Five years ago, NIU’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies (CSEAS) Assistant Director Eric Jones rustled up a surplus table, a couple of microphones, and swaths of Indonesian batik to “soundproof” a corner of his office for a makeshift studio space on the second floor of Pottenger House. The goal was to expand the CSEAS’s global reach with an educational podcast series moderated by Jones and featuring interviews with Southeast Asian experts from around the world.
Today, Southeast Asia Crossroads has racked up 72 episodes and 50,000 listens from more than 100 countries. Guests have been drawn from the center’s Friday lecture series, CSEAS faculty associates and affiliates, and visiting Southeast Asia scholars among others. During the past pandemic year with campus closed, Jones kept the series going by conducting interviews virtually. In addition, he and alumnus Matt Jagel (Ph.D. history, 2015) launched a second series, Napalm in the Morning, which covers the Vietnam War through film and already has built up a dedicated following (almost 10,000 listens).
The podcast project has proven to be a durable extension of CSEAS’s educational outreach as a U.S. Department of Education Title VI National Resource Center, according to Jones, an associate history professor.
“I think the podcast has more than met its mission of expanding our educational reach quantitatively and qualitatively beyond anything we could have envisioned,” Jones said. “Just recently I was looking back through an old grant application and a few years ago we were astounded that we had five thousand listens and now here we are with ten times that.”
In the past five years, Jones has hosted conversations on topics ranging from the military coup in Myanmar, regional inequality, and election outcomes in Thailand and Indonesia to dangdut music in Indonesia and Moro villagers at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Occasionally faculty associates and graduate students have stepped in as as co-hosts bringing their own areas of expertise to the purposefully interdisciplinary mix.
“We strive to reflect diverse perspectives and a wide range of views generating debate on Southeast Asia and international affairs and we regularly explore tough and complicated issues from a variety of angles with leading global specialists on those questions,” Jones said. “But I think we would like to explore a wider range of voices and experiences on the podcast. I think we’ve done a fair job in that respect but there’s always more to do. One advantage of the pandemic it has expanded our willingness to interview people anytime anyplace around the world and so we now have that as a real option.”
In addition to its global audience, the podcast has also made its way into some Southeast Asian studies classes on campus, a use that Jones hopes to expand. “The various faculty who have used it in the classes have had pretty good experiences,” Jones said. “Students have their minds blown when we have interviews with the author that they are reading, for example.”
Students also have been able to participate as production assistants as the studio has become a more professional space to record in. “It’s possible to produce a decent podcast with a USB microphone and a laptop, but if you want to have several participants then you run into needing a mixer and a recorder and multiple microphones etcetera,” Jones said. “Luckily because I’m at a university we’ve been able to hire talent with training in these fields of sound and sound editing and so the graduate students and outside staff have contributed their substantial knowledge to the way the podcast has evolved and why it sounds so great today. As important as your equipment, you need a good editorial and production staff who can maintain high quality control.”
Looking ahead, Jones plans to spend more time behind the mic in between teaching as the interview schedule fills out for the coming academic year.
“Podcasts have become very important and widespread as a form of education and entertainment. And if you listen around you will notice a huge difference between a well-produced in a poorly produced podcast,” Jones said. “As a wannabe musician I had just enough experience with live sound to know my way around a microphone and soundboard, but have benefited from others who have lent their expertise and encouraged the soundscaping of the studio which is now at a full professional level.”