In this post, Head of Alumni Communications Sonia Mullineux describes the genesis of the hugely successful Sharing things podcast and the community building role it plays for the student and alumni experience at the University…
We didn’t set out to create a podcast.
The story of Sharing things starts with Chris Cox; Vice-Principal Philanthropy and Advancement and Executive Director of Development and Alumni, and a question he asked of our team – how can Alumni Relations contribute to enhancing the student experience?
This naturally led to more questions, questions like:
- Are alumni relevant to the student experience?
- Can alumni enhance the student experience?
- Why would alumni want to concern themselves with the student experience?
Questions like these have traditional answers. Accepted courses of action that represent widely held perceptions about what Alumni Relations is and what it does. The discussion usually ends up with case studies and the sharing of inspirational stories of achievement and success. The idea of community is then added as a garnish. A collective noun – a community of alumni – rather than something that has greater depth or substance.
Thinking about people
When you step back and start thinking about people and individual experiences, this traditional response starts to feel a bit narrow, a bit constrained. Is success our only measure? What is success anyway? Do you have to have a career to succeed in life? What about the rest of life? The experiences, relationships and memories that combine to make us who we really are.
Inspiration is also a many layered thing. Achievements at any scale can feel remote and unattainable unless we understand more about the person and their individual circumstances, motivations, highs, lows and in-betweens.
There is also something about alumni offering guidance to current students that doesn’t feel very much like how actual communities work. If we really believe that our wider University community is relevant and useful to current students, then we need to think more about what gives communities cohesion, vibrancy and life.
Asking different questions
When community is where you are going then the questions start to change.
- Is this about people and not achievements?
- Whose voices are authentic?
- How do we help students feel a connection to former students?
And the new questions prompt new ideas and new ways of thinking.
- People are interesting to people. It isn’t what people do, it is about who they are.
- Authentic voices happen when you don’t set an agenda.
- Common ground, mutual understanding and shared experience are the basis of community.
If a wider community exists then it can’t be completely separate from the current experience of students. It needs to feel real and familiar. From this we developed different objectives for our project and it was at this point that we started to think about podcasts.
- We want to bring people together
- We want to create a place where people can have conversations and listen to each other
- We want to slowly build a picture of a diverse but connected community
Building a community
The podcast format felt interesting and the informal, anything-goes vibe got us thinking about the possibilities that this could open up. Podcasts are relatively cheap to produce and easy to distribute and the sector is growing at pace. Around 7.1 million people in the UK now listen to podcasts each week (Ofcom, Sep 2019). This is likely to have increased during lockdown.
In June 2019 we started to assemble the pieces. We hired a student intern (Employ.ed on Campus) as co-creator, host and editor; decided on a structure that we felt would facilitate open conversation and equality of experience; settled on a name and visual identity that conveyed our aims for the podcast, and drew together a guest list that spoke to different parts of our community.
Sharing things, the podcast, launched on the 26 September 2019 with Prince Chakanyuka and Kezia Dugdale. There are now 17 episodes including a Christmas special featuring law student Ross Nixon and children’s author and illustrator Catherine Rayner.
All episodes of Sharing things feature two people and our student host. There is no set topic, no agenda, just an object that guests bring to the studio as a starting point. Conversations head off in the direction that flows easiest. Edinburgh is present, but as the common ground that binds people together rather than the focus.
Sharing things has been shortlisted as a finalist in the Guardian University Awards 2020 in the student experience category.
We are currently working on season three. Remotely.
Listen to Sharing things
Sharing things is also available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and your favourite podcast platform.