Our Newest Storytellers
Considered an emerging form of communication just 20 years ago, podcasts have become one of America’s most popular means of sharing news and information, opinion and entertainment. According to Edison Research, almost 80 percent of Americans ages 12 and above — some 222 million people — are familiar with podcasts, and more than one-third of Americans listen to them on a regular basis.
There’s no definitive count of how many podcasts are now available, but an estimate by Podcast Insights™ puts the number at more than 850,000, containing more than 48 million individual episodes.
As the podcasting industry has grown, more and more Baylor Arts & Sciences graduates have found themselves writing, researching, producing or hosting them. To illustrate the variety of the programming they have helped create, we are profiling five different podcasts in which Baylor A&S alumni play prominent roles. Their work is available through most major podcast providers.
Claire St. Amant
Final Days on Earth
Dammion Heard was young, just 20 years old, a college athlete with a “life full of so much promise” when he disappeared in March 2014. That’s what struck Baylor alumna Claire St. Amant (BA ’08) when she wrote about Heard, his disappearance and his death — which was ruled a suicide — for CultureMap Dallas, a local lifestyle news website. That’s also why she went on to create a 13-episode podcast about the case called Final Days on Earth with Claire St. Amant.”
The first season of Final Days is exclusively about Heard, who had been a high school state wrestling champion at Fossil Ridge High School in Keller, a town of almost 47,000 about 18 miles northeast of Fort Worth. Heard was a freshman wrestler at Western State Colorado University, and went missing after a wrestling team party in Gunnison, Colorado, in 2014. His body was found four days later.
St. Amant also wrote about Heard’s case for CBS News, where she works as a development producer. She had pitched a story about Heard to the CBS true-crime show 48 Hours, “but it turned out to be so much more complicated and convoluted than you could tell in one hour of television,” she said. That made a podcast a desirable option.
“A podcast is a different way to tell the story, a way to really dig into it and talk about things at a granular level, and the podcast audience loves that,” St. Amant said.
St. Amant graduated from Baylor University in 2008 with a major in English and professional writing and a minor in journalism-news editorial. She met her husband, Riley Simmons, in a Baylor writing class taught by Glenn Blalock in Carroll Science Hall. Simmons wrote and performed the theme music for Final Days on Earth.
St. Amant recorded all the first-season episodes of her podcast before releasing them to the public. Dealing with a true crime story, she wanted to conduct her research and talk with people relevant to Heard’s story without them having listened to any episodes of Final Days.
“I really like that process because I’m able to do a lot of my reporting and do multiple interviews with people and protect the integrity of the story, whereas what they say to me isn’t colored by what has already been out in the podcast because they haven’t heard it yet. So, it sort of protects the story in that way,” St. Amant said.
And that’s the approach she’s going to take with the second season of her podcast as well, even though she hasn’t finalized a topic.
“I have a couple of cases that I’m considering for Season Two,” she said. “It’s going to come out in 2023. I’ve got to really put in the time to make it something that that I’m proud of, and that I’m comfortable putting my name on and putting out in the world.”
St. Amant said both cases she is considering for Season Two of her podcast took place in Texas.
“It’ll be another case of, were there questions? How did this person die? Was it an accident? Was it a murder? Was it suicide? That’s the hook for me,” she said.
Since graduating from Baylor, St. Amant has worked in print, digital and television media, “and so now I do podcasts,” she said. “It’s fun to just reach all the different buckets of journalism. I feel like I’m hitting all the different mediums.” —Kevin Tankersley
The Table is Ours
What is a legacy? That question is the founding theme of The Table is Ours, a weekly A+E Network podcast co-hosted and produced by Baylor alumna Amira Lewally. She graduated in 2015 with a BBA degree in marketing branding engagement and promotions while minoring in film and digital media. After Baylor, she enrolled in graduate school at Long Island University Brooklyn, graduating with a Master of Fine Arts in writing and producing for television.
Lewally said The Table is Ours is a podcast offering a space to hold open and honest conversations with Black icons from different industries ranging from entertainment and music to sports and healthcare.
“It’s about listening to Black legacy, inspiring Black legacy and thinking about what our legacy would be,” she said.
As a supervising producer for A&E Network and the A+E IndieFilms brand, Lewally produced works such as The Secret Origins of Hip Hop. She has been named in the Hollywood & Entertainment category to the 2022 Forbes “30 Under 30” list, which the magazine creates to highlight “young innovators on the verge of making it big.”
While burning the midnight oil at work one night, Lewally got to talking with her friend and colleague Kirby Dixon, the director of publicity for HISTORY at A+E Networks. The two began discussing what they believed was missing in the entertainment industry, and agreed there was a lack of representation of those Black people who had inspired them as they were growing up.
To try and remedy that, Lewally and Dixon decided to create and co-host a podcast to showcase Black icons through relaxed and open interviews done in a conversational style.
“We realized we were at a great company that listens and wants to know what’s next from young executives,” Lewally said. “We knew we were in a lucky position, so we just took a shot and pitched the idea for our podcast to the president of A+E. He was super supportive and very open, and sent us directly to the lead of the podcast team.”
The Table is Ours debuted on Feb. 10, 2021, with an interview of rapper Big Freedia. Now in its second season, the podcast has featured interviews with Black luminaries such as actors Taye Diggs and Kendrick Sampson, actresses Uzo Aduba and Danielle Brooks, singer Michelle Williams and the singer and actress Vanessa Williams, who broke barriers as the first Black Miss America.
After working in television for several years, Lewally felt that creating and co-hosting a podcast would give her a new challenge.
“It’s such an honor that I get to do a podcast with my friend about a topic I love,” she said. “We’re speaking to talents I grew up watching or people I aspire to be. It’s a moment out of my workday where I get to stop and celebrate their wins. The Table Is Ours is a bright light in my life. It’s a safe space to have very honest conversations and to get the stories that no one else is getting.”
Lewally said the creative environment she enjoyed as a Baylor student inspired her desire to create a podcast.
“I was exposed to so many options at Baylor that helped me realize I could follow different paths,” she said. “Baylor creates an environment of opportunity.” —Katherine Stevens
Erik Archilla + Steven Walters
Erik Archilla has gotten some mileage out of a class assignment during his Baylor days that was never actually assigned.
In a Baylor theatre history class taught by lecturer Scot Lahaie (now at another university), theatre performance majors Erik Archilla (BFA ’03) and Steven Walters (BFA ’03) were supposed to write a paper about 19th century theater, but they weren’t too enthusiastic about that particular project. They asked Lahaie if they could write a play together instead. He agreed, and the end product was a production called “Sic Semper Tyrannis”.
“It was all about John Wilkes Booth,” Archilla said. “It was kind of a memory play of him in the barn reliving what led up to his assassination” of President Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865.
“The play was bad,” Archilla said. “We thought it was good at the time.”
But Dr. Stan Denman, a professor of theatre arts who was chair of the department at the time, thought enough of the students’ effort that he had them read the play during Baylor’s annual Scholar’s Week.
A decade later, Archilla and Walters applied for and received a grant that allowed them to rewrite the Booth play — reworked by now with the addition of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton as an antagonist — and produce it at Second Thought Theatre in Dallas, which Walters had founded with other Baylor alumni. The play was a hit.
“It sold out every night, and we had some great response,” Archilla said. That success prompted him and Walters to pitch the play as a miniseries or movie. While that idea got some traction, it never came to fruition.
“So, Steven and I thought it would be really smart to turn it into a podcast,” Archilla said. “We just expanded the story to create the first season of 1865.”
The podcast is a historical drama podcast that begins shortly after Booth shoots Lincoln. Walters and Archilla are the co-creators of the podcast, and they both produce, write and act on the series as well.
Two seasons of 1865 are now in the can. Season One focused on Lincoln’s death and its aftermath, including Andrew Johnson’s succession as president and ultimately his impeachment. The protagonist of the podcast, however, is Edward Stanton, who was Lincoln’s secretary of war. He is portrayed in the podcast by Dallas-based voice actor Jeremy Schwartz.
“We felt like Edward Stanton was more of a compelling character (than Booth) and would have more to say that we thought was important,” Archilla said. “We like to say that he has such a strong personality that he commandeered the story and commanded that it be told about him and not Booth.”
Season Two of 1865 follows the action through the Reconstruction period and includes the election of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant as President of the United States.
The podcast, which has had more than 5 million listeners so far, will be back for a third season. Archilla said the producers had originally talked about the series “jumping time periods” to find other topics that interested them, “but it looks like we’ll carry on our story, like we did with the second season, because we felt like the story we were telling was important enough that we wanted to stay with it.”
Archilla is now the department chair and director of the Richardson ISD Theatre Performance Magnet, where he’s worked for 16 years. Walters, meanwhile, “migrates between New York and L.A. and Dallas,” Archilla said. “He writes for TV. He writes for podcasts. He produces for podcasts and is a playwright as well, and also teaches playwriting workshop classes.” —Kevin Tankersley
Listen to an episode of the weekly Baylor Connections podcast and your first thought about its host may be, “Haven’t I heard that voice before?” If you’ve been to a Baylor home football or basketball game in recent years, the answer would probably be “yes.” Derek Smith, the podcast’s host, is the public address announcer at McLane Stadium and the Ferrell Center. He’s also been the radio play-by-play broadcaster for Baylor baseball for years, and began play-by-play for Baylor women’s basketball radio broadcasts in 2021.
The reality is that Smith wears many hats as senior brand strategy specialist for Baylor Marketing and Communications. Baylor Connections was added to his resume in 2018, and while he doesn’t claim credit for creating the podcast, he has hosted all 200-plus episodes.
“I hadn’t done a podcast before, but I interviewed people a lot when I was at KWBU doing news or interviewing coaches, so this is just a longer version of that,” he said.
Smith grew up in Indiana and earned a bachelor’s degree in mass communication/media studies at Anderson University in that state. But with family ties in Texas and the recommendation of a mentor at Anderson, Smith came to Baylor to earn a master’s degree in communication studies in 2005. After graduation he worked at a couple of radio stations, then in 2011 he joined Baylor Development Communications, which eventually was folded into Marketing and Communications.
“My interest was always in broadcasting — in radio and sportscasting — and I’ve been lucky to continue to do sportscasting,” Smith said. “Through talking to people, I came to realize that the media skills that I built here at Baylor and through jobs were also transferable in other areas. I wouldn’t necessarily have seen myself in this specific role with everything I’m doing, but I love that I’ve been able to continue to do media things like Baylor Connections and sports.”
Baylor Connections, a joint production of Baylor University and Waco NPR radio affiliate KWBU-FM, was created to “introduce the Waco community to the people behind Baylor’s teaching, research and distinct role in higher education,” while also discussing issues facing the University and higher education. The debut broadcast on Jan. 5, 2018, featured an interview with Baylor President Linda A. Livingstone, Ph.D. Since then, Livingstone has appeared on 21 more of the podcast’s more than 200 broadcasts — discussing subjects including academics, research and Illuminate, the University’s strategic plan, growth in athletics and navigating the pandemic.
“President Livingstone is fantastic about communicating with the Baylor Family what’s going on at Baylor, what’s happening, what they should know, why we’re doing it. It’s an opportunity to talk a little more in depth about issues,” Smith said.
As the host of Baylor Connections, Smith draws on all his media skills to schedule, interview and record what he describes as a guest- and conversation-driven podcast.
“This is a way to let people in the Baylor Family and in the community get to know people throughout Baylor and paint a picture all across the University, so that over the course of a year we’ll dip into just about every building or area on campus,” he said. “We want to let people get to know the person, their department, and the heart behind what drives them to do what they do, what’s their goal, why are they investing their time in this and how does it impact people.”
Baylor Connections can be heard at 11 a.m. each Friday on KWBU-FM 103.2, and is archived at baylor.edu/connections. —Jeff Hampton
People I Think are Cool
Liz Reed has always been a creative person. After graduating from Baylor University in 2003 with a Bachelor of Arts in film and digital media, then adding a master’s in communication in 2006, she began a career in television. She eventually left that corporate job to focus full time on the company she created with her husband, Jimmy. Called Cuddles and Rage, the company strives to create “a world full of disturbingly cute stories with heart.”
Cuddles and Rage (cuddlesandrage.com) began life as a webcomic, and its delightfully twisted tales have since grown to include books, animation, product design and graphic novels — the newest of which is a mixed-media graphic novel/horror anthology titled “Bites of Terror: Ten Frightfully Delicious Tales.”
When she left corporate America behind, Liz Reed didn’t miss much about it — except the interaction she had with her co-workers. As a freelance creator, she soon realized she’d have to make her own coworkers. That realization led to the creation of People I Think Are Cool, a podcast in which Reed interviews other creatives.
“I founded this podcast as a way that I could still connect with my ‘co-workers’ across the nation and also help them get some promotion, too,” Reed said.
In 2016, Liz and Jimmy Reed had their first co-authored book published. Called “Sweet Competition,” it’s a children’s story that promotes the idea of putting aside differences and working together. The challenges the Reeds faced in becoming published authors were the inspiration for Liz’s podcast.
“When I released my first book, I learned just how hard it is to promote a book,” Reed said. “If I could give the opportunity to other creatives to share their work with others through a podcast, I felt that that would be great to support the community. I benefit from it, too, by making new friends, so it’s a win-win.”
Potential interviewees are always flattered when Reed reaches out to them about appearing on the podcast, saying, “Aw, you think I’m cool?,” to which she always replies, “Of course I think you’re cool!”
Reed interviews “anybody in the creative field,” which in more than 150 episodes has encompassed writers, artists and illustrators, photographers, directors, documentarians, musical performers, chefs and even fellow podcast creators. Reed’s target audience for People I Think Are Cool is fellow creatives who are in search of inspiration.
“I have such a diverse range of interviewees because it’s important to pull inspiration from different fields so we can get different perspectives on things,” she said.
Baylor University provided the spring-board for Reed’s writing career, thanks in part to a senior lecturer in the film and digital media department.
“My favorite professor of all time is Brian Elliott,” Reed said. “I took a screenwriting class from him, and he helped me gain confidence in my writing. Writing is something I’ve continued doing since that class. You really need that professor who, even at a young age, believes in your voice and pushes you along.”
Reed has advice to any fellow Bears who might be interested in starting a podcast of their own, but don’t quite know where to start.
“It’s so hard not to give that generic advice of ‘Just do it!’ Don’t feel like you have to research all the technical aspects of having a podcast. Just sit down with your iPhone and interview someone,” she said. And, if a person would rather not interview someone and just want to share your thoughts on a particular subject, Reed advises, “Just speak into your phone and post it. If the content’s good, you’ll find an audience.” —Katherine Stevens