July 19th, 2019

Making Radio: Using Audio for Student Assignments

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Students use radio equipment for hands-on assignments

Elvis (the other  one … Costello) was right, “Radio, it’s a sound salvation. Radio, it’s cleaning up the nation.” Radio didn’t die, it was just sleeping. Podcasting and ubiquitous audio tools have brought radio back to life and into the classroom in a new and powerful way.

For a number of years I’ve been using radio—live broadcasting as well as podcasting—in undergraduate classes; not radio as an information resource but radio (audio) creation as an assignment. Making radio instead of making essays or making presentations provides students with a unique set of challenges that foster critical thinking and creative construction. 

When I am asked, “Why radio?” the question usually means, “Why not video?”   The assumption is that video would be more powerful than the restricted nature of audio and more familiar to the students. Perhaps, but sometimes less is more. Kate Lacey (University of Sussex) contrasts video with writing, observing that “we are used to dealing with media forms that are not full of sensory plenitude” and suggests that the power of audio lies in its constraints. Additionally Lacey highlights the difference between “hearing” and “listening” where the latter is a critical activity and decoding process similar to that of close reading. In other words, making radio encompasses the rigorous methods necessary to effectively engage students in thinking. 

I teach in a First Year Seminar program where students come from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds. These are not media studies courses. The objective is not to make my students audio experts but to introduce them to a new way of conceptualizing and communicating the ideas they are researching. By having them use a different tool for their assignment (i.e. not an essay or class presentation), the students tend to be more engaged and reflective about the research and creative process.

In one course about the history and nature of the book, student groups appeared on “live radio” to be interviewed by the host about the book they were investigating. The interview was not scripted so the students had to be prepared to respond, in real-time, to the probing and questioning of the host. I worked with the host prior to the interviews to review possible questions and lines of discussion. As a result the students had to be ready for a variety of questions and be able to explain themselves in clear, concise, and accessible ways.

In other cases I’ve used podcasts as a means for students to explore ideas relevant to the course. In an extreme case—and one that was highly successful—students created one minute podcasts about an aspect of book culture. The sixty second constraint reinforced the need for careful research, clear and creative scripting, effective storytelling, and strong production values. Like an “audio haiku” these podcasts were difficult challenges despite their apparent simplicity.

In most cases the students create at least two podcasts during the semester. The first are typically not well done. Students write scripts that sound like academic papers and produce podcasts that are aurally flat. Those initial experiences allow us to talk in more depth about the components of good radio and good academic work. Their second attempts are always substantially improved.

While you need look no further than your smartphone for the necessary tools to make good radio (e.g. audio capture, editing, and even distribution), there is another more traditional resource that is well worth getting to know: your local community radio station. These non-profit broadcasters are likely located conveniently on your campus and staffed by eager folks ready to help you and your students.  They can and provide access to excellent studio facilities—my iPhone’s audio capabilities may be good, but it pales in comparison to a good studio.

I was a neophyte when I first decided to use radio in my classes; I still think of myself as beginner. As a result the students and I are co-learners in using radio. For the students to see me as part of their learning experience added an important element to the courses. We learned, failed, reflected, and tried again together. We modeled a learning community where the roles of learner and teacher were fluid. Ultimately, this may have been the most profound outcome of the courses.

Making radio is a powerful learning approach that is easily adopted and adapted for diverse subjects and class environments. So as Elvis says, “You better do as you are told. You better listen to the radio.”

This article first appeared in The Teaching Professor in September 2016. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.