Our Mentor Text series spotlights writing from The Times that students can learn from and emulate.
This entry offers support to middle and high school students who are participating in our Fourth Annual Student Podcast Contest. Students are asked to create a five-minute podcast in any form or genre, or to select a thoughtful five-minute excerpt from a longer podcast.
We also invite you to watch our on-demand webinar on Writing for Podcasts.
There is no better way to understand what makes a successful submission to one of our contests than to study the work of the previous winners. And even if your students aren’t planning to send their final compositions to our competition, showing them the successful moves kids their own age have made can encourage them to experiment themselves.
What can you learn from the way one teenager interviews members of her family who have been incarcerated? From how another marks the transitions between the beginning, middle and end of his podcast about a famous April Fool’s hoax? From the way two young women have a seemingly unscripted conversation about “Their Eyes Were Watching God” on their podcast about black writers?
We hope you’ll find many ideas here to borrow and adapt for your own work, and we hope you’ll submit it to our Fourth Annual Student Podcast Contest when you’re finished.
Step I: Choose a Topic
First, make a list. What are your favorite podcasts? Do you love them because they explore a topic you’re passionate about, because you’re interested in the hosts or guests, or for some other reason?
Then, categorize your list by topic and style. Would you describe the formats of the podcasts you enjoy most as chiefly news reporting, or are they better described as interviews, conversations or storytelling?
Looking at your list, do you notice any trends? Do certain themes or topics come up often? Are there topics you wish you could find a great podcast on, but haven’t yet?
Your next task is to make as long a list of ideas for your own podcast as you can. Put down anything you think might be fun to investigate, discuss, describe or bring to life, and when you’ve run out of ideas, use these questions to add more:
When you hang out with friends, what are things you like to talk about? Do your friends think of you as an “expert” on particular issues or topics? Which? Why?
What are your favorite types of entertainment? What TV shows, movies, books, music, museums and sports do you like best?
What hobbies or skills do you have? What do you know a lot about, no matter how small, that others don’t?
What are some topics you think it might be fun to learn more about?
What issues are you passionate about, in your community or in the world?
Since we’re all trapped at home right now, what in your immediate surroundings might spark an idea? Is there a family member you could interview, a neighborhood problem you could investigate or a personal story you could tell?
Take a look at our categorized list of “Over 1,000 Writing Prompts for Students.” Many podcasts we’ve received in the past — including some that have won — have gotten their start when students answered one of these questions. What new ideas do they inspire in you?
Finally, take inspiration from our previous winners and the breadth of topics they’ve covered.
One thing to notice: All of these podcasters chose a topic that could be adequately covered in the five minutes we allow. Though some take on big issues like climate change, sexism or gun control, they’ve grounded their pieces in a small, local or personal aspect of the issue that they can thoroughly explore in a short amount of time.
Have a listen:
Aliyah Musaliar and Maya Konz narrowed the focus of their podcast to a gun-violence protest in their community, and more specifically, to the lead organizer, who has had to overcome her own issues in order to lead.
Kaia Janmohamed used cultural references and quotes from reporters, politicians and activists, but she narrowed her exploration of sexism to experiences at her own school.
This podcast is by Quinn Page and Bailey Osborne, a romantic couple, but they speak separately, each explaining how they see their current relationship, and relationships in general.
Molly Cleary used facts, statistics and interviews with peers, but then shared her personal connection to the dangers of not wearing a seatbelt.
This podcast is personal: Cece Benz shows the listener how anxiety affects the experience of a typical day of high school.
Harrison Larner talks about the significance — to him and to others — of a famous April Fool’s hoax.
Alina Kulman narrates the story of a battle over gun rights in a small Rhode Island town, using audio from a contentious town meeting as well as interviews with a variety of stakeholders.
Trinity Edwards, 15, tells the story of her own pregnancy, delivery and postpartum depression.
Which of these is most like something on your list — either in terms of topic or technique? Why?
Step II: Decide on a Format
As you’ve already observed, podcasts can be a conversation or a solo-cast monologue. They can feature an in-depth interview with just one person, or weave together several shorter interviews with experts who have different takes on a topic. They can be audio investigations that showcase reporting, or radio theater featuring multiple characters and a compelling plot. Or, they can be crossovers that mix and experiment with several of these styles.
Before going further, have a listen to a few ways our winning students have made these formats come to life. As you go, ask yourself: What do I notice or admire about this podcast? What lessons might it have for my work?
Solo-cast: “When I’m Older” by Abby Overstrom
Long-Form Interview: “How My 90-Year-Old Neighbor, a Holocaust Survivor, Sees America Today” by Lila Shroff
Informational Reporting: “Juuling in My School” by Lukasz Paul and Krystian Psujek
Conversation: “Black Ink” by Kaela Wilkinson and Jalen Lewis
Podcast Theater: “Alexa, the Start of the Robot Revolution” by Silas Bartol and Mila Barnes-Bukher
Then ask yourself …
Which format, or formats, might be most effective for my podcast? Why?
What are the strengths of this format?
What might be weakness or challenges, if any?
Step III: Research the Subject
Now that you have a topic and format, you’ll need to research to learn more — whether getting a firm grasp on the background information you’ll need, figuring out whom to interview, or deciding what questions to ask.
For instance, to make “Ram’s Evolution,” about Paul McCartney’s second album, Tomer Keysar had to know a lot about not only the artist himself and his history with the Beatles, but also about music history and journalism.
To make “Period Poverty,” Genevieve Schweitzer had to educate herself on the issue in general, as it appears nationally and internationally, but she also had to find out how the problem presents in her own local area.
And for “August 2 Stories,” Emma Melling needed to understand the local history around a 2017 gas explosion that killed two people at the Minnehaha Academy so that her interview could fit well into a larger narrative about the incident.
Now you’re going to listen closely to two podcasts and make a list to answer this question as you go: What research and preparation do you think the podcasters had to do in advance to speak knowledgeably about the subject and conduct the interviews?
“With the Opioid Crisis, Don’t Stop at Narcan” by Kristina Vakhman
“My Incarcerated Family” by Samantha Zazueta
Finally, consider your own next steps. Do you need to set up any interviews? Is there something you should read or watch related to your subject? What have other people written or said about it? What background information will listeners need in order to understand the context, and how can you convey that?
Step IV: Create a Storyboard or Outline
Our contest rubric stresses the need for a clear beginning, middle and end that together create a “complete listening experience" regardless of format. Below, we focus on how three student podcasts handle these sections, and the transitions between them.
As you listen, think about how sound can be used to mark beginnings, middles and ends. And, as always, consider what compositional strategies you might borrow from these students for your own work.
Beginnings: A successful podcast engages the listener right from the start, and there are many ways to do that. Listen to the openings of these three podcasts paying attention to the topic: How do they introduce the focus? When, exactly, do you know what the podcast is going to be about?
00:00 to 00:45 — “The Ides of March: An Uprising to Save the Earth” by Madeleine Klass
00:00 to 1:11 — “The Best Pitcher That Never Was” by Harrison Larner
00:00 to 00:45 — “Depression Memes and Me: Why I Stopped Looking at Depression Memes” by Zuheera Ali
Middles: The middle of your podcast should build on themes and ideas that were introduced in the beginning, but take the listener deeper. Listen to the following excerpts and ask yourself how the middle keeps your attention, and furthers what was introduced in the first minute or so.
1:20 to 2:20 — “The Ides of March: An Uprising to Save the Earth”
1:30 to 3:28 — “The Best Pitcher That Never Was”
1:30 to 2:40 — “Depression Memes and Me: Why I Stopped Looking at Depression Memes”
Endings: Like the ending of any artistic piece, a podcast’s final minutes should provide satisfaction and closure — and can often either challenge you or leave you thinking. Go to the minute mark listed below and listen through to the end, noting how each piece does that. Again, what ideas can you borrow for your own work?
3:30 — “The Best Pitcher That Never Was”
Finally, it might help at this point to fill out your own podcast planning form (PDF). It begins with a focus question or idea that can help structure your work; guides you through thinking about narration, storytelling, sound and interviewing; and leaves you at the stage where you can construct an outline.
Step V: Write the Script
At this point you have a proposed outline for what your podcast will sound like, from start to finish. Now you just need to fill in the details.
For Podcasts With Interviews: Your main challenge is figuring out what questions you will ask. Listen to “How My 90-Year-Old Neighbor, a Holocaust Survivor, Sees America Today,” by Lila Shroff, and reflect:
What do you notice about how the interview begins?
How does Lila use her voice and narration to guide the listener through her neighbor’s story?
What other techniques and stylistic elements does Lila use to enhance the story?
One technique that can be effective is to invite the interviewee to do something, as Lila does in her podcast. Listen to two more examples for additional ideas about how this might work, and notice how asking the interviewees to do a particular thing can open up or guide the conversation:
“Steel City Academy Podcast” by Erin Addison, Evan Addison and Andrew Arevalo
“Depression Memes and Me: Why I Stopped Looking at Depression Memes” by Zuheera Ali
Whom will you interview? What will you ask? And is there something specific you might ask them to do as you talk?
For Podcasts With Stories or Narration: If you are performing or reading a story, narrative or essay, you will, of course, need to write the piece first. And if you are using narration to introduce interviews or other sound elements, you may need to script that as well.
Listen to Cece Benz’s first-person narrative podcast, “A Day in the Life of an Anxious High Schooler.” It begins:
[Alarm clock beeping.]
No. It’s 7 already? I just went to bed. I can’t do this again. I just need to turn my mind off. Is there like an off switch or something? Cause I’d love to find it.
Great, just great. I am suddenly attacked by dog kisses. This is bad. This is really bad. There are thousands of tiny bacteria entering my pores and infecting me and I’m going to slowly die. So, I guess today is the day. See ya! Actually, no.
What do you notice about Cece’s podcast? What do you think was effective? What writing do you think she had to do in advance?
For Podcasts With Conversations: You may want your podcast to sound like you’re having an off-the-cuff or improvised conversation. That’s great, and you may be able to improvise while recording. But it is often helpful to draft a script outline or sketch, if not the complete script, before recording.
Listen to “Black Ink,” a conversation podcast by Kaela Wilkinson and Jalen Lewis. Here’s a partial transcript of how it begins:
Hi, and welcome back to “Black Ink,” the podcast where we talk about notable books by black authors.
I’m your host Jalen.
And I’m Kaela.
And this week we’re going to be reviewing “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale-Hurston. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of you have read this book because it’s definitely somewhat of a classic.
Right. So we’re going to be doing a brief recap of the book, but mostly we want to focus on some of the themes and social commentary that Hurston included because even though she wrote it in the 1930s it’s definitely still relevant.
Reflect on how they conduct this conversation. In your opinion, what elements are effective? What pre-writing do you think they did? What aspects are probably unscripted, but still important?
Finally, invite students to study some of the transcripts from popular Times podcasts. What can they discover by looking at transcripts from “The Daily,” “Still Processing” and “Modern Love”? For instance, how do these podcasts vary the voices of the different speakers with music, sound effects and archival material? How is that rhythm different in a news show like “The Daily” and a pop-culture conversation like “Still Processing”? How does the variety and rhythm affect the listening experience?
Additional Steps: Recording, Editing and Publishing
What happens next?
Well, here’s where our how-to lesson plan comes in. It can guide you on the art and science of choosing a recording device, finding royalty-free music and sound effects, using editing software, and getting your polished work out into the world. We hope you’ll submit to our contest, which runs through May 19 this year.