Nico Hernandez Charpak couldn't find any science content in Spanish to his liking, so he decided to pick up some microphones and audio editing equipment and create the podcast he wanted to hear.

The University of Colorado graduate earned his Ph.D. in physics in August after an undergraduate education in Colombia. In October, Hernandez Charpak launched a podcast called LatinoLabs, with episodes in English and Spanish, focused on science and the people behind the white coats and goggles.

"From the start, the project has been about giving a platform to voices usually not heard in science class — Latinx voices," said Hernandez Charpak, who is now the assistant director of research and knowledge transfer at CU's STROBE, a National Science Foundation science and technology center on real-time functional imaging.

Phil Larson, left, assistant dean for the University of Colorado College of Engineering, and CU grad student Nikki van den Heever record a podcast about
Phil Larson, left, assistant dean for the University of Colorado College of Engineering, and CU grad student Nikki van den Heever record a podcast about Engineers Without Borders. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)

Hernandez Charpak is among a growing number of Americans consuming and producing audio nuggets of news and entertainment. According to 2016 Pew Research Center data, 21 percent of Americans age 12 or older say they had listened to a podcast in the past month, compared to 12 percent in 2013.

"It's this interesting, emerging media," said Steven Frost, instructor in the College of Media, Communication and Information, who is working on developing a course on podcasts. "I listen to podcasts the way I used to listen to NPR, but now I can sleep in on the weekends and listen to it while I make my pancakes. You can listen to it at the gym. In the car. It's very versatile, and there are so many genres."


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Many CU students and facets of the university itself are utilizing podcasts to get their messages out.

CU Engage, a center for community-based learning, produces a monthly podcast, "Amplify," touting the many community partnerships between the university and the city of Boulder. The "Lab R.A.T.S" podcast, produced and narrated by CU journalism student Molly Phannenstiel, features stories about research and science carried out on campus.

The College of Engineering and Applied Science invites students and experts on its podcast "On Cue" to share the "never-ending supply" of news, events and issues concerning the college, said Phil Larson, assistant dean for communications, strategy and planning for the engineering college.

"It's the 21st century," Larson said. "Everyone has a podcast."

Nikki van den Heever, civil engineering master's student, sat across from Larson in his office one December morning, with a big, silver microphone positioned between them.

As Larson fired up the audio software GarageBand and donned a pair of headphones, van den Heever cleared her throat before diving into their recording.

The microphone didn't capture van den Heever's hands animatedly recounting the podcast interview she conducted with John Holdren, President Barack Obama's science adviser. But it did record her passion, knowledge and excitement about engineering and her role as president of the CU chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

"On Cue" is a way to keep students, administration and alumni engaged in the college's community, Larson said.

The assistant dean hopes their voices carry even farther than the Buffs community.

When the Trump administration announced a decision to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in September, Larson wanted to find a way to show support for engineering students who were a part of the program that allowed young, unauthorized immigrants across the country to attend school and work.

He began inviting DACA students within the engineering college to share their stories through a series within the podcast called "In Engineering, We're all Dreamers."

"As this debate goes on in D.C., we wanted to get the stories about our 'dreamer' students out there," Larson said. "With a podcast, they can do that and there's no video if they don't want to show their face or say their name."

He hopes the students' stories reach policy and lawmakers to influence the next steps in crafting legislation to protect undocumented students.

Strong fit for students

Civic engagement melded with rapidly shifting technologies and a desire for niche media interests make podcasts the ideal medium for college students, Frost said.

"You see a lot of young people wanting to engage with political rhetoric, but those same people are maybe turned off by a lot of the traditional media sources we might typically look toward," he said. "Podcasts have a lot of specialization. You can listen to people that are your age. You don't have to hope CBS puts on a young Hispanic woman for you to feel represented; you can listen to that woman's podcast."

The accessibility and affordability of consuming and making podcasts is another draw, Frost said.

Hernandez Charpak said he chose the podcast platform because it was easy for listeners in Latin America to get their hands on. The scientist invested just shy of $200 toward equipment such as microphones and editing software.

"That's all you need," he said.

He listens to "professional" podcasts such as NPR's "Planet Money" to figure out best editing practices.

"We're learning as we go," said Hernandez Charpak, who also preached the value in incorporating undergraduate Latino scientists into "LatinoLabs" so they gain science communication skills.

CU freshmen Ian Lee and Ivy Eien are gaining media skills after concluding their private conversations were too good not to be shared.

The high school friends were texting one summer night when Lee suggested they take their banter to a bigger audience. Once they became CU students, the duo got more serious about their podcast "Coffee Talk," which puts a youthful spin on current events.

"We've talked about events from Catalonia's strive for independence to crimes happening on the Hill and how CU police handle them," Eien said. "We have a huge range of topics we cover."

Sometimes the pair records at the Louisville Public Library with the provided professional equipment. When school gets too hectic, they'll settle with recording on their phones at a quiet spot in CU's Norlin Library.

"It's crazy to see how much you can grow through just the first few months," said Lee, who's studying strategic communications in the College of Media, Communication and Information. "It's a really cool project because I'm really interested in branding, and podcasts are perfect for my major. I get to play around with social media and graphic design for promoting it, too."

The learning experience students receive when helping with engineering's "On Cue" show is a big bonus, Larson said.

"It's cool watching the students have some time talking in a media form about what they're learning at CU and what they're interested in," he said. "It's become both a teaching tool and a way to get our message out."

For any aspiring Sarah Koenigs — host of the acclaimed podcast "Serial," which inspired Lee to make his own show — Hernandez Charpak urges folks to pick a topic and get recording.

"And listen to a lot of podcasts, too," Hernandez Charpak said, a salesman's inflection creeping into his voice. "Maybe start with LatinoLabs?"

Elizabeth Hernandez: 303-473-1106, hernandeze@dailycamera.com