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School of Arts and Sciences

Podcast Pioneers

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Tufts Podcast Network founders Xander Landen and Cooper McKim lay groundwork for expansion

Students of Tufts Podcast Network

Xander Landen (second from right) produces podcasts at the Experimental College. (Jake Belcher for Tufts University)

by Dana Guth, '17

Senior Xander Landen traces his interest in radio journalism back to the summer after his first year at Tufts, when he interned at his Connecticut hometown's NPR station, WSHU, covering breaking news. "I was able to go out and report on breaking news stories, write scripts, and voice my own stories," says Landen. "I discovered an optimal medium for telling stories and communicating important information to the public."

That same summer, his friend Cooper McKim, A15, completed a Congressional internship that left him feeling uninspired. "I would listen to podcasts and stories every day going to and from work," McKim recalls. He realized he was passionate about storytelling—the journalistic side of government and politics—and had an inkling that other Tufts students would be interested in creating podcasts. When the two friends returned to Tufts in the fall, McKim approached Landen with the idea of "getting a bunch of NPR junkies together" to create a podcast group at Tufts. McKim planned to draw on his knowledge from his own research into podcasting, "a bit of self teaching, and a lifetime of consuming stories."

Landen was an eager partner. The rising popularity of podcasts made sense to him. "Audio-based media offers a distinct rawness that print and other digital storytelling fail to capture," he says. "Podcasts hook you in and engage you in a way that TV doesn't," Landen continues. "They bring you right into a scene. It's the way people have been telling stories forever: just talking."

Over the past three semesters, Tufts Podcast Network (TPN) has grown, restructured, and rebranded under the leadership of Landen and McKim, who have shared a mission to produce high-quality audio content from the ground up, and to expand listenership. While the co-founders originally assigned stories on an individual basis, this year the group changed their model by offering members the chance to independently produce podcasts of their choosing. During their weekly meetings in the ExCollege basement, "students can talk about their ideas and learn about audio production in a sort of formal [professional] environment," says McKim. "Most members have no experience before they come to us, just a love of podcasts and an interest in learning how to produce them," adds Landen.

With funding from Tufts Community Union's Media Sector, TPN purchased recorders, XLR cables, a SoundCloud subscription, and microphones. Landen and members with experience teach basic reporting skills, audio production techniques, and structuring of podcast stories. "We want to make sure the quality of our content improves, and make sure that the students involved are getting the training they need to produce the best stories possible," says Landen. "If you're a good writer, you can be trained to be a good podcaster."

Xander Landen (center) works with first-year student Julia Press (left) and junior Jordan Abosch on the production of a story. (Jake Belcher for Tufts University)

McKim established the group's own Story Slam, where members share a tale under the theme of "risk" with the group—an event designed to familiarize more members of the Tufts community with TPN and offer another platform for story sharing. "Story Slams are a chance to socialize in addition to offering people another chance to tell stories," says McKim. "It's hard to imagine putting together a story for radio, but if you can do one on the spot, it seems much easier." The Slam also gives beginning producers the opportunity to edit their pieces using their audio production software, Adobe Audition, with raw content.

TPN has built a wealth of in-depth reported pieces—music, comedy, interviews, and student profiles included. To expand listenership, podcasts are available on SoundCloud as well as on the new TPN website, which Landen says was designed to be more user-friendly and aesthetically appealing. In the fall, one of its members will focus on TPN's marketing, branding, and social media to increase their audience.

Recent podcasts have included a series about blind dating, a feature on a wrongly accused convict, and "For Lack of a Better Word," an exploration of the English language, of which Landen is especially fond. "It's two first-year girls [Evie Bellew and Elana DeSantis] chatting about linguistics and words that don't exist in English but exist in other languages," he says. "It's super interesting." This spring, one member is producing an audio exploration of "Tufts Funny Ladies," a new all-female student comedy group on campus.

The co-founders prefer stories that feature strong narratives with central characters. Landen produced "A Father's Fight for Kazakhstan" which focuses on Golymzhan Zhakiyanov, a revolutionary who attempted to overthrow Kazahkstan's authoritarian government. Together with first-year student Annika Leybold, McKim and Landen created "Last Folio" about Yuri Dojc, a Slovakian photographer who emphasizes cultural memory through various visual projects, when he was speaking on campus.

Since his first internship, Landen has reported field stories and learned audio editing and production under his mentors in radio, print, and digital newsrooms including WBUR and WNYC, the PBS NewsHour, and The Christian Science Monitor. His post-graduate plans involve podcasting and radio production, and he hopes to work in a digital newsroom "to gain experience and reporting chops, working on investigative pieces."

McKim relocated to South Carolina after graduating in December, where he currently serves as a production assistant at South Carolina Public Radio. He plans on continuing his radio work as a feature-length podcast and radio producer.

The TPN leaders say their liberal arts education has complemented their budding career as media producers. Landen studied English as an undergraduate, while McKim majored in environmental science with a focus in policy. Both took classes in the Mass Communications and Media Studies department, now Film and Media Studies, for which Landen is currently working on a capstone project detailing the differences between for-profit and non-profit newsrooms. Landen says his ExCollege coursework has been particularly instrumental in how he writes and thinks about journalism. For both Landen and McKim, "800 Words," an ExCollege course taught by James Geary, the deputy curator of the Nieman Foundation, was important in shaping their journalistic work. "The course taught me how to structure stories and how to find good quotes," says McKim.

Landen and McKim hope the new crop of first-year students involved in TPN will keep the group moving forward. "There's a clear upward trajectory," says McKim. "We're creating stories every week, and now we just need regular listeners that can look forward to our podcasts and expect something of high quality. This year was about development, and the next few years should be about riding the wave."