program who are curating and performing work as part of the Center’s Gallery Lab event series, mainly because Amelia and I were really excited to learn more about these projects! We’ll also eventually open up our call for interviews to other members of the Public Humanities community at Brown, but for now we’re keeping students and their interests at the forefront.

From the perspective of the audience, we think a student-centered podcast reveals what topics and issues are of the utmost importances to early-career professionals interested in public humanities. Our initial episodes reflect these interests: we’ve heard about innovative approaches to institutionally supporting the work of interpretation, and we’ve learned about the efforts involved in decolonizing museums already, and our next episode focused on images and ideas of monuments (stay tuned!).

From the point of view of the interview subject, we hope that Public Work is a space to promote their projects, ideas and interests, to connect these particular interests and efforts to larger conversations happening in their fields, and to offer advice and reflections to interviewers and audience members who are new to their line of work or just interested in how that work gets done. We know it can be challenging and even stressful to have these kinds of conversations in a public setting. We also know that it is often hard to find time to write about and reflect on the work we do on a daily basis, especially if we’re contingent forms of labor, or if we’re working in positions where we aren’t given paid time, resources, or professional rewards for writing and research.

From the perspective of the audience, Amelia and I were primarily thinking about practitioners in public humanities and related fields (public history, museum studies, library sciences, digital humanities) who might be curious about what happens “behind the curtains” in particular professions or institutional spaces. You don’t necessarily have to know or care about “public humanities” as a framework or methodology to follow these conversations, but we do hope that these recorded conversations provide listeners with some ideas about what the term “public humanities” means to our students at Brown. There’s definitely some resonances with the work Robyn, Inge Zwart, and I completed last year on our Day of Public Humanities project.

We’re fortunate to have access to a recording studio via the Brown University Library Sidney E. Frank Digital Studio. Patrick Rashleigh was an invaluable resource here: he got us studio access, walked us through the equipment, and introduced us to the recording and editing software. The software we use is called Hindenburg. 30-day free trials are available if you’d like to check it out, and the product’s web site has lots of useful video tutorials. Hindenburg is “intuitive” in terms of its design but your level of intuition may vary: I relied heavily on the tutorials and web resources. In terms of editing, we try to encourage interviewers to record single “takes,” but I learned the basics of how to splice together our interviews, intros and outros, and musical interludes through trial and error in a few weeks. I can also minimize background noise and edit out snippets of content on our interview segments, so the software has allowed us to let interviews be conducted off-site and then cleaned up later. The sound quality isn’t perfect and we’re not going to drop a Radiolab episode any time soon, but I’ve been impressed by what we’ve been able to do with minimal training and background.

The work of editing can be tedious and take time, but it’s also been useful for me to remember that I can do a lot of this work at home on my laptop, that I usually can easily undo any editing mistakes I make, and that this is all a work-in-progress. Having deadlines and other work and life commitments has helped me determine how much time I have to edit for each episode. Cleaning up background noise often takes the longest, given that I have to re-listen to everything I want to fix, but I can usually let the program run after a certain point and play Nintendo while it wraps up.

The mechanics of interviewing and recording intros have taken some time, and we anticipate that the styles of our interviewers will vary (that’s part of the fun of this project, for me at least). But it can take some time to learn what makes a recorded interview different from a conversation: there’s more silence, less fidgeting (especially in our recording studio), and occasional needs to intervene and clarify certain talking points for the benefit of your invisible audience. Amelia and I began scripting our intro content pretty thoroughly, until we listened to the recorded results and found what we heard to be a bit rigid and stiff and dull. We now briefly sketch out the beats of our conversations before recording in a pre-conversation, and we like the results a lot better. I do need to stop saying “um” but I’ll get there with time.

There was a bit of a learning curve when it came to RSS feeds, but some Googling should set anyone interested straight. It is important to factor the feed into costs if you want your podcast to be accessible via iTunes and elsewhere: we’re currently using SoundCloud because it’s free in the short-term and will be inexpensive for the duration of the project’s limited lifespan (more on that below), but SoundCloud’s future is a bit cloudy if you’re planning for something with more longevity. Libsyn and PowerPress seem like good options to explore if you’re interested.

Social media and podcast metrics, like blog metrics, will drive vain and attention-craving people like me bonkers. Podcasts may be more popular than blogs in 2018, but podcasts about public humanities appeal to a select audience here on the world wide web. Podcasts also generally take longer to make, so that’s something to keep in mind. That being said, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback we’ve received at Brown, on Twitter, and elsewhere, but we’re also not quitting our day jobs.

In terms of project goals, Amelia and I will be working on Public Work until the end of the spring semester, and I imagine I’ll keep the lights on if we have a backlog of episodes or if interest persists into the summer. We created our project site on Brown Blogs with an eye towards long-term preservation of materials and to ensure that the site wouldn’t immediately vanish if and when we did, and we’ll also be uploading episodes and other materials to Brown’s Digital Repository before we leave to ensure these conversations outlive SoundCloud. Our hope is that interested students or staff pick up Public Work or a similar podcast project at the Center for Public Humanities once Amelia and I are gone, but we’re both happy with the current imagined lifespan of the project if it ends when we leave the university.

I am curious to see where this project heads, and if things get interesting or weird or terrible I’ll likely check back in with a final set of reflections. For now, I’m still really thrilled that we made something that exists in the world beyond the classroom where Amelia and I first started talking about this project. It’s been great to learn the necessary technical and performative elements of podcast labor, and I’m already thinking about additional projects this year and beyond. And this is perhaps selfish of me, but it’s been an opportunity for me to spend a lot of time with our current set of graduate students during the last period of my tenure as a postdoc here. I’m trying to absorb as much as I can before I head off elsewhere, and I’m also glad we were able to make something that hopefully magnifies and amplifies their work to a wider audience.