Tuning in to Soundwriting

The Bandwidth of Podcasting

by Eric Detweiler

7. Seriality, Scale, and Collaboration

Since their inception, podcasts have been an episodic medium. Dave Winer set up an RSS feed for Christopher Lydon with the expectation that Lydon would be posting audio content regularly and that interested listeners would thus want a feed to help them know when Radio Open Source uploaded something new. However, throughout podcasting's first decade, most podcasts were episodic in the way "mystery of the week" crime shows are episodic: as long as you knew a little bit about the show's tone, theme, and key players, you could jump into any given episode without feeling too disoriented. For example, most This American Life episodes aren't part of a larger narrative arc listeners need to be clued into. This changed quickly and dramatically with Serial, the first season of which premiered in 2014. As its title suggests, Serial is intricately serialized. The twelve-episode first season investigated a single story, and missing even one episode would leave a listener lost. This kind of structure has become especially common in true crime podcasts (e.g., Bear Brook, Dirty John, In the Dark) and was taken to new levels of narrative complexity in the Serial-sponsored podcast S-Town.

In one sense, the episodic and/or serialized nature of podcasts is a matter of distribution and circulation: from Radio Open Source's RSS feed to present-day podcast clients, the infrastructure around podcasting is designed to distribute episodic content. Moreover, listeners generally expect that a podcast will not be a one-and-done affair. As with a television series, seriality is part of the rhythm and pleasure of the podcasting experience, even if listeners lose interest, skip an episode here or there, or jump in halfway through as a particular podcast's structure allows. In terms of circulation and attendant matters of virality (Rice, 2005/2018, p. 173; Rivers & Weber, 2011), seriality also helps podcasts build audiences over time: as early episodes of podcasts go viral, anticipation of future episodes can help attract more listeners and give existing fans time to circulate word of the podcast to others.

In another sense, seriality brings us into familiar pedagogical territory. For one thing, it raises issues of narrative and argumentative structure analogous to those often addressed in writing classrooms: What makes for an effective, comprehensible transition between episodes? In what order should evidence and arguments be presented for the sake of maintaining an audience's attention and achieving a podcast's informative and persuasive goals? Similar questions matter at the level of individual episodes too, even for podcasts that aren't telling multipart stories. However, they become more complex and demanding in intricately serialized podcasts, with podcasters balancing multiple storylines, incorporating "previously on" segments to introduce episodes, and—in the case of nonfiction podcasts—sometimes adjusting their structure and narrative sequencing on the fly as new events occur (consider Baran, 2016). Between rhetorically attuned work in narrative theory, organizational heuristics developed by writing studies scholars, and updated approaches to the canon of arrangement (Bowie, 2012b; Lambke, 2019; Pfister, 2014), rhetoric and writing teachers have a range of resources to draw on when asking students to address these kinds of questions, whether in the context of analysis or the creation of their own serialized audio projects.

Seriality also raises issues of scale that, while challenging, dovetail with well-established pedagogical practices and areas of research in rhetoric and writing studies. I would venture that creating an episodic podcast series of any kind of quality is too big an endeavor for most individual students in the span of a single semester or course. Especially with the prevalence of free voice-recording apps for smartphones, it is not too difficult for students to create something like an unedited series of audio-recorded responses to course readings that they submit to a teacher. College courses themselves are typically configured in a somewhat episodic fashion ("Tune in next Thursday, when we'll be discussing the next chapter of Jessica Abel's Out on the Wire!"), so students' audio responses could be configured and published in a serialized, podcast-style manner over the course of a semester. But at the scale of a thematically if not narratively consistent podcast series, particularly one that is hypothetically or actually meant for public distribution and circulation, collaboration is all but indispensable.

This collaboration can take at least two noteworthy forms. The first resembles peer response, which has been a staple of rhetoric and writing classrooms and scholarship for decades (Ching, 2007; Gere, 1987; Kerschbaum, 2014). As Abel (2015) explored at length, peer and supervisor feedback is a major part of the process for journalists working on podcast segments and radio stories (pp. 169–183). The exchanges Abel documented were blunter than the peer-response approaches encouraged by many writing teachers, but they resemble workshopping practices that are commonplace in rhetoric and writing courses. Given the ways listeners engage with audio pieces—often while driving or working on other tasks, in many cases without the ability to readily skip back a few lines or paragraphs as one can when reading words on a screen or page—getting others' perspectives on the structure and comprehensibility of a piece can be especially important. While I hesitate to draw simplistic distinctions between sonic and print texts, sonic media have a long history of being consumed by distracted subjects (Sterne, 2012, p. 182), which puts a relatively greater burden on podcasters when it comes to maintainining listeners' attention and comprehension. Peer response can be a significant resource for helping student podcasters step outside their crystallized conceptions of their topic or project and, without abandoning their vision for an audio piece or series, consider how to configure their project in a way that others will be able to follow.

The second form of collaboration is more thoroughgoing: I would suggest that teachers interested in having students create something that resembles the scale and ambition of a podcast series should make it a project involving the whole class. Again, rhetoric and writing studies has a rich history of research on collaborative learning and writing (Bruffee, 1984; Lunsford & Ede, 1990; Trimbur, 1989). Practically speaking, making a podcast collaborative allows students to combine their skill sets: one might be adept at preparing and formatting scripts, another might be able to record original music, and another might have experience conducting interviews. Moreover, it allows students to approach a series from more angles and in greater detail. However, it also requires students to negotiate and coordinate in ways that—though I find them ultimately productive—can be challenging.

For example, in Rhetoric and Recorded Sound, an upper-level writing course I teach at Middle Tennessee State University, my students' capstone assignment is a collaboratively produced podcast series. The first time I taught the course, students began by selecting a topic, a decision that required multiple days of classroom discussion all to itself. After selecting a topic—magical thinking in American culture—students divided into four smaller groups dedicated to individual episodes, which focused respectively on fantasy, nostalgia, campus superstitions, and conspiracy theories. Students would regularly have whole-class discussions to make sure everyone had a shared sense of the podcast's evolving conceit and tone. They also discussed and coordinated logistical details (e.g., one student volunteered to create a canned introduction for inclusion at the beginning of each episode, drafts of which students listened to and workshopped in class). Especially if a teacher is hesitant to guide or adjudicate such conversations, these kinds of discussions can absorb a significant amount of class time. However, a degree of in-class and out-of-class collaboration can lead to a much more developed and consistent set of episodes.

In a sense, podcasts occupy a space between what Nathaniel A. Rivers and Ryan P. Weber (2011) called "atomistic" and "ecological" approaches to teaching rhetoric and writing (p. 189). Rivers and Weber described "atomistic" pedagogies as those that "neglect the full complexity of writing environments by ‘focusing on individual writers, individual texts, isolated acts, processes, or artifacts'" (p. 189). They offered "canned letters to the editor" as an assignment that exemplifies such an approach. As an alternative, Rivers and Weber described an "ecological approach" designed to "move students beyond the idea that most public change happens through a single author writing a single text for a single audience" (p. 189). Drawing on Rice as well as Michael Warner, and using the Montgomery bus boycott as a case in point, the authors argued, "Forming and cohering a public motivated to continue intense and effective advocacy requires not just solitary rhetorical action but an ongoing ecology of documents, symbolic actions, interpersonal and professional networks, and organizations" (p. 202). In keeping with their ecological approach, Rivers and Weber discussed a course in which they had students compose five intertwined documents as "a miniature advocacy campaign": a formal proposal, two letters, a "visual document," and a Facebook group (p. 203).

Because they are episodic by design, podcasts are not amenable to atomistic pedagogies. At the simplest level, students must be thinking about structural or topical connections between episodes. At a more complex level, a single podcast episode might be assembled over time from a whole ecology of materials: notes, recorded interviews, transcripts, B-roll, music, scripts, voiceovers, and so on. If students are asked to consider public distribution, they might also need to consider other materials: a descriptive blurb for the podcast as a whole, cover art for podcatchers, reviews and ratings, posts to social media accounts, individual episode summaries. All these things can contribute to "cohering a public motivated," at the very least, to tune in for the next episode (Rivers & Weber, 2011, p. 202).

However, if a teacher wants to limit the scope of a student-produced podcast to audio files alone (other types of drafting-related media notwithstanding), a podcast series might be even more limited than Rivers and Weber's (2011) "prescriptive list of required documents" (p. 204). Given all the challenges involved in teaching students to plan, draft, record, and edit audio, a podcast assignment probably won't circulate within the same "red in tooth and claw rhetorical ecologies" that full-fledged podcasts do (p. 207). However, as I've argued throughout this piece, if a podcast assignment does not at least hypothetically unfold in an episodic fashion and circulate within "a protopublic or proto-rhetorical ecology" (p. 206), then it should be called something else. But overall, while factors like seriality involve some complex analytical and compositional challenges, scholarship on issues like narrative, arrangement, and collaboration makes this a set of challenges that scholars and teachers of rhetoric and writing might find themselves surprisingly well-prepared to address.