At the 29th annual Baird Journalism dinner on April 7, Carolyn McCusker ’17 spoke to students and faculty about her internship experiences as a podcast creator. A senior at Amherst College, McCusker actively pursued opportunities with several organizations including Connecticut Public Radio, NewsHour EXTRA, lead audio producer for The Amherst Student, news assistant, and long-form narrative podcast intern for Invisibilia, Embedded and Rough Translation at NPR, and most recently an intern at WNYC's Radiolab.
Editor-in-chief of the KO News, Emma Levinbook ’22 introduced McCusker and shared the explosive interest in podcasts over the years. In 2006, only 22% of the population were aware of podcasts compared to 78% today. Currently, Levinbook said there are over 850,000 available podcasts. Levinbook explained that McCusker’s interest in podcasts started while she was a student at KO, and she took a Global Online Academy (GOA) course in creative non-fiction. In her final project for the course, she created a podcast about what it means to be a bystander. While at Amherst, she took more courses in podcasts, and for her English thesis project she took an unconventional approach, a hybrid piece using personal experience and research to explore the way we tell stories about illness in a lengthy podcast episode.
McCusker shared three pieces of advice that she wished she knew when she was a high school student. “You're in high school, about to graduate high school this is the perfect time to become a full human being and develop your interests outside of your career and professional goals,” she said. “The best journalists are people who have important things in their life outside of their identity as a journalist.” McCusker ardently believes that having non-journalistic passions develops a more interesting and innovative journalist. For instance, in the summer after graduation from high school, she worked on a crisis hotline, and although the experience was not career-related it became an intrinsic part of her life. Many of the people she has met in her career have not majored in journalism but in architecture, geology, or poetry which impacts how these individuals approach journalism.
One of her favorite podcasts, Have You Heard George’s Podcast by the spoken word performer, rapper, and artist George the Poet employs this approach of blending different genres and interests. In the clip McCusker played for the audience, George talks about real issues in a conversation with a fictionalized, poetic version of the country of Uganda. “He is able to marry journalistic commentary with his skill set as a poet to convey the information,” she said. “I believe this is where the future of podcasts is headed - people innovating by borrowing from other disciplines and bringing it to their work as journalists.”
Her second piece of advice was not to be discouraged if faced with rejection from a job. She said that you need to give yourself time to be sad and understand why you’re disappointed, but then pursue other avenues where you can gain those same skills, perhaps at a smaller, more localized market like a local NPR station.
Lastly, McCusker told the students to embrace their passion projects and don’t wait to work on the things they want to do. “You don’t need approval from a job or class to start making something you like to listen to. Just start making it,” she said. She shared that while she was pursuing a job opportunity she sent a sample of a project she was working on involving data sonification, taking data and turning it into sounds. Although she admitted that the sample was “janky,” the interviewers were impressed with her idea. “It doesn’t even have to be good when you’re starting out,” she said. “It’s just the fact that you’re trying. Nurture your life passion. Don’t wait for permission to make what you want to make.”