The first time Jule Banville made a piece of radio journalism was a little bit of a disaster. After conducting a highly successful interview with an everyday New York City train conductor, she discovered that she had misused her recorder and didn't have a shred of material for her project. She had to call the conductor, explain what had happened and do the whole thing over again.
She learned a lot of important lessons about recorders that day, but she also learned a lot about the art of audio storytelling.
"I was a print person for a long time," she says. "But when I first started doing pieces in 1999, I discovered that the power of the human voice can be way better than a [written] quote. With radio, you can hear people talking. They are expressing themselves and how they really feel. It's the real thing."
The story, which she pulled off the second time around, would have probably been a boring read, she says. But on tape, the conductor she was interviewing—and his life navigating the tunnels under the city—came alive.
Sixteen years later, Banville has worked as a radio producer at WNYC in New York, as a police reporter for a daily paper, as an editor for an alt-weekly and, currently, as a journalism professor at the University of Montana. Now, she's taking advantage of the new rise in popularity of podcasts to launch her newest project, Last Best Stories.
The podcast, which "features features" as Banville quips at the beginning of her show, spotlights Montana-inspired stories made by Montana radio producers, including herself. The first episode covers a woman's eccentric Montana grandfather and how he helped her embrace her Montana heritage even when she wanted to leave it behind. The second episode takes a look at mountain goats' collective love of licking up human urine and how it affects life for everyone at Glacier National Park. In addition, each episode contains a pithy "quick-hitter"–for example, Sean Robb's two-minute "Grenades" short asks people on the street to name the weirdest thing they've ever touched, with results like the inside of a squirrel and a live grenade.
"I feel like there's tons of stories here about people who are distinctly Montanan: farmers and college kids and moms and dads," she says. "Although these stories are only mostly unique to Montana, something in them is always universal."
So far, all of the stories center on everyday people (or goats) and simple stories of the West. They are funny, conversational and easy to listen to.
"This is what radio is," Banville says. "That's what features are: Stories about being human. I appreciate the little stories. I am not a big investigative journalism person. People and radio just do it for me."
Banville, who teaches feature writing and audio storytelling at the UM, was in part inspired to begin Last Best Stories by her students. They have been producing audio journalism for her classes, but their pieces haven't had many outlets for a larger audience until now. For Banville, a mix of her students' stories and stories from more established audio producers would be ideal as her podcast moves forward.
Just as podcasts have become an easy and exciting way for audiences to consume stories, they are also a refreshing and easy format for producers.
"Podcasting is so exciting for people who have had radio jobs," she says. "You aren't tied to rules as far as programming and timing goes. And there are no gatekeepers. It's not almost impossible to get on the air."
Besides being a very accessible platform, Banville loves the idea of the podcast audience—people who want to inject little stories into their everyday activities, from driving their car to cleaning their houses.
"I want it to be a place for stories they wouldn't hear anywhere else," she says. "I want it to be fun and weird and to be nontraditional. I don't want it to have rules. I want to play with the form and put it out there—and I hope that people dig it."
Listen to Last Best Stories by visiting lastbeststories.org or by downloading episodes on iTunes.
Five Missoula-affiliated podcasts you should check out
Dear Hank & John: Missoula's Hank Green and his brother, author John Green (The Fault in Our Stars), first became popular with their Vlogbrothers YouTube channel and have since expanded their new media empires. On this new podcast, which in June ranked second on iTunes to Stephen Colbert's podcast, the brothers "answer your questions and provide questionable answers" and, in general, bring back the banter that originally earned them their fans. On Dear Hank & John, the pair discuss chronic pain, bees, the apocalypse and what college major will help the world the most.
The Co-Main Event: Hosted by two graduates of UM's fiction program, this podcast is about the decidedly not-too-literary world of mixed martial arts. Nevertheless, Chad Dundas and Ben Fowlkes discuss the week's MMA news in a smart, irreverent and unscripted manner. It all leads to many jokes and jabs, and some strangely compelling stories—even for those who don't know a thing about fighting.
Bad at Sports: The Chicago-based contemporary art talk show includes host Amanda Browder, an artist who grew up in Missoula before going out into the world to make huge, beautiful fabric installations on the sides of buildings. The podcast title should tell you there's no MMA fighting involved here, but like the Co-Main Event, Bad at Sports offers plenty of irreverence. The podcasters use snippets of punk rock music, experimental sound effects and candid anecdotes, and trade highbrow conversation for approachable—yet intelligent—stories about art and artists.
Learning Their Place: On the first episode of her podcast, Missoula musician Amy Martin talks about chickens and how she fell in love with the outdoors, but also how every kid learns something important from the place they grew up. Learning Their Place is a series of profiles on a younger generation that's as much about sound as it is about story.
Do You Need a Ride?: Comedian Chris Fairbanks grew up in Missoula and now makes people all over the world laugh. He and "Mr. Show" writer Karen Kilgraff interview tons of comedians and creative types, like David Huntsberger, Todd Barry and Tig Notaro, and they do it while shuttling their guests to and from the LA airport in a 2008 Honda Accord.