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The fantasy of many 20-somethings, and all marketers, is to create a video that goes viral on YouTube. Pick a subject - cats, exploding milk cartons, a bad hair day. If it gets thousands of views, it's considered a success.

In this environment of easy visual gimmicks, Dr. John McArthur believes students need to focus first on the basic elements of storytelling. Last semester, he created a seminar in audio podcasting for students in the Knight School of Communication.  Beyond developing the skills to create a broadcast product, he says the deeper lesson for students is in their realization that carefully researched documents don't necessarily have to be in written form.

"I come from a school of thought that believes that by isolating one mode of communication - in this case aural - we can pay very close attention to the writing, the narrative arc, and design principles," McArthur says. In addition, podcasting requires little equipment other than a computer or smartphone to do the recording, free audio editing software, and a free online service to upload and share audio.

In the seminar, students produced podcasts on subjects that included on-campus graffiti (or the absence of it), the legendary campus Diana fountain, study abroad, and speed bumps. The audio style of the student podcasts resembles the stories of NPR, with extended interviews, music in the background, and careful details - down to the sound of people breathing, or a card swiping through the access reader of a door.

McArthur believes details like these are important in storytelling, because they strengthen the emotional interest. They provide color for what he describes as the "evidence" needed to tell a story, including narration, interviews and research. Students are amazed at how much time these details require.

"One little detail might make all the difference for the way an audience understands a podcast," says McArthur. "The spacing of words, the sound of a laugh - those little details can really change the meaning."

Microphone photograph by Sergio Alvarez

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