MFA students launch lively Natural Bridge podcast now available on iTunes

by | Jan 2, 2017

With three episodes already set to stream and download, the new podcast is envisioned as a companion to the literary journal published twice a year.
MFA students Dusty Freund and Liam Cassidy

The literary journal’s current managing editor, Dusty Freund (at left), and founding podcast editor, Liam Cassidy, are both graduate students pursuing fiction at UMSL. (Photo by August Jennewein)

“Welcome, readers, writers, listeners. This is the Natural Bridge podcast. I’m your host, Liam Cassidy, podcast editor for Natural Bridge magazine, which is a title I gave myself. That doesn’t make it any less legitimate, I don’t think.”

With a flourish of theme music and opening remarks, the University of Missouri­–St. Louis graduate student kicks off a pilot episode especially suited to his new project.

Featuring the voice of author Leslie Pietrzyk, whose work appeared in the very first printed issue of Natural Bridge nearly two decades ago, the episode transports listeners to a recent UMSL event where Pietrzyk gives a reading from her latest collection of stories.

Our MFA program and the journal were in their first year, and it took us the entire first year to get that first issue of Natural Bridge out,” Professor of English and Natural Bridge editor Mary Troy recalls during her introduction, which can also be heard on the episode. “So it wasn’t until April of 1999 that [Pietrzyk’s story] was published. It is still one of our favorite stories.”

Over the course of about a half hour, the new podcast offers listeners not only another of Pietrzyk’s compelling tales – but also a palpable sense of what UMSL’s MFA in Creative Writing program is like for students. And that’s exactly the kind of result Cassidy and fellow fiction student Dusty Freund were hoping for.

“The live readings really give a feel of what’s going on in the MFA and what we do, which is cool,” says Cassidy, who has since put to bed three Natural Bridge podcast episodes. “And we get great writers coming in, and it also showcases their personalities when they’re up there reading.”

He and Freund, who is the current managing editor of Natural Bridge, initially got to talking about the idea of a podcast at an orientation event this fall.

“I did a podcast of my own for about two years – of my own short stories – and I wanted to do something that wasn’t centered around my own content,” Cassidy says. “I was thinking of it as kind of a way to boost Natural Bridge. In this day and age everybody is looking for digital content, and podcasts are popular, so I thought, ‘Why not?’”

Pietrzyk’s visit and other such events this fall became fodder for experimentation. With most writers quick to agree to the recordings and Cassidy willing to lug the necessary sound equipment here and there, the project took off.

“The first time I listened to it, I was so blown away by the sound quality of it,” says Freund, who has long been a podcast fan. “It was such a high level of production.”

The second episode spotlights an interview with visiting writer John Domini, and the third includes Jaimee Wriston Colbert reading from her new story collection, “Wild Things.”

Cassidy’s aiming for at least one new podcast each month – and another hope is to include some poets in the mix next semester.

It’s a work in progress, Freund adds, but the central vision is to offer the podcast as a supplement to Natural Bridge, which published its 36th issue last month.

“We don’t just want to have redundant content – we want something to be a companion to the journal,” he explains. “I think we’re still kind of coming up with ideas about what it’s going to be, but right now we’ve been fortunate to have a lot of opportunities to experiment.”

Available on the Natural Bridge website via widget, the podcast is also freely accessible on SoundCloud and iTunes. With no budget but plenty of blood, sweat and tears, Cassidy figured out the technical aspects and now feels confident that the podcast project has a future – even after he graduates.

“I pretty much did it on my own, but hopefully as new students are coming into the MFA program they’ll be interested, and I can teach them the basics and they can figure it out,” he says.

Cassidy also recruited assistance from friends ­– including musician Sam Clapp who wrote and provided the podcast’s theme song, “Goddesses and Gods,” for free – while getting the project off the ground.

Freund says he is optimistic about it being a medium that fosters more access to and awareness of Natural Bridge as a whole. He points out that not everyone is as likely to read a book as they might be to download an audio piece that they can listen to while driving or doing other on-the-go activities.

“A podcast is an easier sell sometimes,” Freund says. “You can kind of say, ‘Hey, you should listen to this. It’s only 30 to 35 minutes long, and it’s really cool.’”

The UMSL Experience

Evie Hemphill

Evie Hemphill