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NYU Students Dive Into the World of Podcasting Journalism in New Course With Spotify

January 28, 2021

Photo credit: Jorge Corona / New York University

At New York University, most undergraduate students have their schedules planned semesters in advance, factoring in winter or summer courses well ahead of time. But when NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute announced a “Podcasting and Audio Storytelling” course in partnership with Spotify in late December, 200 applications suddenly flooded in for the brand-new January term course. 

There was a notable reason for interest: Podcast listening tripled between 2014 and 2019, with growth occurring especially among journalistic podcasts. Yet while podcasting has already altered journalism, the training of future reporters to formulate and produce podcasts remains relatively sparse—something that came up in conversation between Dawn Ostroff, Spotify’s Chief Content Officer, and Dr. Antonio Merlo, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Dean of the NYU Faculty of Arts and Science. 

“We were discussing how rapidly the podcasting industry has been growing and changing and how the demand for talent and job opportunities has been exploding, while at the same time the supply of students trained to work in this exciting industry was lagging behind,” Merlo explained to For the Record. “During that conversation, it became clear that the same spirit of innovation, entrepreneurship, and forward thinking that is at the core of Spotify is actually also very much a part of NYU’s DNA as a leading institution of higher education. And so the idea of a partnership between Spotify and NYU around podcasting presented an exciting opportunity for both sides.” 

Former WNYC reporter Audrey Quinn and reporter and host of the Vox podcast Go for Broke, Julia Furlan, took the helm of the course as professors, walking 15 students through the four-week intensive. Throughout the course, the students and professors were accompanied by guest lecturers from Spotify’s roster of influential podcasting professionals, including Dawn Ostroff, Global Head of Spotify Studios Courtney Holt, Gimlet cofounders Alex Blumberg and Matt Lieber, Gimlet Managing Director and former editor-in-chief of HuffPost Lydia Polgreen, and more. 

“This course brought together a phenomenal group of people who are absolute leaders in their areas of expertise,” said Merlo. “I believe that each of them really brings their unique insights and perspectives to essentially deliver what is the premise of the course, which is to address the central questions in podcasting: How do you develop an idea, analyze a market, and create a show? Once you have a good idea, how do you produce, sustain, and distribute it? What podcast formats and genres are thriving? How are they being monetized? On each day, with each guest, the students started to answer these questions.”

Merlo also made it very clear that while the course was housed in the Journalism Institute, it was open to—and representative of—a wide range of fields and majors within NYU. After all, questions around monetization, production, and sound design might also be attractive to engineers and business students. And although the course was limited to 15 students, they were selected through an application process that invited participants with a diverse range of majors, backgrounds, and podcasting interests.

To apply for the course, the students proposed podcast pilot pitches. They refined these over the length of the course, and in the final week, were aided by Spotify engineers to bring them to life as short introductions or teasers. These were then pitched to Spotify creative executives and the course’s professors for feedback. “Experiential learning is a very important component of a college education,” explained Merlo. “All of our courses should see students turning information into knowledge.”

“Given the enthusiastic response we received from the students, we certainly plan to offer multiple sessions in the future,” Merlo noted. The NYU-Spotify team is intent on delivering a small-group, individualized experience while also creating enough sessions to satisfy demand. Merlo anticipates adding three to five podcasting courses per year going forward, and hopes to be able to incorporate podcasting more broadly into the school’s offerings, including potentially creating a podcast certificate program for students at the undergraduate and master’s levels—and beyond.

Moving quickly to address a change in a news medium is not new for an institution like NYU. “Journalism actually has experienced as many changes during the past 25 years, I would say, as occurred in the 100 years following Gutenberg’s development of the movable type,” says Merlo. “So all the standard assumptions about journalism, like What counts as news? Who counts as a journalist? How does news circulate? all have been upended. I think it is important to say that journalism is incorporating podcasting, not as a method of production, but more as a journalistic form that can be incorporated differently to best fit every topic within journalism.”

As podcasting continues to impact creators and listeners worldwide, more and more fields are incorporating the medium—journalism being only one example. And though a course like “Podcasting and Audio Storytelling” is the first of its kind, it likely won’t the least. 

“There is this burden of what a degree is, what education means,” said Merlo, “and just being able to free ourselves from those very rigid barriers and really look forward to a more dynamic, creative way of engaging students around emerging opportunities to create something—that makes me extremely excited.”