By Swara Tewari
During the previous two quarters, the Stanford Storytelling Project (SSP) has been shifting the emphasis of its show “State of the Human” from a radio segment on KZSU to an online podcast format in an effort to reach more internet users.
SSP explores how the tradition of storytelling has shaped human history and how stories themselves enrich human life. In 2012, SSP founded “State of the Human” as a means of sharing stories through a broadcasted audio medium. Since then, SSP has aired hour-long episodes of the show weekly on KZSU. However, as online podcasts have gained momentum, SSP has begun moving away from KZSU, instead catering podcasts to a growing online audience.
“Most people listen online because KZSU [has] a very specific listening audience,” said “State of the Human” producer Sienna White ’19. “We’re able to reach a lot more people on the web. It just goes further than long-wave radio [today].”
Managing editor Jake Warga explained that, in this booming age of technology, podcasts uploaded onto SSP’s SoundCloud reach many more students than those broadcasted through KZSU, which is why he supports channeling focus to the online podcasts.
“Students listen to a lot of podcasts,” Warga said. “The technology is connected to our phones, which we’re always connected to. When we commute, that’s a great [opportunity to reach] audiences there. We don’t put a lot of emphasis on the KZSU broadcast. Those [episodes] aren’t archived for download, versus SoundCloud, where [the podcasts] are all permanently there.”
Student producer Cameron Tenner ’20 said he also attributes SSP’s gradual gravitation towards online podcasts to an ongoing cultural shift. He believes listening to podcasts online gives listeners the element of choice, which is why radio listenership has been declining.
“In general, most people consume their podcasts through the Apple podcast app or SoundCloud,” Tenner said. “[Listening to podcasts online] gives you that ability to pick and choose what you want to listen to when. I think the shift towards online podcasts makes podcasts more accessible to everyone.”
When broadcasting on KZSU, SSP is restricted to 60-minute episodes, as they must fit into KZSU’s broadcast schedule. However, as SSP has moved away from the traditional radio format, the organization has stopped compressing the length of its podcasts, allowing the nature of each story to shape how long each episode runs.
“When I joined [SSP], we switched to a podcast model,” Warga said. “It’s fun to go down to the radio station but I’m focusing on podcasts, where the length is determined by the stories and the people producing them, rather than the one hour window.”
Producer Yue Li ’19 explained that removing the one-hour time constraint has given SSP more artistic freedom and the ability to tell their stories in a more organic and creative way.
“We’ve become more like a podcast in the sense that the length of the time [isn’t controlled],” Li said. “We have a lot of freedom now, because we’re not restricted in terms of time. A lot of our recent episodes have been longer, like 90 minutes, [or shorter, like] 20 minutes.”
On the other hand, Tenner believes SSP will always have an invisible time restriction, as listeners’ attention quickly wanes. He hasn’t noticed any change in the production of podcasts due to the removal of the one hour time constraint.
“The episodes are still usually around an hour,” Tenner said. “Even though we don’t have the restriction of how long we have on air, we still have a restriction. It’s hard to get people to listen to something more than an hour. Even more than half an hour can be difficult. I think we’ll always be restricted by people’s attention spans and interest.”
“State of the Human” was primarily created to convey shared human experiences and feelings in the form of an audio story. Each episode consists of individual stories that all connect back to an overarching theme, such as survival or speculation. According to Li, “State of the Human” aims to feature diverse human experiences, which has increased her ability to empathize with people from all reaches of life.
“I’ve realized how important it is to hear other people tell stories,” said Li. “When you walk down the street, you don’t realize how other people’s experiences differ. I think that ‘State of the Human’ is essential to SSP because one of our biggest missions is to be able to tell a story about common human experiences and to be able to tie all these human experiences together.”
Tenner believes that SSP’s purpose is twofold. Not only does it allow students to refine their story-crafting abilities, but it also offers a platform for impactful stories.
“A really important part of storytelling is that you’re the facilitator,” Tenner said. “You’re the middleman between someone’s story [and the audience]. [SSP] gives Stanford students the space to learn about story craft, but also giving a platform for incredible, valuable stories.”
Whenever Warga is helping his coworkers at SSP craft a story, he asks them two fundamental questions: “What is the story about?” and “What is the story really about?” Warga believes that any good story should focus on one experience or anecdote, but illuminate something deeper about the human condition. According to him, a well-crafted story not only informs the listener about the topic, but also convinces them to care about the topic.
“Facts have no emotion,” Warga said. “Facts don’t have feeling. But when you combine facts with a story, by enlisting someone to give a voice to a phenomena, that’s when we can care about something. When we can both know and feel.”
Similarly, producer Claudia Heymach ’19 said she is always impacted and swayed by an emotional story. She believes that a story can impact someone in a way that bland facts and research never can.
“I think narratives are really powerful,” Heymach said. “It’s that intimate experience where you’re hearing someone else’s voice. It isn’t just statistics, which feel cold and distant. Storytelling is humanizing.”
To White, storytelling is a force that exposes her to the myriad of emotions that encapsulate the human experience. She said she joined SSP because she wanted to revive storytelling in modern society. White is determined to expand SSP’s scale, which is why she supports the program shifting to online podcasts.
“[In storytelling,] there’s an ability for connection between two people,” White said. “It’s that feeling you get when someone tells a story and you get chills or you find yourself thinking of things you haven’t thought of in a very long time. The way that a story resonates with you [is] a beautiful and inexplicable thing. I don’t ever want to be able to explain it.”
Contact Swara Tewari at tewariswara ‘at’ gmail.com.