UC Berkeley J-School needs to expand audio journalism classes

Journalists working in an audio production room
Samantha Patten/Staff

We live in the age of the podcast, with digestible chunks of audio information delivered to our devices anywhere, anytime.

There are reportedly more than half a million podcasts, yet only a handful consistently rise to the surface. According to Podtrac, 2018’s most downloaded podcasts were “The Daily,” “This American Life,” “Stuff You Should Know,” “Up First” and “TED Radio Hour.” “The Daily” has been downloaded as many as 200 million times in 2017.

Meanwhile, in the last 15 years, 1,800 newspapers have shuttered, and most others have been significantly downsized. According to a Pew Research Center study, for the first time, more adults now get their news from social media rather than from traditional newspapers.

In an era when the popularity of print journalism is declining, it’s critical that the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, or J-School, be a leader in teaching audio journalism.

When radio became popularized early in the 20th century, broadcasters recognized this appetite for stories delivered intimately by human voices. Actors, writers, sound effects technicians, directors, musicians and engineers embellished these stories in the form of mysteries, science fiction, entertainment and more. Along with the stories came newscasts and documentaries.

In 1920, a Detroit radio station is considered to have delivered the United States’ first radio newscast. Today, top-of-the-hour newscasts are a regular feature of radio stations from coast to coast. Over time, radio developed news specials, documentaries and features designed to engage a story-hungry public.

National Public Radio emerged in 1971. Twelve years later, the UC Berkeley J-School’s radio program began. And In 2001, Apple introduced the iPod. Then, podcasts reignited once technology allowed large amounts of content to stream directly to listeners without buffering or dropout. Today, it’s estimated that about 68 million Americans listen to podcasts in any given month.

As the podcast industry grows, folks who create audio stories have both an expanded palate and a hungry audience. The movement has created a national demand for more skilled audio professionals. Given this reality, the J-School has added to its audio offerings. In September 2018, the school appointed a new director of audio, Mary Kay Magistad, a former NPR foreign correspondent and host of the podcast “Whose Century Is It?”

The J-School guides students in everything from gathering and editing sound to story structure, announcing and interview techniques. The J-School’s courses include “Intro to Audio” and “Advanced Audio,” along with podcast-specific courses and mini courses that concentrate on some finer points such as sound design and reporting on technology.

At UC Berkeley’s Advanced Media Institute, there’s the Podcast Services Division, which offers workshops and seminars on how to become a podcaster. The division also assists outside organizations in developing a variety of audio stories. Recent clients have included the Berkeley Food Institute, the Center for Youth Wellness and the Telegraph Business Improvement District. As the podcast industry grows, it’s vital for the UC Berkeley J-School to continue to actively grow the audio journalism program.

There will always be a place for traditional print and visual journalism. There are many fine schools that teach those skills. Yet, so few universities have recognized the obvious need for more skilled audio journalists. UC Berkeley needs to lead the effort to make audio journalism a standard part of the journalism curriculum.

With the growing importance of audio journalism, students at the J-School have chosen to feature Michael Barbaro, host of “The Daily,” as commencement speaker this May. He worked as a print reporter for The Washington Post and the Miami Herald before becoming a writer at The New York Times. Once he began working in audio, though, he soon recognized that different skills were needed in stories designed solely to be heard. There’s a wide distinction between writing for the eye and writing for the ear. By blending the two, this “new” medium has become a beacon of what’s possible when quality journalism marries podcasting.

“The Daily” is a story program hosted by Barbaro and assembled by a team of talented audio producers. The program generally follows one reporter or team of reporters through a single story. They stir together the tricks of sound manipulation and spice their content with music and audio from the media that surround us.

By using bits and pieces of sound from cable, TV, movies, etc., the producers of “The Daily” expand the impact of a story. Rather than just some simple talking heads, producers serve up a rhythmic blend of sound geared to the pace of modern communication.

Program hosts are often the center of attention, but behind each successful presenter lies a team of professionals: reporters, producers, directors, editors, engineers, sound designers, archivists and any manner of supporting personnel. The talent brings personality to the presentation, while the producers bring the story to life.

“The Daily” marks a return to the joy we all share in the wonders of a great story told by a human voice. And a little high-quality production can make it sound even better.

The success of “The Daily” and other journalistic podcasts makes it critical that the UC Berkeley J-School continue to expand its course offerings in audio. The new breed of digital storytellers deserves to be familiar with all the skills needed for the podcast revolution. The J-School is poised to become the leader in this field.

Ben Manilla is a continuing lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism.