Zach Justus consumes his fair share of higher education podcasts.
So when the Chico State associate professor of communication studies couldn’t find one reflecting life in and around his own campus, he lobbed an idea to his friends and colleagues, Department of English Chair Tracy Butts and Student Life and Leadership Program Coordinator Mary Wallmark: Let’s start our own podcast.
“I thought it might bring an interesting balance of perspective and experiences,” said Justus (BA, Communication Studies, ’03; MA, Communication Studies, ’05).
Ideas were shared, a format was workshopped, and the Caffeinated Cats podcast was born. Justus, Butts, and Wallmark record the podcast biweekly, with more than a dozen episodes under their collective belt (find them on iTunes and Soundcloud).
From committees and campus groups to Words With Friends and Trivia Crack, Justus, Butts, and Wallmark regularly cross paths on campus, though they have a hard time nailing down exactly when, where, and how they first entered each other’s orbits.
“Zach is like gum on your shoe,” Wallmark quipped. “You don’t know where you got it, but once you get it, you can’t get it off.”
Caffeinated Cats tackles topics that affect the campus and campus life, such as Chico State traditions, campus diversity, food choices on and around campus, and the 2016 presidential election, which produced the most emotional episode to date.
Wallmark said that’s the point. She knows that while the opinions expressed in the podcast only represent those of the trio, the larger goal is to open up and expand conversations around topics that warrant discussion, especially those that can polarize.
“Us all sitting silently in our silos, disagreeing, doesn’t do us any good,” said Wallmark. “If there’s a third of the campus that agrees with us and a third of the campus that totally disagrees with us, then there’s a third of the campus that wasn’t even thinking about it.”
And it’s that final third that the Caffeinated Cats crew wants to reach.
Collectively, these Wildcats cover a wide swath on campus. Justus and Wallmark (BA, Physical Education, ’87; Credential ’88) are alumni, and Butts joined the English department in 2001.
Justus began teaching at the University in 2009, and received the Outstanding Teacher Award for 2014–15. Butts earned the Outstanding Faculty Service Award for 2014–15. And through her work in Student Life and Leadership, Wallmark has worked on campus for about 20 years and was awarded with the University’s Wildcat Spirit Award in 2016.
Students play important roles in each Caffeinated Cats episode, from beginning to end. Media Arts and Technology and Design students Malcom Ashton and Steven Houston check out and set up University-owned equipment for recording.
Then, even before the mikes are hot, Justus completes one of the most important tasks: Fetching the caffeinated beverages, carefully crafted by a student barista at Common Grounds in the Bell Memorial Union to reflect the theme of each show. For example, the coffee drink prompted by “Episode 2: Greek Life” had a very distinctive flavor.
“It had, like, cinnamon and hazelnut and something else,” Wallmark said. “It had a delicate balance. Just like Greek life.”
A student guest joins the show each episode, providing unique expertise and opining openly on the topic of the day. Justus, Butts, and Wallmark agree the student guest and their perspective are vital to each episode.
“Their ability to step into a conversation and to hold their own, and to also bring their insight, skills, and talents that they develop here are the things that are really put on display,” said Butts. “When our student guests come in, they rise to the occasion.”
“That’s the part I want people to listen to, not really so much for us,” Wallmark said. “I want [listeners] to hear what our students are saying.”
Justus credits Wallmark for pushing to book a student guest every episode. “Not just a guest, a student guest,” Justus said. “That’s been very critical.”
Guests have included Chico State women’s soccer player Lindsay Dias, agriculture major Holly Hockett, and Morgan Rosen from the Campus Alcohol and Drug Education Center (CADEC).
“I’m lucky because I work where it’s crawling with them,” Wallmark joked.
After the podcast is in the books, Ashton and Houston take the recording, produce it, insert the intro and outro, and post it online. They even take care of social media promotion.
At the end of the day, the Caffeinated Cats crew wants to stimulate conversation. Whether it’s someone who agrees or disagrees, a reaction is a response, which means people are listening and being engaged.
“I would love to have more people listen,” Justus said. “I would love to get angry emails from people.”