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Chico State

Caffeine and Camaraderie Fuel ‘Cats Podcast

Tracy Butts, Mary Wallmark, Zach Justus, and Aaron Skaggs, (left to right) sit at a table and record the Caffeinated Cats podcast.
Jessica Bartlett / University Photographer

Tracy Butts, Mary Wallmark, Zach Justus, and Aaron Skaggs, (left to right) during the making of a Caffeinated Cats podcast.

Faculty, staff, and students tackle topics that affect campus and campus life

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, English Department 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 and boast 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 cross paths regularly, 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.”

The Caffeinated Cats podcast tackles topics that affect campus and campus life: Chico State traditions, campus diversity, food choices on and around campus, and the 2016 presidential election, when the group recorded its most emotional episode to date.

Wallmark knows that while the opinions expressed in the podcast only represent those of the trio, she says 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.”

Collectively, not only do these Wildcats cover a wide swath on campus but they tend to be well-recognized.

Close-up of the microphone.
Justus, Butts, and Wallmark record the podcast biweekly and have more than a dozen episodes under their belts.

Like Justus, Wallmark (BA, Physical Education, ’87; Credential ’88) is an alum. She  has worked on campus for about 20 years, and her work in Student Life and Leadership was recognized with the University’s Wildcat Spirit Award in 2016.  Justus began teaching at the University in 2009, and received the Outstanding Teacher Award for 2014–15. Butts, who joined the Department of English in 2001, earned the Outstanding Faculty Service Award for 2014–15.

The conversation on the podcast flows freely and easily, and their individual personalities are on full display. Butts voices her meaningful observations quietly at times, complementing Wallmark’s bold effervescence. And Justus, who rarely strays from his dark slacks, white shirt and red tie, sometimes is forced to do a bit of wrangling to keep the conversation on-track.

“Mary and I are like two little animals,” Butts said, “and I’m always impressed by Zach and his ability to bring things back around.”

Before the mics are hot, Justus completes one of the most important tasks: Fetching the podcast’s namesake caffeinated beverages, which are carefully crafted by 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.” 

Students play an important role in each Caffeinated Catsepisode. Media Arts, technology, and design students Malcolm Ashton and Steven Houston check out and bring in University-owned equipment, then set it up for recording. After the podcast is in the books, Ashton and Houston produce the episode, insert the intro and outro, and post it online, even taking care of social mediapromotion.

And a student guest joins the show each episode, providing unique expertise and opining openly on the day’s topic. Justus, Butts, and Wallmark agree the student guest is 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 added. “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,” he said. “That’s been very critical.” 

“I’m lucky because I work where it’s crawling with them,” Wallmark joked. “Worst case scenario, I dart one, drag them into the room, they wake up, and we say, ‘Guess what? You’re the guest!’”

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 engaged.

“I would love to have more people listen,” Justus said. “I would love to get angry emails from people.”