Recollections of an amateur podcaster
By Hariharan Arevalagam
I was sitting at a long wooden table in a large room lit by a single light bulb. The walls were covered in posters of musicians and records were overflowing from shelves. I was in a little village in the Lower Rhine region called Haldern. This room, with all its music memorabilia, was in the Haldern Pop Bar – a local watering hole characterised by its live music shows. In front of me was a microphone. A second microphone was placed across the table from me and speaking into it was Benedikt Brömling, a man in his early forties with greying curly hair and glasses. Just earlier that day he expressed his nervousness about talking to me because he was not so comfortable speaking English, but now he was warmed up and was excitedly recounting quaint traditions that he has been taking part in for the past three decades where people shoot wooden birds, have a parade, and crown a king. The glass of wine he was sipping on might have had something to do with his newfound confidence in speaking English, or he was just being modest in the beginning, lowering my expectations just in case he makes mistakes. Whenever he did stumble, Stephan Hanf, my mentor sitting on my left, would help translate. We were both immersed in his stories about the Schützenbruderschaft - a traditional Germanic brotherhood of community guardians - a "night's watch" - that dates back to the middle ages. But he calls it "The Shooting Club".
The day before, in that same room, I was struggling to keep up with the intense Stefan Reichmann, as he did what people who know him call "verbal Jiu-Jitsu". He spoke in a cryptic manner about music, the history of his little village, and the music industry which he claimed to not be a part of, despite being the founder of the Haldern Pop Festival. The room we were sitting in was his office. I was alone with him and it was one of the first times I had ever interviewed anyone, especially someone who was used to dealing with journalists. I was hardly a journalist. Just a student who had taken some modules in journalism. I found it hard to get a word in while he compared his fellow villagers to "sparkling water", but struggle through it I did. Twice. But neither interview was usable.
After the interviews, I went down to the bar to get a drink. I was surrounded by Germans speaking, well, German. This was Germany after all, and a tiny pastoral village at that. Although I felt a little disoriented, I took it to mean that I was on the right track. This was why I was here after all.
Earlier that summer I had caught wind of a new project based at my university, Hochschule Rhein-Waal. The project was called "How to Hochschule". It was a podcast being planned for release the following year and the producer was looking for a sidekick to help out with recording interviews. I jumped on the opportunity. I loved the sound of my voice - I was one of those people who listen to their own voice messages right after sending them - and the chance to hear it on repeat on a podcast excited me. After all, there weren't many other things that I was good at. Whether I actually am as eloquent as I think I am is up for debate, of course. I promptly got in touch with the producer, Stephan, and we spoke a little online. He definitely was a storyteller and our meetings went past the agreed-upon timeframe almost as a rule.
A few weeks later, I met Stephan in person on campus in Kleve to record the first round of interviews. He had a list of all the people we would be interviewing that day. He gave me some notes about storytelling and told me to familiarise myself with them for the interviews to come. After that, he walked me through the different types of recording equipment.
During our many conversations, Stephan found out that I had a rather unique, and admittedly embarrassing, experience with the German language. I came to this country five years ago almost fluent in German, and now I can barely speak it. I had successfully unlearned German. Quite a feat. In Stephan's office was another foreigner who had come to Germany with about the same level of German that I had - Brett Ellis. Originally from the US, he took a completely different road than I did, and now after more than a decade in Germany, he speaks German better than some Germans. In fact, his German is good enough for him to have a job at the Centre for Internationalisation and Languages (CIS) at HSRW where he translates official documents and manages the language courses of the university. Stephan saw a potential story there and arranged for Brett and me to meet and have that conversation recorded. Brett was one of the first people on that list of guests that Stephan had.
When the time came, Stephan said that I will be conducting the interview and he was just going to make sure the sound levels were right. I did not know that this was what he had planned until that very moment and I felt like I was thrown in at the deep end. I protested at first but I couldn't wiggle my way out. Brett walked in and we started chatting a little bit while Stephan readied the microphones. It helped ease my nerves.
We got into the recording booth - a tiny, sound-proof compartment big enough to fit two chairs and two microphones walled off from the rest of the room - and I started asking Brett about his background and his journey. Standard interview stuff. I did not have anything prepared but the conversation went surprisingly well. Once we stepped out of the booth, Stephan looked at me and said "You're a natural". I could feel my ego being boosted. Or maybe it was confidence. It's hard to tell sometimes. Whatever it was, I felt like I wanted to do more of this. That was when we decided to let the episode revolve around me trying to relearn German.
We took some portable recorders with us and headed to an A1.1 German class taking place on campus. How aware the teacher was in advance of our arrival was not clear to me, as she did not seem happy with our presence. But Stephan managed to convince her. We took our seats at the back of the class and started recording.
During the break, I spoke to some of the students sitting around me and to the teacher, Frau Carla Bongers. After attending the German class, it became clear that I was not the only one who froze up when it came to making phone calls to the doctor's clinic, or saying anything other than the ritualised "Mit Karte bitte" at stores that actually had a card reader. It occurred to me then that studying a language like you would any other subject does not necessarily work. In the five years that I have lived in Germany, I could say that the vast majority of internationals I have met who have studied German for years still could not hold a conversation in German to save their lives. Oh, and they are also considerably unhappy living here. A coincidence? I think not.
The conversations with both Brett and Frau Bongers came to the same conclusion - language and culture are inseparable. If you don't take the effort to find something about the German culture that you enjoy and can be a part of, the uphill battle to achieve fluency is going to be all the more difficult. I had never thought about it that way. All I thought I knew about German culture was the socially acceptable alcoholism that is Karneval.
This might just be the ultimate language-learning hack.
As far as cultural activities go, I enjoy music more than anything else. Specifically old school rock music. Frau Bongers told me of a place not far from Kleve where they have an annual music festival that she compared to the famous Woodstock Festival, no less. That place was Haldern. Before long, I hopped on a train and I was on my way. Stephan made the necessary arrangements for me to meet with my interview guests - the hardest part of the whole podcast production process. The two guests I spoke to were the Haldern natives that you met earlier, Benedikt and Stefan. Once the interviews were done, I went downstairs and danced to the music of Neal Francis, an American band that plays funk and R&B music reminiscent of the 70s.
Before the show, Stephan asked me if I wanted to get a taste of what it was like to work in the music industry. Naturally, I said yes.
I ended up helping the band carry equipment after they arrived two hours late and brought them Schnitzels from a nearby restaurant. That's show business, baby.
After recording the interviews, mingling with the people of Haldern, and collecting band memorabilia (including Neal Francis's set list, which I hope will be worth lots of money once they become a household name), I met Stephan's dog and slept on his couch before heading back to Kleve the next day to work on the long, agonising, but rewarding process of editing. For the uninitiated: audio editing starts with listening to hours of recorded audio, deciding what's worth keeping and what's better getting rid of, and putting them all together in a coherent storyline that does not exceed the time limit. The process took me weeks.
My little adventure culminated in the release of the second episode of the How to Hochschule podcast, called How to German. Once Stephan put the finishing touches to my draft, the episode was released on all major podcast platforms in February. It's still the How to Hochschule episode with the highest number of listeners. I am now an amateur podcaster. There's that ego, again. But maybe I deserve it.
Did my German improve, as the episode set out to achieve? Did the ultimate language learning hack work?
You'll have to find that out for yourself.
My time with How to Hochschule is not over. With my newfound love for podcasting, I insisted on producing another episode. This time, a slightly less personal one. The new episode is set to be released this summer. Until then, I can only recommend checking out How to German and all the other episodes of How to Hochschule here.