What is the Use of a Podcast?
Exploring the history and people of Back Matter Magazine
First Episode Link Image

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Katherine Peach  00:04

Welcome to the BackMatter Rabbit Holes Podcast. This is our first episode and I’m Katherine, one of the associate editors for the print publication as well as the podcast co-producer.

Tobias Lentz  00:30

Yeah, we’re the podcast team-

Katherine Peach  00:33

-yeah! And who are you?

Tobias Lentz  00:36

I’m Tobias and I’m also an associate editor and podcast producer for Back Matter 2022. And yes, we are about to make a show for you guys about what BackMatter is and what podcasts are.

Katherine Peach  01:13

We started this podcast because we’re both students at the New School, and this is the first time the semester-long BackMatter class has made a podcast. So, we both volunteered! Tobias is incredible with sound design (or at least getting there and getting better and better). And I actually made a podcast during the pandemic, called Blood, Sweat & Careers if anyone wants to go check it out. It’s not being updated but who knows? We want to just, really want to think about, what is a podcast?

Tobias Lentz  01:59

Yeah. And what is this podcast? And what are the choices you make when you have to make a podcast? We were kind of just given this job—oh, yeah, go make a podcast. And we’re like, ‘okay, great.’ But where do you start? Right? What we thought would be fun is letting the listener learn while we’re learning, too. Because this is, at least for me, my first time ever doing a podcast and having an experience with the listener, as we’re learning and making mistakes and making some good things.

Katherine Peach  02:39

And I’ve never used this much equipment, or definitely this nice of equipment, so this is very new for me, too.

Tobias Lentz  02:45

Right! So why don’t you say a few words about where we are? And what does it look like? Because we do have a little studio setup here.

Katherine Peach  02:55

Yeah! So I was hauling around a bunch of equipment today from our incredible equipment resources here at the New School. So we have one of these things called a stem mic, it’s a microphone, and an in-the-field video recorder that, of course, my battery charger died suddenly or at least is being obstinate. So that is not working, but we do have it. And what is this? What is this audio box that you brought?

Tobias Lentz  03:35

I don’t know. I used it when I did some music in high school, making some beats. I think it’s called an interface, and basically, what it does is that it turns audio into digital waves, right? So you get it from audio into the laptop, and then you can edit it, you can do things with it. It looks much more fancy than it is, but it’s basically just transforming those waves or whatever it is, so you can talk to the computer.

Madeleine Janz  04:16

My name is Madi, or Madeleine Janz. I am a student and the student advisor of the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program at the New School for Social Research in New York City. I am also the Editor-in-Chief of our student-made magazine called BackMatter. It’s a part of this class called Multimedia Lab Advanced where we all come together and the students lead the building of a magazine. When I’m not at school, I do a lot of other jobs. Currently, I write about entertainment for Elite Daily, and I write about climate and conservation for World Wildlife Magazine. And when I’m not working: I like to do yoga, I like to cook and I like to explore New York City’s parks. 

I'm the editor in chief which sounds like I’d be doing a whole lot but, to be honest, it’s more about kind of overseeing, and ensuring there’s an aesthetic vision and those big decisions are being made. It helps when there’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen to have one person that gets the final say, like, if we can’t decide on some kind of font-family, or there’s some decision about an edit, that I can be called on to make that final decision. So I mean, there’s so much leaning on everyone else in the team. Our managing editor for sure, Michaela Keil, does so much with trying to connect design and editorial and digital…and the podcast! There’s a lot of things going on. But mainly what I’m doing is just ensuring people are on the same page, also being kind of a front face for the magazine. So I’m also working on the launch party with our marketing specialist Ashley Fligg. So it’s kind of pulling things all together and being like a motivational face, front-leaning face.

Tobias Lentz  05:51

You’re like the big boss.

Madeleine Janz  05:54

Exactly. That’s what they call me. Imagine Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. I’ve been basing my entirety of my role on her.

Tobias Lentz  06:04

Okay, so Madi is our big boss basically, or no, she’s the one that is in charge of all the big processes. So whenever we, as a podcast team, come up with an idea, we would have to go to her to kind of check that it goes with everyone else. And she, in the end, is in charge of the overall aesthetic is how I understand it, obviously, it’s a team thing. In the end, she is the one that has to say ‘go’ or ‘not go.’ So, I have a lot of respect for her.

Katherine Peach  06:44

On the like, cross-collaboration of making sure that everybody’s on the same page in a lot of ways.

Tobias Lentz  06:51

I think that’s the best way to describe a job as an Editor-in-Chief. She’s doing a lot of work in the editing team that needs to be said, too. She’s also writing the letter from the editors and she’s doing other things for the magazine too. She’s not just bossing us around, it’s not like that. She has a lot of things, different kinds of roles that she’s doing.

Katherine Peach  07:17

She does have really beautiful nails—

Tobias Lentz  07:19

—she does have some really nice nails, yeah.

Katherine Peach  07:21

She, for the listeners who don’t know, wears beautiful acrylic, but they’re also very hip and kind of a little scary, honestly. 

Tobias Lentz  07:29

And then what’s she typing on there, like her laptop looks very intimidating—very sleek.

Madeleine Janz  07:42

There are two big factors with [my role]. I think the first is really learning trust and learning the ability to really let go and say, ‘we’re doing everything we can on the editorial side to give a really good product—a good content product—to the design side.’ But then to say that I trust these people, and I know that they’re going to do a really good job. And even if the final product is not at all what I was envisioning, that’s great. I’m sure with their creativity and their skills that it's going to turn out beautifully and, hopefully, really, really surprise me. I think it will. 

The second factor is, because we’re all really new to this, at least in running a magazine (we all, I think, have had intern/fellowship experiences being a part of a team) but actually having to call all the shots and make all the decisions. A big thing we run into is trying to figure out what are the questions to ask. What could the problems be? At least for me, that’s been really difficult to think about. And this kind of feeling of you’re constantly forgetting something. I know, there must be something I need to ask design about—let’s say an issue map or mock-ups, layouts—I just don't really know yet because I haven’t worked with the design team in this way. So for us, it’s learning by doing really, and I think many challenges will come up a lot with miscommunication. But we're really trying to focus on just Slacking and emailing and meeting as much as possible to have those questions come up organically when we’re with each other.

Katherine Peach  09:12

We called the podcast BackMatter Rabbit Holes because the theme this year is all about rabbit holes. That was a theme that Madi and other editors pulled out from recurring themes they saw in the writing. We wanted something a little more abstract, which also mirrors what the design team wanted to do as well. And so, I thought it would be fun to bring up Alice in Wonderland to distinguish this season (which, hopefully, there will be many more of the podcast) and build it around Alice in Wonderland the book and, of course, the movie. The inspiration for this first episode is a quote from the [Lewis Carroll] book, “‘And what is the use of a book’ thought Alice ‘without pictures or conversation?’” That really got me thinking about, what is the use of a podcast? And then we’ve been kind of spitballing from there.

Tobias Lentz  10:21

That’s true. I think that’s very well said. A rabbit hole, this term that we just started to really like in the group, as in you come up with this idea or this concept, and you just want to know more about it. And you even though you might know about [this topic], you know, what a podcast is, but how does it work? How do you record it? How do you do all the small things that are part of that and the magazine itself? So that’s how this podcast became a podcast about making podcasts.

Katherine Peach  10:59

And making a magazine and making a website! What does it look like to go to the printer and pick out paper? We’re going to talk about all those things in future episodes because that’s new to us, as well. And it can be, I feel like it can be, kind of obscure when people talk about making magazines—that nitty-gritty. I don’t know, the mechanics of it still feel very foreign, at least to me.

Tobias Lentz  11:23

Yeah, same.

Madeleine Janz  11:26

Definitely, [selecting the theme] was really natural, thankfully. We were all a little worried about picking a theme or finding a theme. But, ultimately, what we did is look at submissions we’d gotten from another CPCJ class, which is the long-form class that happens in the Fall, where typically newer students (but all students have to do this) write a long-form piece of 10 to 15 pages. Typically, it’s reported journalism. What we ended up finding with these pieces was that, although they were reported research, they were also really personal and felt very much personal, essayistic, but had bigger stakes to it—political stakes or social/cultural stakes—and we really ran with that. It felt in most of the pieces someone had a personal experience with something, then they fell down a rabbit hole. Once we found that key phrase (rabbit hole), that has stuck with us and really excited us in all aspects—in the podcast and in the design. Especially with what’s happened in the pandemic, with being able to reflect more and spend more time, unfortunately, maybe on our computers to take personal experiences and blow them out a little wider and add more nuance to them. We’re really excited about bringing that to life aesthetically, too, in the design.

Tobias Lentz  12:40

I mean, Madi is very well-spoken, so she knows what she’s talking about. And I think that moment when we finally decided on rabbit holes that just made the whole group come together. It was like, oh, now we know where we’re going. Whether or not we’re in design, website, or editing. Everyone knows what the ultimate goal of the theme is. And that was very helpful, in forming our ideas moving forward. Then it’s just been very interesting to see how the group has started to come alive on its own. Our professors Kayla and John have been very helpful, but we’re just doing everything on our own. Now everyone’s doing their thing. And our professors have just stepped back now and just watch and guide us as we’re creating this magazine.

Katherine Peach  13:47

Yeah, so I guess we could say that our professors are Jon Baskin and Kayla Romberger.

Tobias Lentz  13:52

Yeah, they’ve been really amazing to give us the tools, for example, giving us our specific roles, and setting the magazine up, so it wasn’t a mess. So giving us the framework—and then from there, we’re filling the rest out. It’s fun to see how it’s been developing, and the class becomes more and more stressful, but also much more productive as we’re going.

Katherine Peach  14:27

Okay, so one of the things we want to talk about is: what is the purpose of a podcast? What is the purpose of a podcast as a complement to a print publication? Aside from being very on-trend right now and every celebrity coming out with their own and saying the worst things, of course-

Tobias Lentz  14:51

-that’s us, right? I mentioned this is blowing up, right?

Katherine Peach  14:56

Sure, who can resist this content? But yeah, what is—I mean, what is the purpose? If you think about that, if this magazine, and this is something new to us, we’re going to learn all these steps. We went to the Design Center in the Parsons building and learned how we could print everything out. We learned some basics about design or at least different platforms that we could use for a website.

Tobias Lentz  15:29

My name is Tobias, by the way, and thank you for doing this. So me and my partner, we’re doing the Multimedia Lab Advanced class that you were part of creating, but we’re doing a podcast for the first time. First question is just if you can briefly introduce yourself and what you’re doing.

Rachel Rosenfelt  15:51

Oh, what I’m doing…that’s a mystery. My name is Rachel Rosenfelt. And alongside Jim Miller and Juliette Cezzar, I am a founding faculty member of the CPCJ program and, alongside Jim, the first faculty administrator of the program as well. 

Tobias Lentz  16:16

Rachel started the CPCJ program, years ago with Jim Miller. She was also doing this thing called the New Inquiry, which is now a magazine, but back then it was actually just her Tumblr profile, which was very funny. She, on her Tumblr, reached out to people and found writers to connect with who had similar beliefs, and that, over time, became the New Inquiry. When I talk to her, she keeps mentioning that whenever you’re creating anything—whether it’s a magazine or anything—it’s important to have an idea of collective belief. You need to have a common thing that you all stand behind.

Rachel Rosenfelt  17:04

I like to tell this story in a way because it may confer agency to you and to other students. It’s important to say that I started New In quiry on Tumblr. And in fact, if you count Tumblr as a social media platform, for years there was never anything other than social media, the New Inquiry was purely on social media. It was the organs of social media that I had access to for free, and it was an advantage. I mean, I also hadn’t met anyone who was in the New Inquiry before I started [the publication]. It was my Tumblr, that’s all it was, but I called it something that sounded real, the New Inquiry, which sounds like it would exist. And person by person—not because I knew them in my network—I just set out to find the others. I hit the streets, and that’s in a very literal kind of way. It ended up feeling very novel. There weren’t women doing a literary, intellectual magazine with these sorts of politics. And that got the attention of the New York Times style section, and they did an article about the New Inquiry. What was very interesting is that we did not have a magazine, and the New York Times didn’t even notice. There was never a magazine it came after. So, I think, that’s an important little piece of information about what collective belief is.

Katherine Peach 18:51

Oh, that’s interesting. 

Tobias Lentz 18:53

So, I think that’s very interesting. Essentially, the idea of a collective belief, at least for her, became something much bigger in the end—but that was not the point. It didn’t come together as she was creating the New Inquiry, it started with her putting herself out there. Then people started to join, or she found people to talk to and then over time, it became the New Inquiry. In terms of our class where it’s more forced—you join something to create it—that’s maybe not her way of doing it and that’s why, I think, whenever she had the class she wanted it to be completely from scratch. Like, you guys go talk. You guys go find a collective belief. But at the same time, in terms of productivity, it’s good to have a frame. And I think that whenever Jon took over, he saw that we needed a framework. Rachel has a different philosophy. I don’t know what’s best, but it’s interesting to talk about.

Katherine Peach  20:14

Yeah, I mean the idea that you have the freedom to do whatever you want is really exciting, and can also be very terrifying and overwhelming. So I do see how, for time’s sake, it is nice to have a framework. We still were able to come together and say, ‘Okay, we’re making a podcast. What do we want to make it about?’ So once you know, once you have the framework, it goes much faster. I really appreciate that there’s different approaches. But I’m also very grateful that they didn’t say, ‘come make whatever you want.’ 

Tobias Lentz  20:58

Rachel also talks about how she wanted people in the class to be challenged. She often comes back to the word risk. She wants the students to be at risk for each other. Because she says that, essentially, it is like the real world where you’re constantly at risk. Wherever you are—at work, or life, or in relationships—you’re always at risk. And she wanted the class to replicate the real world where there are risks.

Rachel Rosenfelt  21:38

Making things forces you to come up against hard realities that there are simply limitations. One of the advantages of being in a program like CPCJ at the New School: You are given permission, social permission and cultural permission, to develop without committing and without entering the public sphere. In essence, failures are not high cost, and they’re very high cost once you enter the publishing world. So from my perspective, I wanted students to be at risk. Because that is what it is to be in the world: you’re at risk. And for students that didn’t have a great experience in the way that I ran the class, it’s because there are real risks. Maybe you fail, and maybe you just fight too hard to have your voice heard. There’s a lot of vulgarity. As I said, the vulgar realities of the world. As much as possible, I wanted that inside the classroom.

Katherine Peach  23:20

Oh, that would make me so mad, I would be the person who would not be happy about that. But also, I’d be really excited to be able to work on a design team, even though I’d probably be really bad.

Tobias Lentz  23:33

But it’s interesting how she wants the students to rise up. And I think that kind of represents the New School in many ways. Not to say anything bad about other universities, I’m sure they’re great. At least, what I’ve experienced at the New School is they kind of give you the foundations of things, but they don’t tell you how things should be done. They don’t tell you “Oh this is the type of journalism that we do,” they don’t tell you “this is the type of design.” It’s kind of very open. They just give us a framework. And then whatever you make, that you believe in, is what comes out, which I really find freeing in many ways.

Katherine Peach  24:13

Yeah, I feel like there’s a lot of openness to hybridity and collaboration between different disciplines. In the writing department, you can take different seminars based on something that’s poetry even though I’m in nonfiction, and being able to have that freedom is really exciting. I’ve also heard some people find out (sometimes the hard way) that even if you don’t love something, it opens so much opportunity for creativity.

Tobias Lentz  24:55

Let’s just go back to BackMatter and the history of BackMatter. Because BackMatter is something that started around four years ago when Jon came on the team. He wanted the class to have something solid, something we could share as a student group. So he created the magazine BackMatter for the class. And then every year, people have to reinvent BackMatter. And it’s completely free, however you invent BackMatter. BackMatter is just the name of the product. And Madi did say some words about it.

Madeleine Janz   25:43

One of the first things we did, which was really led by our profs, Jon Baskin and Kayla Romberger, was to look back at past issues, both in print and digitally, to talk about what we liked and what we didn’t like. Especially Jon, who’s done this class in past years, could talk about what problems they ran into. Things like, ‘definitely don’t use this website creator’ or ‘definitely don’t use this printer,’ and kind of those pieces of advice. I think for us, it was a lot about looking back at what we definitely wanted to include. In the past issue, we really loved their fun sections, like doing a quiz or a find your own adventure. And so we definitely wanted to input those things into our issue too. But to also think about what we can offer that’s new, you know, what is this new class of CPCJ students saying or doing that’s different than it’s been done in the past? I think that’s really going to show up in our content. But really, in our design, too. We have some newer students on the design team that are going to bring kind of a fresh energy to it. And I’m really excited to see how we’re able to iterate on what’s already been done but make our own thing too.

Tobias Lentz  26:46

Last year with all of COVID-19, they had some completely different challenges because they were doing it all on Zoom. So that was a very different BackMatter, which mostly focused on the website. They did what they could while not being there physically. That’s just one of the important things we have had to think about, what is our situation? What are the big themes right now in our culture? That all kind of creates the magazine in the end. 

Katherine Peach  27:21

I think, even last year, they did whatever they wanted, right? Each section was very separate. That was partly due to circumstance, and also, due to that idea of freedom. Everybody did their own thing. And in a way, that contrasts the year before where everything was very cohesive, even the color scheme was very minimal. It was beautiful. But, to see the two next to each other, it’s obviously not a continuation. It’s a brand new iteration.

Tobias Lentz  28:02

Exactly. It’s not like two New Yorker magazines next to each other, right? [Each year, BackMatter] is a very different magazine. It’s just a name. One of the new things that we then decided as a group was the podcast that we’re doing—they’ve never done a podcast before.

Katherine Peach  28:17

Oh, there’s something about us sitting here having a conversation. (I guess I didn’t listen to a ton of podcasts during the pandemic, because it’s nice to be doing something.) But, if I’m cleaning, it’s nice to listen to a conversation from other people. And it is that ‘community feel’ like you’re just listening in on some friends.

Madeleine Janz  28:40

I think it was a bit of a brainchild of Jon Baskin, who doesn’t really like podcasts himself, but he was noticing that everyone around him was obsessed with podcasts, either for news or even talk podcasts, comedy podcasts. And in some ways, he didn’t really get it. He wanted to understand [the form] by having this experience of doing this with the class. It felt really natural to all the students too—you can chime in on this, Tobias—but when I heard that we’d be doing a podcast, I was just like, of course we would. Every magazine now has their own podcast. Old TV shows are rebooting as podcasts, instead of as shows. It’s such a ubiquitous form now that it would almost be weirder if we didn’t do it. Of course, as an element of this being a learning experience, too, it’s great for everyone in the class to get a little bit of experience with it—like we’re doing now. You’re learning how to set up a podcast; I’m learning how to be on a podcast and all those experiences will hopefully help us go into a world where audio is now so big. 

On the wider span of podcasts on their own: I think that people live in a productivity machine. We want to constantly be doing things. I know I put on a podcast when I’m doing anything that doesn’t require a lot of brain space like cooking or washing dishes, and I want to be constantly entertained or constantly informed while I’m doing that other thing. So maybe it is ultimately a bad thing—but I’m glad that we’re doing it. It’s really going to enrich the content that we've pulled together and be a cool opportunity for people to experience.

Tobias Lentz  30:21

Do you think we live in a productivity society?

Katherine Peach  30:25

Oh, my goodness. Yes. Yes. Just that. I’m not always feeling comfortable anymore—even though I’m a creative writing major—just sitting and reading a book for pleasure feels almost like a guilty pleasure, which is wild. Or being able to go somewhere where you have your phone off, not checking things. [No phone] almost feels like a phantom limb at first, but it’s so freeing. I don’t know, which is so silly, too. It’s such a first-world problem. But I do feel we’re constantly being bombarded with ideas of optimizing, especially in the States, of sleep better, play harder, work faster. If I get one more advertisement for MudWtr or something that’s supposed to replace my coffee and all these products…I just can’t.

Tobias Lentz  31:26

Yeah! There’s nothing you cannot do better anymore. But I do think I’d like to kind of get back to Madi’s comment on productivity. Society is just kind of crazy. I think podcasts have become almost like this background noise, you know? Like a TV that’s running in the kitchen while you’re doing something. Podcasts just come in like a sound blanket that just calms people down. It calms me down. It also feels like you’re learning something, while you’re doing something not productive. I get my clothes cleaned while learning something. It is good because you can feel productive without doing anything, even on the subway—without getting carsick.

Katherine Peach  32:20

Exactly. Yeah, I cannot read on the subway. 

Tobias Lentz  32:25

So I think there’s many reasons why  podcasts are so important now in our culture. And that’s what we are trying to join in on, that culture. 

Katherine Peach  32:37

Yeah, well, it definitely also speaks to the streaming culture. Before streaming, we didn’t get to choose what was on the radio, but now, we can listen to things we actually want to and if we listen to something that’s educational, or whatever, you know, bonus points. Are there any other learning lessons we want to talk about?

Tobias Lentz  33:01

I would like to just show a clip of my very first interview. So basically, I went over to interview Madi. I brought all this nice equipment. I was going to do it professionally. And I set it all up. We were there getting comfortable on the couch. We started the interview, and it was going great. We were talking for, I think, around 20, 30 minutes, but we had really interesting answers. When I listened to it, I realized my laptop produced so much sound that it sounded like I had been recording on an airplane! 

Madeleine Janz  33:43

My name is Madi—Madeleine Janz—and I’m in my last semester of the CPCJ program at the New School.

Tobias Lentz  33:49

It was completely useless. I actually ended up crying for a little bit. But then afterwards, I asked if we could do it over Zoom, and I realized that was so much more effective because I didn’t have to schedule it in the same way. We could just sit in our own settings. It actually worked out really well. Yay for Zoom! It was finally useful for something. So Zoom interviews have been really successful, at least for me.

Katherine Peach  34:29

It’s also good to let people know, [Zoom is] nice. We’re only using one mic, so we’ll see how that goes, and we’ll continue [testing] in the future. But with Zoom, where normally if you have two mics, you have to use a splitter with audio: if you want to plug into your laptop, or you want to plug into some other device, if you don’t have one of these nice HD Zoom field recorders so you can interview people remotely. The wonderful thing is you can take the video separate from the audio. And everything is digital on your laptop or computer. You have backups that way too. You can both be recording and the audio quality is great. 

Tobias Lentz  35:17

Yeah, it’s completely fine. I have some problems with Zoom. There were some problems with connection. If they suddenly break up, you will have a recording of a staggered voice.

Madeleine Janz   35:32

Did I break up? No, my computer you’re breaking up. Okay, that’s fine. Can you hear me? Okay?

Tobias Lentz  35:38

So I did ask Madi to introduce herself like three times because the call kept dropping. But in the end, we got it. So yay for Zoom—and also not yay for Zoom. Yeah just make sure you have good Wifi. Don’t sit somewhere in the subway or something.

Katherine Peach  36:00

Well, and it does take away the actual interaction of sitting in a room with someone. 

We're not planning anything other than a pretty loose outline for each episode. But figuring out who we needed to talk to or how we wanted to do the planning schedule in terms of do we record them all at once, then edit? Or we’ve decided to go through and do one-by-one episodes, finish that, edit. And even if we release them all together, you know, we are on a deadline that most people probably aren’t working on. So we don’t want to run out of time, essentially. 

Tobias Lentz  36:44

And it’s going to be interesting, looking forward, to see how we’re going to structure these podcasts. I do think we had a loose mentality going into this first one—like let’s just go for it. We were just gonna show whatever we had. But I think the more structured we are with planning each of the themes that we’re going to talk about, the easier it will go. But at the same time, we also lose that fluidity or that transparency that we want to show by recreating it as we go. So that’s kind of like a dilemma, an ethical kind of question we’ve been having. We talked about how much planning we should show to the listener—we’re making a ‘meta podcast’ about creating a podcast. But we’ll see.

Katherine Peach  37:36

In the next episodes, we’ll talk to more people that are actually creating the magazine. We’re going to play on this theme of rabbit holes, play on this theme loosely of Alice in Wonderland and get curious. And we’ll actually break down what it takes to make a magazine for anybody who’s interested in starting their own publication or getting some of those one-on-one ideas and insights. So hopefully that will be interesting.

Tobias Lentz  38:15

So you better listen. If you want to start a magazine, you get all the secrets right here.

Katherine Peach  38:21


Tobias Lentz  38:23

Or to start a podcast, maybe.  We’re gonna be the teachers of podcasts. Yeah, you can call it that.

Katherine Peach  38:33

I don’t know–but I feel like we just did. So…yeah! Looking forward to it. 

Thank you for listening. I hope you’re excited to be on this journey with us. We’ll be releasing more episodes, but please feel free to follow us on social media. We do have an Instagram account @backmattermag, and we’ll see you next week! Or next time. We don’t know yet!