Arts & Culture

More than entertainment, Duke is embracing podcast medium to tackle issues and tell university stories

John Biewen, the host of the Scene on Radio podcast, adjusts his headphones as he edits the latest episode in his office at Center for Documentary Studies at Duke in Durham on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2017.
John Biewen, the host of the Scene on Radio podcast, adjusts his headphones as he edits the latest episode in his office at Center for Documentary Studies at Duke in Durham on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2017.

As the 21st century’s first new mass media format, the podcast has become very popular, very quickly.

Last year, more than 98 million Americans tuned into one or more podcasts, according to a survey from Edison Research. Sometimes referred to as the Netflix of Radio, podcasts provide on-demand programming on any subject you might be into, from pop culture to science to politics and everything in between. The online service iTunes now lists upward of 300,000 active podcast series worldwide.

With so many podcasts out there, Triangle podcast fans may be happy to know a number of good series are produced locally, many of them at Duke University in Durham.

Scene on Radio,” a biweekly podcast produced out of Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies (CDS), is among the most ambitious and compelling series currently on the podcast dial.

Created by public radio veteran and CDS instructor John Biewen, “Scene” is dedicated to the concept of taking the podcast format out of the studio – whether they’re audio episodes or video series – into the world. The show features in-depth coverage of complex social issues with the kind of investigative reporting that you usually find in big media operations like The New York Times or NPR.

“The name is meant to evoke the idea that we’re out there in the world with a microphone,” Biewen said. “The tagline we’ve used is – it’s a show that asks ‘How it’s going out there?’ and leaves the studio to find out.”

For all practical purposes, the university has entered the media production business. In recent years, Duke has launched a number of other podcasts, ranging from sports (“Duke Basketball Report”) to politics (“Glad You Asked”) and public policy (“Ways & Means”) to the intersection of economics and natural science (“Arming the Donkeys,” from bestselling author and Duke professor Dan Ariely).

The Center for Documentary Studies recruited Biewen, a respected journalist and public radio producer, with the express purpose of creating podcasts and public radio documentaries that would bust out of the world of academia and into the fast-moving currents of modern digital media.

By hiring faculty like Biewen and promoting podcasts coming from CDS and other departments, Duke is essentially expanding its mission as an educational institution.

The university is ahead of the curve in this regard, said Carol Jackson, digital communication strategist with Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

“I haven’t found a ton of other people that are doing this kind of thing at the university level,” Jackson said.

Eddie Wise, far left, is photographed by John Biewen, the audio program director at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, while Biewan works on a story about a North Carolina farm couple being evicted from their farm in 2016 which was the subject of a recent episode on the podcast, Scene on Radio. John Biewen

A labor of love

Biewen, sitting behind a bank of video monitors and audio consoles in his office at CDS, isn’t your typical professor. Before coming to Duke in 2006, he spent 20 years with marquee outfits like NPR, APM Reports and Minnesota Public Radio.

Since coming to Duke, Biewen’s work for CDS has aired on programs including NPR’s “All Things Considered,” “This American Life,” Studio 360 and the BBC World Service.

The “Scene” podcast is very much a labor of love for Biewen, who recently concluded a 14-part series called “Seeing White,” which takes a deep dive into America’s troubled history of race relations.

“It’s been my obsession for the last year or so,” Biewen said.

Each episode, ranging in length from 20 to 40 minutes, comes at the complex topic from a different vector, exploring adjacent issues like affirmative action and the scientific consensus on whether race really exists at all. In one particularly compelling episode, Biewen conducts original investigative reporting into systemic racism in the American farm industry.

 ‘Scene’ is fundamentally different than the kind of show most people think of when they hear the word podcast,” Biewen said.

“It’s a documentary series, first and foremost,” Biewen said. “The vast majority of podcasts are talk shows. It’s literally people sitting behind a microphone and talking.”

While much of the show’s reporting is done in the field, post-production and editing is done the traditional way, Biewen said.

Biewen cites the popular true crime podcast series “Criminal,” also produced in Durham, as a series with a similar style and spirit.

 ‘Criminal’ is another one that I would consider a documentary podcast,” he said. “It’s produced and reported and designed. We’re both coming out of this public radio documentary tradition.”

While “Scene” doesn’t have an overt topical theme, in the way that “Criminal” sticks to true crime, the podcast does have some general tendencies.

“There is an undercurrent – sometimes not so under – of social relevance,” Biewen said. “CDS has a mission statement that we care about society we live in, and want to explore areas of social justice.”

Growing podcasts

Jackson, with the Sanford School, is a public radio veteran herself. Before coming to the Sanford School in 2015, Jackson worked for North Carolina Public Radio for almost 10 years, serving as digital news editor and senior producer for the nationally distributed program, “The Story with Dick Gordon.”

Jackson is currently co-producing another ambitious Duke podcast, “Ways & Means,” dedicated to stories about “surprising successes and spectacular failures” in public policy at the level of neighborhoods, cities, states and countries.

The series is hosted by longtime public radio reporter Emily Hanford and features regular contributions from other Duke staffers, including independent producer (and former News & Observer staff writer) Alison Jones.

Like “Scene on Radio,” the “Ways & Means” podcast is a carefully crafted and professionally produced series that serves to advance the mission of the department – in this case, the Sanford School of Public Policy – and the university as a whole.

“There’s so much happening in the world, we can take what our faculty members are working on and connect that to what’s happening in the news,” Jackson said.

Each episode of the series takes four to six weeks to produce and edit, Jackson said. Recent episodes delve into America’s sugar addiction, the crisis of political gerrymandering, and an intriguing report titled “Flimflams, Scams and Ripoffs.”

“We try to take the research we do that we think has the largest general appeal,” she said. “We’re aiming for the same audience that might go to TED talks – people who want to make the world a better place.”

Jackson is part of a group at Duke that produces or promotes a list of other podcasts from faculty and students. For example, the Sanford School puts out the interview program “Policy 360,” hosted by Sanford School dean Kelly Brownell.

The group also is working to promote student-run podcasts like the “Me Too Monologues.” Based on an annual theatrical event, “Me Too” is a storytelling series that features faculty and students reading essays penned anonymously by other members of the Duke community. A monologue might feature a white male graduate student reading a piece authored by black female faculty member, or visiting scholar, or janitor.

“It’s kind of like ‘The Moth,’ ” Jackson said, referring to the popular storytelling series syndicated on public radio stations worldwide. “The live performances are always packed, and they had the great idea to turn it into a podcast.”

Freedom of format

Biewen said his experience so far with “Scene on Radio” – especially the “Seeing White” series – has been among the most rewarding of his career. Listeners are responding, too. The audience for the podcast has been growing rapidly, Biewen says, primarily driven by word-of-mouth and social media.

“There’s a thing happening with this series,” he said. “People are posting on social media to the effect that everybody needs to listen to this – that it’s required listening, considering what’s going on in our country right now. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done that’s gotten a response at this level.”

Biewen said he plans to eventually edit the 14-part “Seeing White” series into a more radio-friendly length, but for now he’s enjoying the editorial freedom and surprising reach of the podcast format.

“There seems to be a hunger to explore the depths of our race problem in a new way,” Biewen said. “People seem to be really responding to the series. It’s genuinely surprising and gratifying.”

Glenn McDonald is a Chapel Hill-based freelance writer.

How to listen to podcasts

Finding and playing podcasts is a lot easier than it used to be, thanks to a concerted effort by the tech industry to make the process friendlier for new listeners.

The best way to find a particular podcast is to just open the podcast app on your smartphone, tablet or other device. Type the name of the podcast you want, then do what you’re told from there. Podcast players have a lot of options now – you can download new episodes automatically or live stream individual programs – and it’s worth taking five minutes up front to figure it all out.

On a laptop or PC, you can search for the podcast title through your web browser and follow instructions from there. Many of the more ambitious podcasts feature supplementary online materials – images or episode recaps, say – and they’ll usually be archived on a website that’s easy enough to find with a quick search. Search for “Scene on Radio,” for instance, and you’ll be shuttled to the podcast homepage at

Keep in mind that some podcasts are produced intermittently and go on hiatus from time to time, but you can always dig through the archives.

▪ Scene on Radio:

▪ Ways & Means:

▪ Policy 360:

▪ Me Too Monologues:

▪ Duke Basketball Report:

▪ Glad You Asked:

▪ Arming the Donkeys: