The Podcasters of CALS
Academics step outside their traditional roles to take listeners behind the scenes of science and higher education.
In the car, at the gym, while folding laundry — people are tuning in to podcasts more than ever before. Since this portable form of entertainment first hit earbuds in 2004, listenership has climbed steadily. And it soared during the pandemic. An estimated 116 million people — 41% of Americans ages 12 and up — listen to podcasts monthly or more, according to a 2021 survey for the long-running digital media study, The Infinite Dial. Those who listen weekly fit in an average of eight episodes per week. Major companies, A-list celebrities, and advertisers are all clamoring for a piece of the growing podcast pie.
And the beauty of the platform: It’s open to anyone with an idea, a computer, and a microphone. Meet two new podcasters from CALS who are using streaming audio to connect with new audiences and boost the signal on important issues.
The Humans Behind the Science
During the early months of the pandemic, as many turned to baking and jigsaw puzzles to pass the quarantine boredom, nutritional sciences doctoral student Ben Rush started experimenting with sound. It was a throwback to his high school days, when he dabbled in electronic music composition. Alone in his Madison apartment, he penned comedy scripts, recorded himself voicing characters, and created a couple of parody podcast episodes.
Then he read Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio by Jessica Abel. The book helped him realize that a podcast was the perfect way to blend his scientific background, natural curiosity about people, digital audio experience, and goofy sense of humor — and put it all toward a higher purpose. “It just dawned on me that I have all of these skills that I could use . . . to change the world around something I’m really passionate about,” Rush says.
And his passion is sharing the human side of science. He quickly got to work creating the first few episodes of Deeper Than Data with Ben Rush, which launched in February 2021. His vision: to use open, honest storytelling to help graduate students and early-career scientists feel less alone, encourage faculty to embrace open and vulnerable leadership, and increase public trust in the scientific community.
The term “podcast,” a combination of “iPod” and “broadcast,” was coined in 2004 by journalist Ben Hammersley. In 2005, it was named Word of the Year by the New Oxford American Dictionary. Listeners today stream podcasts on a variety of smart phones, tablets, and other mobile devices, but the name has stuck.
Rush believes that open and honest conversations are what lead to true connection and understanding. In his podcast, he prompts guests to chat about their biggest failures, their meandering paths to success, and their first childhood crush, among a wide range of other topics. He talks to guests the same way he would friends, and he isn’t afraid to be the first one to admit something embarrassing.
“People aren’t looking for leaders on pedestals: They’re looking for people they can connect to,” Rush says. “We need to show the human side of scientists, to have the public see scientists as human.”
While the podcast delves into serious territory — from toxic professional relationships to defeating imposter syndrome — Rush embraces humor as a way to engage his audience and guests. He’s a big fan of Dan Pashman of the foodie podcast The Sporkful. “He used comedy and stupid jokes to just connect with people, and it worked,” Rush says. “And I could see it working in my own life.”
During the production process, he’ll edit in self-deprecating jokes to poke fun at something he said during the interview or add in a silly song. Rush ends each episode with an improv game, inspired by one of his favorite childhood shows, Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and the Improvisational Theater for Scientists course offered by UW internal medicine professor Amy Zelenski. So listeners get to hear what a fashion-loving public health professor thinks an octopus should wear to an awards ceremony.
“I’ve been really amazed, especially for the improvised games, that everyone is willing to jump in,” Rush says. “It’s a lot of trust. I think people are intrigued to get a request where it’s not just about their research, it’s about who they are as a person.”
Rush carefully evaluates prospective guests to ensure a lively conversation. He often starts by researching faculty who have won teaching awards because he thinks they’ll see the value of his podcast, and then he’ll check out their social media to get a sense of their personality. He estimates he spends 10–13 hours creating each episode, from the prep work to the final production.
Several of Rush’s episodes have featured CALS faculty, including “Be Chill, Drink Coffee, and Destroy Godzilla” with Karthik Anantharaman, assistant professor of bacteriology; “Can We Get a Herd of Wallabies?” with Laura Hernandez, associate professor of animal and dairy sciences; “Discovering Amazing Places Randomly” with Amaya Atucha, associate professor of horticulture and fruit crop extension specialist; and “Purposeful Living and Mentorship” with Judith Simcox, assistant professor of biochemistry.
For the one-year anniversary of the podcast, Rush plans to air an interview with his boss, Adam Kuchnia, assistant professor of nutritional sciences. In Kuchnia’s lab, Rush conducts research on using imaging techniques to improve muscle health and quality. “I want to find out how it is to work with me,” Rush says. “I’m sure there are times when I’ve driven him crazy, and I’m curious what those are.”
Rush, who once dreamed of becoming secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, plans to graduate in 2022 and is now considering a career in science communication. Early on, he consulted UW’s Discovery to Product program and the UW Small Business Development Center, which urged him to think big and beyond just a single podcast. And so he created Deeper than Data Media with a focus on “edutainment.”
His business concept is taking off: UW Connects recently hired Deeper than Data Media to create a bi-monthly podcast for the university’s series of public presentations called Badger Talks. Like the event, the podcast showcases people from departments across campus. To help with the expanded workload, Rush hired three friends from campus: nutritional sciences Ph.D. student Jevin Lortie, physiology graduate student Lauren Schrader, and postdoctoral fellow Julia Nepper.
Fran Puleo, who heads Badger Talks as assistant director of outreach programs at UW Connects, calls Rush an engaging storyteller who will help the program connect with younger audiences. “He is a master at casually, yet thoughtfully, presenting experts who provide thought-provoking insights on topics important to listeners,” she says.
Rush says he is energized by the creative freedom and entrepreneurial aspects of podcasting and is intrigued to see where it might take him next. The Deeper Than Data with Ben Rush podcast draws listeners from around the world — from students to early-career faculty to people with no connection to academia — and Rush is eager to keep building his audience. “I still can’t believe that the podcast has had as much success as it has,” he says. “It’s really been a fascinating ride, and I feel really lucky to be able to do it.”
See sidebar, A Master Class on Great Audio
The Untold Stories of Higher Ed
Nan Enstad wasn’t a huge podcast listener before the pandemic. Sure, she occasionally enjoyed Radio Lab, Dolly Parton’s America, Hidden America, and On Being with Krista Tippett, but she wasn’t itching to grab the mic herself.
Then one day she was chatting with her friend, Lisa Levenstein, a UW grad who is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
“We were talking about how COVID was going to create this fiscal emergency for universities across the country after decades of funding cuts,” says Enstad, who is the Buttel-Sewell Professor of Community and Environmental Sociology. “We started talking about how people don’t really understand the importance of universities. There’s a lot of criticism, and some is valid, and some is politically entrenched. There aren’t a lot of media outlets that can take on the thorny issues that range across the landscape of higher education, and we wanted to bring out some of those stories and, in the process, examine how universities function and contribute to community.”
But the duo didn’t just want to write another academic paper. They wanted to get their stories directly into the ears of the public. “It wasn’t a love of podcasts so much as it was a love of higher education,” Enstad explains. “A podcast seemed like the right medium for us.”
And so began Collegeland. Enstad and Levenstein started developing the concept in September 2020 and spent months brainstorming and planning. They hired Richelle Wilson, a UW graduate student with radio experience, to produce their first season. They also paid an artist to make their logo and cover art and contracted with a musician to create a theme song. By the time they launched in January 2021, they had three episodes ready to go.
“The wonderful thing about podcasting is it’s an incredibly democratic form,” Enstad says. “It’s like TikTok — the skills it takes are pretty readily learnable. But we had never made a podcast before, so it was a super steep learning curve for all of us. In the midst of a pandemic, when it was Zoom after Zoom after Zoom and everything started to feel the same, it was super fun to be challenged in this way.”
The podcast explores many dimensions of university life, which is reflected in episode titles such as “Tales of a Campus Housekeeper,” “Why University Presses Matter,” and “Food Insecurity on Campus.” A few past guests have UW ties. Malia Jones, an associate scientist in health geography at the Applied Population Laboratory, kicked off the podcast’s first episode, “Dear Pandemic.” UW grad Deborah Fuller, a vaccinologist and professor of microbiology at the University of Washington, was spotlighted in “Inside a University Vaccine Lab.” And Michael Dockry BS’94, PhD’12, professor of forestry at the University of Minnesota and member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation, was featured in the episode “Beyond the Land-Grab University.”
Dockry, who has been a guest on other podcasts, didn’t hesitate to accept the Collegeland invite. He says the medium offers a chance to connect with an audience that might not make it to campus for a lecture, which suits his goal of sharing the importance of tribal natural resources, sovereignty, and perspectives. He also sees Collegeland as an effective way to cut through the politicization of higher education.
“It gets down to the real stories and the real impact that universities have, and I think, as a society, we’ve somewhat lost the understanding of how important these universities are,” Dockry says. “There is a lot that needs to be changed with universities, and we’re working through that, but hearing individual stories of transformation, of resilience, of change, of inspiration for overcoming obstacles — these are things that are happening every single day in universities, and we don’t always hear about it.”
Every conversation renews Enstad’s own commitment to higher ed. “What I love about it is it’s already transformed my sense of what a university is and what a university can be,” she says. “There are people out there doing amazing work.”
Beyond the interviews, Enstad and Levenstein bring their own experiences and viewpoints into the podcast, commenting on issues such as COVID-19 vaccine requirements and the challenges of teaching on Zoom.
Ready to binge-listen? Find Collegeland, Deeper Than Data with Ben Rush, and the Badger Talks Podcast online or on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and other streaming services.
The Collegeland team’s goal now is to expand the amount of time, resources, and publicity they invest in the podcast. To help, they hired two new professional producers: Craig Eley and Jade Iseri-Ramos. The first 10-episode season was paid for with a grant from Wisconsin Humanities, and North Carolina Humanities and the Holtz Center for Science and Technology Studies will fund several episodes on efforts to redress climate change. They’ve also explored other sponsorship options for season two, which launched earlier this fall.
The podcast continues to spark new connections. Parts of their episode on food insecurity on college campuses were incorporated into the FairShare CSA Coalition’s Routes to Roots self-guided farm tours, WORT-FM in Madison aired the episode featuring Dockry, and an episode titled “Every Campus a Refuge” about programs for immigrants prompted a connection between UW–Milwaukee and the University of North Carolina. Enstad hopes to continue to grow partnerships and Collegeland’s reach — and ultimately persuade the public that universities are worthy of investment.
“We need to act now to save higher education,” she says. “The time is now. The threats are serious, and we’ve lost so much already. We need to change course. The biggest challenge is trying to figure out how to carry that in the podcast in an entertaining and graceful and engaging way.
“We don’t just want to write a manifesto. We want a creative space for questions and discussion. How do we make this a conversation that you might have in a department or over a beer? How do we make an art form that welcomes more people and that becomes, as good art and intellectual work does, a place to discover new possibilities?”
The conversation continues in season two.This article was posted in Fall 2021, Features and tagged Amaya Atucha, Badger Talks, Ben Rush, Collegeland, Community and Environmental Sociology, Deeper than Data, Judith Simcox, Karthik Anantharaman, Laura Hernandez, Life Sciences Communication, Malia Jones, Michael Dockry, Nan Enstad, nutritional sciences, podcast.