Inspired by the ever-increasing popularity of podcasts, Shivani Pandya CM ’18 created “Free Food for Thought” in early 2016 for students to hear in-depth, personal stories from Claremont McKenna College’s Athenaeum speakers.
The podcast, which is entirely student-run, allows listeners to engage with Athenaeum speakers in a unique way, by focusing on personal stories that the speakers may not have addressed during their prepared talk.
“Something that tends to happen with the Ath is they give lectures — maybe they’re a little reflective on their personal histories or careers — but mostly lectures, and I think the [Q&A] questions that come out of the audience tend to be very academic,” incoming podcast director Melanie Wolfe CM ’20 said. “I think the intent of the podcast originally was that we get at the personal narratives and we ask someone to put their career in the context of ‘what was it like when you were 20, when you were our age, and thinking ahead on what you wanted to do?’”
Many of the current podcast staffers said joining the team felt like a natural way to marry their love for podcasts and the Athenaeum. Interviewer Zach Wong CM ’19 said “Free Food for Thought” reminds him of sitting at the head table at the Athenaeum, where students are given the chance to speak candidly with speakers.
Current podcast director Skip Wiltshire-Gordon CM ’19 said the speakers chosen for the podcast are entirely based on student interests.
“We’re never having students interview people who they’re not interested in talking to, which ends up being really good for the interviewee, the student and the final product,” he said.
To prepare for the podcast, the hosts gather existing information on the speakers and read their work. While diligent preparation goes into each episode, the members said that they prefer the organic moments that feel less like an interview and more like a conversation.
For consistency, the interviewers begin every episode by asking speakers to explain an “inflection point,” a moment that changed the path of their life.
“We use the inflection point question to dive in and make it clear that we’re very interested in their personal story,” Wolfe said.
Instead of reiterating what the speakers focused on in their lectures, the podcast provides new content that is often “as interesting or more interesting than what the speaker had to say about their expertise,” Wong said. “As college students, we’re always thinking ‘this person is so cool, how do I become this person?’”
The podcast aims to benefit both the interviewer and interviewee. Wiltshire-Gordon explained that not all of the speakers have experience being interviewed about their personal life, and can come out of the conversation with a deeper appreciation of the interview process.
Interviewer Nick Sage CM ’20 agreed that the student interviewers enjoy the process.
“[Students] really enjoy being there, because I think they do recognize that as a completely student-run podcast, it’s really just about getting to know them as a rare enterprise,” Sage said.
The group hopes to extend listenership and participation beyond just CMC.
“This is a 5C podcast,” Sage said. “It’s not just a government or current events podcast at all. It’s really whatever your interests are; you can bring something even to the interviewees.”
While their main priority is diversifying beyond CMC, the podcast’s reach already extends far beyond Claremont. The team said they’ve noticed a consistent listenership from Turkey, and joked about a potential “Free Food for Thought” world tour in years to come.