Play up for podcasts

2nd February 2007 at 00:00
The internet is transforming one school radio station, and getting teens involved in music technology. Stephen Manning finds out how

It is a long way from two yoghurt pots and a length of string. In recent years, the internet has moved the goalposts on what schools can achieve and pupils at John Hanson Community School, a comprehensive in Andover, Hampshire, is leading the way with regular podcasts, mixing interviews, drama, comedy and original music.

"Advancing technology has made access to broadcasting a lot easier in recent years," says Mike Adams, the school's assistant headteacher and head of information communication technology.

The former technical operator and occasional presenter on the Stoke Mandeville Hospital radio has now brought his experience to the comprehensive's Hanson Radio.

Whereas many school stations will broadcast live at certain times of the day, playing a few CDs and chatting over the canteen speakers, John Hanson uses recording and the internet to fully explore the skills required in the process - from storyboarding, performing and presenting, to editing.

About 15 Year 7 to 10 pupils, guided by Mike and head of performing arts, Alastair Johnston, form the basis of the production team, producing 30-minute podcasts which have included scenes from Romeo and Juliet with a harpsichord accompaniment.

The school has a wide range of musical abilities and Mike says: "We'll feature somebody just singing if they want to because we want the very widest range of involvement." Instrumental contributions have included one pupil sharpening his GCSE jazz piano piece before an audience, while another played saxophone along to a backing track.

The comprehensive has regular concerts which are recorded and Mike will sometimes play them back to the performers to determine what went well.

Then he gets them to re-record their work in the studio, eliminating mistakes and audience disturbance - an interesting twist on the supremacy of the live event over the recorded medium.

The pupils' mission has spread beyond the school with the recording of an outside broadcast at nearby Hatherden Primary, where the youngsters put on a half-hour musical based on the biblical story of Daniel and the Lion's Den. The performance was then included in the comprehensive's podcast and the children received a CD of their performance the next day.

To give the whole endeavour a more authentic broadcasting air, Mike searched for "royalty-free" music and came across, the website of Kevin MacLeod, a composer who provides 30-second bursts of jingles and music at no charge in return for a named credit. Further polish comes from voiceovers provided by Mike's son and his colleagues in the radio business.

The school made its podcasting debut last March and soon after its work came to the attention of Terry Freedman, freelance ICT consultant and chair of the executive committee of NAACE, the association for technology advisers and co-ordinators in education. Terry is impressed with his teammates.

"Many different skills are acquired when planning these podcasts and I think it's especially useful for kids who are not so good at writing. I have mapped out what they do to national curriculum level," he says. "They combine and refine information from various sources, which is a level 4 requirement, as well as critically evaluating fitness for purpose for the audience. They are addressing national curriculum objectives almost without knowing it."

Mike hopes to use podcasts as revision materials and is planning a unit on podcasting in Year 8 ICT

Hear the school's archive of podcasts at Terry Freedman offers practical advice on technology in schools at

How do they do it?

Pupils use Audacity, free downloadable software, which enables them to attach a microphone and record sound directly onto a PC or laptop.

"The sound is rendered on the screen as wave patterns so you can see the cough you want to remove," explains Mike.

They also use Dance eJay, CDs of pre-recorded music elements, which can be dropped in to produce backing music.

When completed, it is converted to an MP3 audio file and can be played from the website or downloaded.

The school may put its podcasts on to iTunes, via an RSS feed (Really Simple Syndication), where it cansubscribe to a website and is notified automatically about updates.

"I've recorded various sound effects and learned a lot about editing," says Steven Warner, a Year 9 pupil.

"I play in a band and we record with the Audacity software so I had some previous knowledge.

"But I am interested in electronics and working at the station has really opened my eyes."

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