Podcast killed the radio star

Monday, April 9, 2018 - 5:47pm

We have been listening to the radio for over 50 years, and at one point many of us were familiar with our local stations. Whether it was news or music, it is likely that we all have a distant or recent memory of sitting in a car fiddling with the stereo, trying to find a good station. However, the way we choose to listen to news and music is slowly changing. Podcasts are becoming more and more popular as we go from listening on the radio to online streaming, and the nature of the programs available to us is also shifting.

I remember early morning car rides to school listening to my father’s favorite morning news station that, every few minutes, reported on the atomic time. Now, I grab my phone and stream the latest episode of “Reveal” on Spotify while walking to class. These two experiences are incredibly different. While radio is still regarded as one of our main mass media outlets, the experience of listening to a podcast is more intimate and personalized.

University students have fully taken advantage of this new art form and are prompt to listen to, recommend and create podcasts. The Daily produces four original podcasts, including “Things Men Ruined,” “Arts, Interrupted,” “The Daily Weekly” and “The Sit Down.” Still, producing podcasts is not limited to The Daily, as other student publications and independent students also produce their own podcasts.

LSA senior Ritam Mehta and School of Music, Theatre & Dance sophomore Kyle Prue, who are Midnight Book Club members, are some of those student producers. They took their love for improv to the next level by creating a space where they could practice their skills and have fun, as well as share their talent with their friends and listeners. Their project, “A2Z: An Improvised Podcast,” is about funny and unique people and events that make up the experience of living in Ann Arbor. This project, so unlike anything that would air on the radio, is one of the big reasons why podcasts have seen such a recent increase in popularity.

As Mehta described, “I think podcasts are a very intimate form of art that creates empathy. It’s a very weird thing to listen to someone having a conversation that you are not involved in but at the end of the day you feel like they are right next to you talking to you.”

A few weeks ago, I was invited to sit in on their recording for the episode, “The One Where They Improvised a Musical.” It was a cold and sunny Saturday afternoon on North Campus when I arrived at the recording studio. I was met by the smiling faces of Ford junior Alana Spellman, LSA senior Maya Dalack, SMTD freshman Erica Ito and SMTD sophomore Ryan Cox, who is also a staffer at The Daily. All of them were going to completely improvise a musical. They had no story line or pre-written songs or music. All they were doing for practice was voice warm ups and quick improv scenes.

After every microphone was checked and everyone was ready, they started recording. Someone took the character of a bunny with rabies, someone was an evil fox who gave rabies to everyone, someone took the big, cool hippo, someone was God and the rest filled in or introduced new characters as the story developed. They all started singing spontaneously at times, or when someone signaled, Ryan, the piano player, to start the music. There was a lot of eye contact between team members as their characters continued to come in and out of the play, a lot of looking at each other waiting to see what the next person had to add to the story. None of the students knew where the story was going or where it would end up, but they seemed to be having fun creating it.

Being there gave me an insight to the production team because I could see them, but these interactions are what the listeners perceive when they play back the episodes. As Mehta put it, “The true moments that define the medium are spontaneous and different and kind of out of nowhere.”

There is a pool of student podcasts as diverse as our campus, but this one has resonated with me personally. Since meeting the Mehta, Prue and their team in person, I have listened to “A2Z: An Improvised Podcast” every week. I often find myself going to past episodes and laughing at the incredible characters and storylines the Mehta and Prue improvise. They take weird twists and turns as the they work with each other, bouncing off ideas and silently laughing when they say something particularly funny.

I can picture them sitting on the stools in the recording room, laughing at each other and there is a strange feeling of relatability that comes with the knowledge that they are students. Radio, on the other hand, is usually produced by professionals who, often times, have nothing in common with me or my peers on campus. Their coverage is important, but the intimate and important feeling of relating to the hosts is something mostly unique of podcasts.

Podcasts, especially improv and comedy ones like “A2Z: An Improvised Podcast,” are unique in that they are always surprising the listener. Other than the fact that we can choose what we listen to and when we listen to it, podcasts provide a myriad of ways for self-expression outside of the common radio format.

Comedy and improv podcasts like “A2Z” are just an example of a direction that a podcast can take. There are gaming podcasts, podcasts that talk about relationships, lifestyle podcasts, music podcasts, history podcasts — and the list goes on. Unlike radio, there is a podcast out there for every kind of listener.