University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Got a Minute? Learn Something

A number of U of M faculty and colleges offer podcasts to share cutting-edge research and insights on health, spirituality, and more.

Illustration Credit: Cristina Spano
Illustration Credit: Cristina Spano

The term “theater of the mind” dates back to the pre-World War II heyday of radio, referring to a performer’s ability to use sound alone to evoke vivid imagery. That Age of Radio artifact can also be applied to today’s newest mass medium, the fast-growing phenomenon known as podcasting.

With podcasting, internet users can access free audio files (typically MP3s) from a podcasting website to listen to on their computer, digital audio player, or phone. Many podcasts are delivered in a series of broadcasts on a given topic, and listeners can listen to one or all of them, as they wish.

At the University of Minnesota, faculty, staff, and other experts have embraced podcasting as an effective way to engage listeners in search of the latest health and wellness information, both specific and general.

Sarah Lemanczyk (B.A. ‘95) , an adjunct professor at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, teaches a class on podcasting and calls the format “radio on demand.” And as with radio, podcasts can be an intimate medium where it feels like someone is talking directly to you, she says.

Lemanczyk adds that when people actively seek information, especially when that information is health related, they want trusted sources—such as experts from the University—to provide that.

Jean Larson (M.A. ‘90, Ph.D. ‘09) is one of those trusted voices. An assistant professor with the Earl E. Bakken Center for Spirituality & Healing (CSH) andmanager of nature-based therapeutic services at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, Larson recently did a podcast on the healing power of spending time in nature called What Are Nature-based Therapeutics?

“With traditional media, you only have a little sound bite [to tell your story],” she says. “With all the nuances of integrated medicine, we need more than a sound bite. A podcast allows time to air out all the ways we are connected to our health and nature around us, with the ability to drill down a little deeper than with traditional media. It’s more free-form, like having a conversation. It also gives listeners a certain amount of freedom to think creatively and imagine what things are like in their own head.”

CSH began doing podcasts in response to a 2017 assessment that showed strong demand for the medium, says Kit Breshears, communications director. “The audience that our messaging applies to is incredibly broad—from high school or college students to senior citizens. They were asking for podcasts and we were happy to deliver. It’s been a really fun project for our student team and seems to be really effective.”

CSH initially produced five-minute YouTube videos called Take Five for Health and Well Being, but found their faculty wanted to share more insights than they could squeeze into five minutes, Breshears says. Currently, CSH does about two new podcasts a month, taking advantage of their broad faculty base and also interviewing community experts affiliated with the center. Topics have included holistic solutions for managing holiday stress, pain reduction through yoga, mindfulness, and stress mastery.

The podcasts are available on several of the largest distribution networks, including Blubrry, Spotify, Google Play, Apple, and Stitcher, which each reach around 250,000 or more listeners every month, although most individual podcasts don’t achieve those numbers.

“People like listening to our podcasts because they are short and accessible,” Breshears says. “We’re trying to make information accessible in as many ways as possible.” The mobile aspect is also somewhat unique, he notes. “People can still be engaged when they are ‘unplugged.’”

And the aural dimension makes podcasting more akin to listening to music than to reading, Breshears points out. “Someone who has something cooking in the kitchen can be listening to one of the podcast episodes about healthy cooking.”

Podcasting can also be used for “narrow-casting:” reaching a specific audience. Louise Delagran (M.A. ‘80, M.Ed. ‘98), director of the learning resources group at CSH, has developed a podcast on well-being and resilience for health professionals called Taking Charge of Your Health and Wellbeing. In this case, the mobile aspect is particularly key in that physicians and other health providers generally “don’t want to spend more time at computers,” Delagran says. “If they have a moment driving to work or in between patients, they can listen to an interview.”

Delagran does two versions of her podcast: one for physicians, and one for nurses and health professionals.

“We developed the program because there’s been an epidemic of burnout among health professionals,” she notes. “We hope to give people resources to address general stress at work, or even burnout; ways to cope more effectively with stresses and increase their resilience, their ability to deal with challenges. It’s meeting health professionals where they are.”

Podcasting is also a very future-focused medium, ideal for disseminating new ideas. Lidia Zylowska, M.D., associate professor in the U of M’s Department of Psychiatry, has developed a podcast called The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD. It explores the use of mindfulness as a treatment for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, one of Zylowska’s areas of expertise.

Bringing wellness-oriented interventions to psychiatry is becoming recognized as an approach to mental health, she says, adding that podcasting is also a good way to provide accessible knowledge about things happening in health care research.

The interviewer—in this case host and producer Kendall Van Horne—poses questions that people in the community might have and Zylowska responds. She finds the podcasts a time-efficient way for a busy researcher, physician, or other health professional to reach a large audience. “Someone who has ADHD might be wondering ‘What is this thing mindfulness?’ and we try to answer their initial questions,” she says. “It’s a nice approach to complement whatever else the person might be doing.” The conversational interview style is also a way to give listeners “a sense of the person behind the work.”

Among the most popular U of M podcasts is The Mind Deconstructed, with psychiatrist Kaz Nelson, (M.D. ‘06) Nelson, vice chair of education in the Department of Psychiatry, and her brother George, an attorney and U of M Morris alumnus. They serve as translators between the psychiatric field and the lay audience. Their objective is to dispel myths, address listener questions, and demystify a wide range of topics, such as bipolar disorder, nightmares, mental illness, pregnancy, antidepressant medications, and how early events in a person’s life can shape them.

Since starting the effort in 2017, the duo has created 25 episodes. Their most popular episode, on the topic of antidepressants, had 22,000 unique downloads.

“It’s really rewarding to be able to share all that I’ve learned through my years of training with the general public, information that is essentially free for the user,” Nelson says. “The podcast format integrates really well into people’s lives.” The cohosts promote the podcasts on both Twitter and Facebook and encourage visitors to those sites to leave questions and suggest topics. They also took questions at the Minnesota State Fair’s Mental Illness Awareness Day.

Nelson focuses on using very plain, jargon-free language unless she needs to define terminology. “Other physicians might say ‘This is overly simplistic,’ but I make a point of saying ‘This [podcast] is not for other doctors.’ We are really lacking in this type of resources in the mental health field.”

The topics are also not always psychiatric disorders; Nelson recently posted a podcast on “imposter syndrome,” which is not a formal psychiatric diagnosis, but instead describes feelings people sometimes experience in a professional setting, when they doubt their abilities and feel they will be unmasked as a “fraud.”

With its convenience and versatility, the future of podcasting will be limited only by the expansive boundaries of human ingenuity and invention.

Dan Emerson (B.A. ‘74) is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities area.

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