Music at Pitt podcast about more than just tunes

Man speaking into microphone


You might think a podcast called Music at Pitt would be all tunes, all the time, but host Philip Thompson says there is a lot to talk about in the Department of Music.

Thompson, the department’s concerts and communications coordinator, started the podcast last fall as a way to preview upcoming musical performances at Pitt, targeting a younger audience that is abandoning Facebook for other social media. But he has found that the intimacy of a podcast — the connections created by a solitary voice in your ear — works extremely well for exploring faculty and student research and other projects.

The latest Music at Pitt installments cover connections one Ph.D. student has found between music and activism, and another Ph.D. student’s research about 1970s funk legend Betty Davis, as well as a professor’s new courses examining “Prison Sounds.”

Woman speaking into microphoneUpcoming episodes will focus on Pitt’s Gamelan Ensemble, which performs this Indonesian musical form on traditional instruments, and the music-theory research of a doctoral candidate (teamed with a  Duquesne University professor) on how the natural voltage produced by plants can drive synthesizers and other computer music modules to produce a kind of music.

The exploding podcast scene, says Thompson, “is part of the social media landscape but has a lot more depth and detail” than tiny posts on Twitter or a solitary Instagram photo. “Hearing a voice is much more engaging than just reading posts — you have that sense of another person’s presence that is missing a lot of the time” from other social-media outlets.

Music at Pitt still features concert and CD release previews, but it is also the spot to bring alive the latest paper or book published by faculty and students.

Each one, released every couple of weeks, is recorded right in Thompson’s office. Two “fairly cheap mikes,” he says, are the main equipment, clad in shock mounts to prevent floor vibrations from seeping into the recoding, and fronted by pop screens to keep those pesky plosive P’s off the air.

“There’s been such an explosion in home recording, you can get professional-sounding equipment for not a lot of money,” he says. Pitt’s media creation lab in the University Center for Teaching and Learning is also set up as a podcasting studio for those who wish to try out the medium, he adds.

He tries not to over-research his interview subjects beforehand, so that the talk flows more naturally, as top podcaster Marc Maron has described in his approach to his 1,000-plus episodes of WTF. Thompson’s model is more old-school: “My approach in preparing is the (journalist) Bill Moyers’ approach of ‘learning in public.’ I try to come up with three or four questions ahead of time and the conversation goes from there.” He finds some of the most interesting moments come at the end, when he thinks he’s done — and the interview subject thinks of one more thing that must be said.

“The thing that’s been fun for me is the opportunity to have more detailed, more in-depth conversations with people in the music department than when we run into each other,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed getting a broader picture of what our faculty and students are doing.”

Marty Levine is a staff writer for the University Times. Reach him at or 412-758-4859.


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