The Slavic Connexion

Why I even got into podcasting is a mystery, but I am in it and fully committed. The Slavic Connexion is the first show I had the opportunity to create for the Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. And it wouldn’t have been possible without my partner in crime on this one, Thomas Rehnquist whom, if you’re at all familiar with the show, is one of the recognizable main hosts and definitely the biggest proponent of the podcast before we even had any idea if this thing would find footing much less success. The second person I owe a lot to in the early phase is another host Matthew Orr. He was a bit more skeptical, cautiously optimistic let’s say, but after the first few episodes were recorded, things started warming up. Tom is one of those natural witty conversation-generators and Matt is a smart but sincere character who can’t fake interest in a topic. So thinking they might make a good pairing, we started what we semi-privately term the Tom & Matt Show or Matt & Tom (we’ve never decided one way or another). This was the stalwart duo I could most rely upon to push out episodes even under the gun of grad school deadlines. In addition, we had two spectacular ladies on the team, Lauren and Milena, whom no one would have pegged for undergraduates. And though their schedules were even less forgiving than Matt and Tom’s these girls gave the show their all. The foursome made a great team for the first season, and while the workload was incredibly high, the benefits were worth it, with even notable guests such as NYU’s Dr. Joshua Tucker of Washington Post’s The Monkey Cage shocked with the fact that this was a 100% student production.

I would be remiss without mentioning one of the members of that early team who was not a student or connected to the university except through me. Charlie Harper, a local musician and music producer, was kind enough to loan me his time and talents and composed the show’s theme song and most of the music used in each episode. This was such a big addition to the final product which added incredible production value and helped us to rapidly acquire, keep, and grow an audience.

At first, we tentatively reached out to professors and asked oh so politely if they wouldn’t like to be on a new Slavic and Eurasian-themed podcast. We really didn’t expect people to say yes–especially not when they had PhDs attached to their names. But lo and behold, we were never turned down or ignored. Not once. And after the first ten professors who willingly agreed to come to our “studio” (figuratively dubbed the Fusion Room, or Fusion Chamber, however you prefer to think of it), we grew a lot bolder, and anyone and everyone on campus or visiting the university as a guest speaker/lecturer became fair game. And as our confidence grew so did our audience — we have listeners in over 70 countries and counting!

Professor Marina Alexandrova talking with Matt in our studio

Q&A With the Producer (June 5th, 2020)

By Kathryn Yegorov-Crate

Our show was conceived by graduate students and continues to be operated by graduate and undergraduate students. What is the importance of it being student-created and student-led? 

The entire goal originally of the podcast was to connect with youth in Slavic countries and elsewhere. This need to reach out and provide some sort of evidence that Americans cared about the plight of youth in Ukraine, Russia, etc. originally came to me during the study of youth civic engagement in Ukraine in which I participated during the presidential election cycle that eventually led to Zelensky’s overwhelming victory. Speaking with youth in Ukraine via Skype made me realize that they were starved for such connections with youth in the West, and that this kind of outreach doesn’t happen nearly often enough (even though the US State Department places great emphasis on exchange programs though arguably such exchange doesn’t really go beyond the tourism level). But the bottom line is that I observed these cross-cultural dialogues were most effective between youth and the Ukrainian students themselves expressed their feelings of helplessness under the administration at the time because there was an obvious disconnect between those running the country and those who were the future of the country. The same can be said for America, and so I knew it was important that graduate students run the program, host the program, control the program because youth tend to listen to youth. And by having graduate or even undergraduate hosts, we’re making a very clear statement: youth matter, youth voices matter, and youth are not just the future but the present. 

Did you have the department’s support from the very beginning? Did they voice any reservations or give encouragement, and if so, what did they say? How did you go about framing the potential prospects of the podcast?

I’d like to say that I had given this a lot of thought before pitching the department, but it was a very spur of the moment kind of thing. It was a Saturday in early February and I was battling my first winter cold when suddenly, an idea gripped me to start a podcast. My husband summarily ordered me to relax as the idea had gotten me very worked up, but I couldn’t relax and so I proceeded to type out an email to Dr. Mary Neuburger. Since she was the research professor of the Ukraine project I mentioned earlier, I used our study of youth engagement to frame the podcast. Here’s an excerpt of that email: 

“I remembered you said early last semester that you wanted to start a podcast for CREEES but needed some ideas. Here’s our chance to begin one for a very good reason. We can call it “THE SLAVIC CONNECTION” or “SLAV X RADIO” (X for connexion) or something like that which will appeal to the youth (our target audience). No gimmicks. Just honest topics, real issues and people. And we can use the students we are meeting in Ukraine over Skype as an initial audience and a source for an interview or two (like that one talkative guy who is in the EU-Ukraine youth group; he would be perfect)… Also, we can feature professors and grad students in CREEES (but other departments as well) who can talk about their research/classes and give listeners on the other side of the Atlantic a picture of what academia/life is like here. It could be a good tool for recruiting students overseas too. […] Basically anything Slavic-related goes, but the goal is fostering diplomacy, making real connections, establishing a dialogue, and actually fulfilling UT’s ‘what starts here changes the world’ mantra.” 

So, I was exceedingly nervous after hitting send, thinking to myself it’s going to be rejected or similar. But I received a fairly quick reply, and it was very positive. However, I should’ve known this would be the case as Dr. Neuburger is quite a forward-thinking leader at UT and is always down for trying new things. Thus, because she was on board, I had absolutely zero push-back from anyone else at CREEES.

The podcast is your brain child. Can you tell me a little bit about how you’ve seen the project evolve from the beginning?

I guess I should’ve been keeping a journal or something because honestly much is a blur at this point. But I can definitely recall the overarching changes clearly. Some of the evolution is simply related to technology and technological prowess: Tom and I did not get into this knowing a thing about recording or how to edit and publish podcasts. I mean, I had some basic background in live sound as a former jazz musician, but not too much experience behind a soundboard in a recording studio. Needless to say we did not have a recording studio in CREEES, but we definitely had a pretty decent space–the Fusion Room–and with a little decoration we were able to make it look like a real operation. In other words, we were pretty adept at faking it until we made it. Our first guests right off the bat were some of the top professors on campus and we scheduled 4 of them back to back on a Friday. I remember that day very clearly because I experienced major anxiety prior to leaving for campus. What if the mikes didn’t work? What if I made a fool of the whole department with a bad recording and wasted the guests’ time? What if we had other technology issues? Tom was much calmer than me that day, and this helped significantly. Of the four guests, Tom interviewed 3, and Milena (who’d come on with Lauren Nyquist, both being in the Ukraine team) interviewed the fourth. The recordings turned out great, and eventually the more Fridays that went by, the easier I breathed before each recording session. Our listenership grew faster than I expected, and I don’t even recall doing much other than simply putting those episodes out there under an eye-catching logo that made it all seem legitimate. I can say also that one thing that hasn’t changed from the beginning is the willingness of faculty and campus guests to be on the program. It made me realize that I (and many others) was under the impression, mistakenly, that because I see and hear many PhDs interviewed on NPR, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, etc. I assumed that ALL professors and pundits have been on the air or on TV or on a podcast at some point. But I swiftly discovered it is far from the case. Over and over again, I heard, “This is my first time being on a podcast.” This was even the case from the guest lecturers who came to campus. Thus, we started to emphasize one of the purposes of the podcast: to be a platform for faculty and experts to have the opportunity to talk about what THEY want to talk about (not just what’s trending). And of course, the other way this podcast has evolved is the sheer size of the team: we started with five people max at any given time (Matt became a major proponent of the show after initial reluctance about the value of the idea and I can’t thank him enough for changing his mind) and today, we are fortunate to have twice that many. The department’s perception of the podcast has also evolved, particularly in this time of social distancing and self-quarantine. We’ve gone from being a nice mention on grant requests to being the main source of department outreach to the world, and I think if they didn’t realize it before they definitely do now. 

Where do you see podcasting in the future, specifically in academia and even more specifically in the field of Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies?

It’s curious because podcasting has been around for quite a while, and in its early stages, academia jumped on the medium and thought here is the next big thing in education. However, they (educators) more or less messed up because the podcasts produced were for the most part too dry, too focused on information dispersal without proper curation. But how could they have curated the information properly when they barely understood the medium? Like radio in its early phase, podcasting in its early phase had absolutely no theory or direction or proper ideas for utilization. A few decades in, and podcasts have definitely evolved as a media with much of the aspects of podcasting down to almost a science. But podcasting is surprisingly (prior to COVID) not taken seriously in academic spaces (overall) despite the initial mid-2000s hype. Or rather I should say podcasting is only recently starting to re-emerge in select universities. There are of course the handful of faculty here and there, particularly at UT and other top universities, that have started their own personal podcasts for their own research or agendas. But what is still missing are podcasts that represent entire institutions of higher learning, or at least departments as a whole, which would pull in a larger global audience for connection and education purposes. The point of podcasts is not to speak to a local audience, but to reach people with similar interests and curiosity across the globe. Now, of course, everybody needs a way to digitally connect, digitally reach people because of social distancing. And podcasts are back on the academic menu. In the REEES area, the importance of podcasts will probably increase as educational institutions rather than governments find themselves in a position to promote democracy and engage in diplomacy. In other words, podcasts are the prime conduit for public diplomacy and public education, and to that end, Ivory Tower institutions have a responsibility to do their part to improve international relations by improving the availability (and accessibility) of research and the cross-cultural exchange of dialogue and ideas. Governments will never move past politics; thus, campuses globally really need to step up. One way is through podcasts.

What purposes does a show like this serve beyond being a form of entertainment?

I think I somewhat answered this (accidentally) in the previous question, but to reiterate, podcasts are excellent conduits for diplomacy. Podcasts democratize esoteric research by bringing expert voices to global audiences. It is not often that someone will pick up a dissertation-turned-book and read it “for fun”, but they will listen to a podcast featuring the author of that esoteric piece of research and find a way to connect to the information and digest it. There is so much great research out there, so many stories, and most of it will never be grasped by someone in a different field much less a non-academic in Uzbekistan for instance. However, put that researcher behind a microphone, add some music, and the result is a palatable, hopefully enjoyable discussion of that research which is heard by people in faraway places who would otherwise never have had access to the researcher or the research. To me, that’s the real value of podcasts like The Slavic Connexion.