Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

June 9, 2016

Podcasting at PITT



Podcasting is at its peak today, with “Serial”’s deep dive into a true-crime story gaining millions of ears and Marc Maron’s long-form conversation podcast “WTF” attracting President Barack Obama as a guest last year.

Pitt faculty and staff have been podcasting since the form debuted a decade ago, and through the years have created such offerings as a diabetes management podcast from the School of Pharmacy and a podcast with the latest developments from the Department of Critical Care Medicine.

Pitt students also have been producing podcasts, with and without faculty advice, including a podcast called “In Brackets” ( from the editors of the literary magazine Hot Metal Bridge and the upcoming “Investigation Nutrition” podcast ( from James Bock, a grad student in the School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, whose podcast will weigh the value, from a dietitian’s perspective, of the latest dietary science and popular fads. Pitt also has a partnership with the “Longform” journalism interview podcast; MFA students in the creative nonfiction track are interns for “Longform” every semester.

At base, audio podcasts are on-demand radio, and many public radio shows also have a podcast version, which can be downloaded onto MP3 players or heard on smartphones and computers via a website link.

At best, podcasts extend far beyond radio’s constraints, spending more time with their subjects and showcasing a broader range of people and ideas for niche listeners.

A December 2015 study of podcasts by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism of the Columbia Journalism School found that “consumers are generally listening alone, from beginning to end, and engaging intimately with the material.” Perhaps that’s because podcasts seem to put a voice in your ear: When done well, podcasts seem to be talking directly to you.

Pitt faculty and staff are bringing their expertise — their research and teaching, and their special events, plus the experience of visiting lecturers — to a world audience through a variety of podcasts, many of which are available on iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud or other podcasting outlets, and via Pitt websites. Some are monthly, while others average only once a year. All show a different side of Pitt, and make unique connections with listeners.


John Murphy

John Murphy

John N. Murphy, executive director of the McGowan Institute for Regenerative Medicine, tells the story of an institute colleague who was visiting a friend in Florida and got into the friend’s car. “You ought to listen to this podcast,” said the Florida man as he popped a CD into the car’s player. Apparently, this man had not only been downloading his podcasts, but burning them onto CDs so he could listen during his commute.
It was the monthly “Regenerative Medicine Today” podcast ( from the McGowan Institute, perhaps Pitt’s oldest continuous podcast.

“It’s a more personal form of communication,” Murphy says of the show, which averages 2,000 downloads a month. “It’s one thing to read a blog; it’s another thing to hear the excitement of a researcher or clinician or patient who has been treated through regenerative medicine” — a medical strategy that focuses on replacing trauma- or disease-damaged organs rather than merely treating symptoms.

“We’ve actually found collaborators through the podcast,” Murphy says — researchers and clinicians who have asked to work with McGowan faculty to further projects in their field.

The McGowan podcast most recently featured faculty from across the country discussing skeletal muscle repair research, a new analysis of sepsis and inflammation, the latest endovascular devices and other topics. Twenty of the Pitt regenerative medicine podcasts currently are available; Murphy hopes to repost all 158 soon.

David Harris

David Harris


Perhaps the newest podcast from Pitt, which launched on March 29 and has posted eight full episodes, is “Criminal (In)Justice” ( by law faculty member David A. Harris, produced in the studios of local National Public Radio (NPR) station WESA.

Each week Harris sits down with a national expert; he tells listeners he is “your personal explainer of the sprawling mess we call our criminal justice system.” Already he has tackled consent decrees, body cameras, implicit bias and many other topics in the news since Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson, Missouri, police.

Harris says he is going deeper into the discussion of race and policing than usually is done “to show real important nuances that people usually don’t get to hear about.

“It’s a well-informed but informal conversation,” he adds. “It’s the kind of thing you would have over coffee or a beer. It’s not a lecture. It’s not a class. You’re not going to hear a lot of jargon.” And you don’t need a law degree to appreciate the discussion, he emphasizes.

Thus far, he says, doing his podcast has “brought out some human stories that people don’t usually get to hear.” He may ask a broad question, then find his guest answering with a more intimate story of his or her own experience. “That was surprising and very moving. I hadn’t asked for it. I hadn’t even known it was there.

“When you’re talking to people in that one-on-one conversational experience, they do reveal things, because that’s what human beings do.”


Dan Kubis, assistant director of the Humanities Center since January, began a podcast for Pitt’s Year of the Humanities as part of his job: doing humanities-focused outreach to the Pitt community and beyond, aiming to show how the humanities relate to our lives.

“It started because I was doing interviews with guests who came through — initially for a film documentary” about the academic year, which has since been released ( “But the interviews seemed good by themselves.” These interviews, with humanities scholars but also musicians and authors, are meant to show the impact of the humanities beyond academic scholarship.

Even though the Year of the Humanities is wrapping up, the podcast, “Being Human” (, will continue once a month. Kubis is working with Pitt’s student radio station WPTS to set up a humanities media fellowship for undergraduates who will help use the podcast and other new media to further publicize the humanities’ impact.

Podcasting has been valuable particularly, he says, for the ease in which it allows him to include the work of some of the interviewees featured: the music of jazz trombonist George Lewis or audio recordings of specific performances that Shakespeare scholar Peter Holland discusses.

Plus, Kubis says, he always has formulated his interview questions to elicit answers ideal for audio: individuals telling personal stories. As he concludes: “It feels better to me to be doing only a podcast.”


Robert Keene

Robert Keene

Robert Keene, IT manager for the University Center for Social and Urban Research, had the idea for the “UCSUR Radio” podcast ( in 2010 — and became its de facto host. He began with an interview of Chris Briem, a regional economist with UCSUR, and often interviewed guest lecturers for the podcast before they delivered their public presentations.

“It was tough to keep the ball rolling in an interview/discussion format” as “UCSUR Radio” originally was produced, he says, so today he podcasts UCSUR’s brown bag lecture series, sponsored lectures such as those for UCSUR’s urban and regional analysis program and public meetings, including the center’s recent 40th anniversary celebration.

Keene says UCSUR Radio is downloaded by a small audience that is nonetheless passionate and very involved in the podcast’s subject, including local and regional politicians and policymakers.

Video podcasts require the attention of more than one sense and a still viewer, he says, while an audio podcast is simply an easier way to get content. “I personally find it easier to listen … you can do other things. You can wash your car and listen to a podcast. You can do minor office work and listen to a podcast.”


Elaine Vitone

Elaine Vitone

While that’s certainly a podcast advantage over print, Elaine Vitone hopes her Pitt Med magazine podcast, “Pitt Medcast” (, also will arrest listeners’ attention with great storytelling.

The print magazine was started by and is still staffed entirely by Pitt creative nonfiction MFA program graduates, so it aims to flesh out medicine’s complex ideas using stories, scenes and characters.

The podcast tries to do the same as a richly produced, multi-layered narrative documentary.

Before beginning the podcast, Vitone took a class at Pittsburgh Filmmakers on producing soundscapes for radio. “It took a while. There were a lot of technical bugs,” she allows. In fact, the very first podcast had to be re-recorded almost immediately, since the science had changed while the podcast was in production.

Although Vitone has produced only four podcasts since 2012, they have had a far reach. Two episodes, “Tinnitus” and “Itch,” have been picked up by NPR stations in Colorado and Virginia and may air in the future, while “Itch” has received national distribution through PRX Remix, which is curated by Roman Mars of the popular podcast “99% Invisible,” and thus may lead to other broadcasts. “Pitt Medcast” also has been part of the online streaming service of the National Science Foundation, Science360 Radio.

Vitone says she plans to step up the podcast’s frequency. The podcast may even be home to readings of past articles, something she compares to producing audio books.

“Some people even think podcasts are the future of radio,” she says, pointing to a Slate article in April that outlined NPR executives’ worries that podcasts are taking their radio audience away — in particular, younger listeners.

“It’s a way to reach a different audience,” she says of podcasting. As a mother of young children, Vitone says she has little time to relax and read, but can just push play on a podcast during her commute or while doing chores.

Besides, she says, “this is a place where long-form is thriving. People like to hear a voice keeping them company in the downtime. It lends itself to people lingering with the content, and that’s what we need in science writing.”

—Marty Levine 

Leave a Reply