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Executive director reflects on the successes of founding podcasters

Haley Butler and Tinu Thomas on a trip to Snyder, Texas, for an interview.

In the fall of 2018, I interviewed more than a dozen journalism students for a job at a place that, at that point, was just an idea. I wanted to create a student-run audio production house on UT’s campus. 

We have fantastic students in the University of Texas’ Moody College of Communication, so choosing two to be our first audio directors wasn’t easy. Luckily, I had some help from former Ph.D. student and podcasting expert Kelsey Whipple and current content director for The Drag Sabrina LeBoeuf. In the end, we chose two seniors: Haley Butler and Tinu Thomas. They stood out because they both had worked on audio projects on their own and they each had great ideas for how to get the audio production house started. 

Our first meeting together was in January 2019 at a coffee shop near campus, and it was the first time Haley and Tinu had met each other. Within a few weeks, we had a name for the production house (The Drag) and an idea for a first podcast (“The Orange Tree”). It was the beginning of a deep friendship and professional partnership between the two of them.

That spring, Haley and Tinu worked tirelessly to get their arms around a difficult story: the life and death of Jennifer Cave, a woman who was murdered in West Campus. They were the same age that Jennifer was when she died, and they were driven to tell her story sensitively. 

One of the great things about being a professor, or I imagine any kind of teacher, is seeing your students grow rapidly in knowledge and confidence. Throughout the summer of 2019, I saw these two women turn into professional journalists. I watched as they conducted tough interviews with sources. I sat in a small chair off to the side as they interviewed people in prison through glass partitions. They impressed me as they figured out complex legal issues and an even more complex story structure for the podcast.

Sometime late that same summer, I knew we had a hit podcast on our hands. I had seen the work these two were putting together, and I thought it held up well against the best true-crime podcasts. Tinu and Haley still had so much work to do. Scripting a long-form podcast is something like writing a well-researched nonfiction novel. They spent the fall working on the script, enlisting the help of some of the students in our capstone class. They spent the spring of 2020 recording their voices for the narration. They had two or three episodes’ worth of their tracks recorded when the pandemic shut everything down. They kept working through the pandemic while in isolation, finding ways to get the project done. 

In the late spring and early summer of 2020, they started producing the podcast using Adobe Audition, which they learned during their time as journalism students. Most journalists doing a podcast of this scale would hand the audio files off to an engineer who would do the sound design and editing. Haley and Tinu did it themselves. They agonized over every sentence, making sure it sounded as good as they could make it.

On June 30, they released a trailer. On July 14, they released the first two episodes. It immediately became clear that it was indeed a hit. It rose up the charts quickly, with the help of a marketing push by Sabrina, our content director, and by KUT, our partners on the podcast. We also had help from the Moody College marketing department, which wrote a fantastic story about the podcast.

This was a group effort by multiple students, staff and faculty. Even the amazing podcast artwork was done by an undergraduate student, the talented Madi Thomasson. But make no mistake, “The Orange Tree” is a labor of love by Haley and Tinu. 

The podcast hit the top 20 in all genres on the Apple Podcasts app, which of course drew a lot of attention to our program and to Haley and Tinu. Their work is the reason The Drag will be able to barrel ahead, giving many more students a chance to do what they did.

The success also set them up for successful careers in podcasting. They told me last week that they have accepted an offer to create more podcasts on another stage and will be leaving us. I couldn’t be more happy to see them thrive. All along, the goal of having an audio production house on campus has been to give students an opportunity to shine. They grabbed that opportunity and are shining brightly. I’m proud of them and enjoyed working with them. I look forward to seeing what they do next, but I’m also looking forward to seeing what the next generation of The Drag’s podcasters will do.

Robert Quigley loves storytelling in all its forms. He started The Drag in the spring of 2019 because he especially loves podcasts. He’s also a journalism professor at UT.

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