When the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies opened in Portland nearly 50 years ago, the idea of a podcast would have seemed a little far-fetched.

The technology just didn’t exist for an audio documentary that people could access anytime or anywhere, including on their telephones. But now podcasts are big business and millions of Americans listen to them everyday. So Salt, like it has throughout its history, is adapting.

In 2015, the small academic institution announced it would have to close, as it faced dwindling enrollments and a lack of consistent funding. Less than a year later, Salt was saved when it became part of the larger Maine College of Art & Design. Last year, the college named Isaac Kestenbaum, a 2008 Salt graduate who had worked as a journalist and audio producer, as Salt’s new director. 

Last fall, Salt created a film track for graduate students and, this past summer, offered a 12-week, long-form podcasting course that attracted many people already working in the field. Students in the course produced a four-part podcast called “Sovereign,” about the history of native tribe rights in Maine. It was released in September. In August, Salt announced the hiring of podcast creator CC Paschal, who was an editor on National Public Radio’s “Louder Than a Riot” series, as a visiting professor.

“The podcast industry is changing all the time. There are some very big podcast companies and the job market is strong,” said Kestenbaum. “But we’re still teaching the basic skills too, how do you find a good story, how do you report it responsibly.”

DIFFERENT WAYS TO TELL STORIES

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Maine College of Art & Design and Salt fit well together because both teach skills integral to storytelling – whether through written and spoken words or visual means – said Ian Anderson, vice president of academic affairs and dean of the college. Maine College of Art & Design has programs in photography, graphic design and animation and game art among its many offerings, while Salt offers 15-week graduate certificate programs in radio and podcasting or short film as well as other courses in documentary skills.

Anderson said merging Salt into the college also made sense since it was located on Congress Street only a few blocks from Maine College of Art & Design and that the college did not offer documentary studies at the time. Plus, Maine College of Art & Design already had facilities for teaching photography and other skills used in documentary making.

Salt Institute students Nic Neves, left, Cameron Chertavian, center and Marina Henke listen to guest speaker Zahir Janmohamed during a class at the school, which is part of the Maine College of Art & Design in Portland. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer

Salt had been a free-standing school from its founding in 1973 until the merger in 2016. When Salt officials announced in June 2015 that the school would close, some alumni and former board members said the school was too small and too focused on traditional documentary methods. Maine College of Art & Design, including Salt, has about 500 students, on average. There are 24 enrolled in Salt this semester.

Talks between Salt and Maine College of Art & Design began shortly after Salt’s announced closing. Some alumni started a group called Save Salt – not associated with the merger – and hoped it could remain a stand-alone institution.

Salt graduates have gone on to work for radio or podcasting companies across the country – including National Public Radio, Vox and StoryCorps – helping to expand its national reputation. Anderson said Salt helps expand Maine College of Art & Design’s potential student pool, since it offers graduate certificates and attracts people already working who want to improve their professional credentials and experience.

Below work produced by former Salt faculty and students, Salt Institute students discuss ideas for a “Doc in a Day” project during a recent class. Gregory A. Rec/Staff Photographer

One of those is Matthew Brown, a Los Angeles-based senior podcast producer at HubSpot, a software and marketing company that creates blogs and social media for its customers. One of his recent podcasts, “Weird Work,” featured people who make a living in unusual ways, including collecting credit card reward points and teaching kids to be YouTube stars.

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Brown was one of several mid-career audio producers who took a summer program at Salt this year aimed at creating an episodic podcast, led by long-time National Public Radio reporter Robert Smith, co-creator of the NPR program “Planet Money.”

For the first few weeks, the students chose their topic – Maine native tribal rights, including the history and contemporary challenges – and then reported and produced a four-episode podcast called “Sovereign.” The series focuses on the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act of 1980, in which tribe members surrendered various powers, and the effort by Maine tribes to restore some of their powers and sovereignty.

Part of the class was taught remotely but the students spent about a month in Maine as well. Brown traveled to Presque Isle to interview members of the Aroostook Band of Micmacs. The series is available on Apple Podcasts and other sites.

Brown, 34, said he’d “always known” about Salt and the “high regard” that people working in radio and podcasting have for it. He had thought about taking courses there before but when he heard of this specific course – in long-form podcasting – he decided finally enroll.

“Getting to work on a project with such talented people was great,” said Brown. “I’ve taught myself a lot about podcasting over the years, but there’s certain things you can’t self-teach.”

Julianna Bradley, 26, of Portland, enrolled in Salt’s radio and podcasting track in the fall of 2020. Bradley, a graduate of Brown University, worked in the service industry and retail while trying to build an audio resume as well. She continued to work as a freelancer podcast producer during and since her time at Salt.

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She said when she went to Salt she felt she had the technical skills – how to record, how to edit – but she wanted to work on “soft” skills, like bringing perspective to a story. While at Salt, she worked on a podcast series about two city officials in Belfast who Bradley says “deeply despised” each other. The series, called “All the Little Things,” tested her ability to present two very different sides of a story.

“It really stretched me as a documentary maker,” said Bradley.

Kestenbaum thinks Salt benefits from being part of a larger institution in a variety of ways, including fundraising and collaborating with faculty and students who have skills that can be used in documentary making. The design of the “Sovereign” podcast logo online was done by a recent graduate of Maine College of Art & Design, for example.

Salt students also were recently involved with an art exhibit, “Walker Evans American Photographs,” at Portland Museum of Art, for which they created audio pieces that told stories about the photographs on view. The show is on view through Dec. 5.

This fall, Salt students have been working on storytelling and performance skills with Micaela Blei, former director of education for The Moth, a nonprofit storytelling organization that runs “The Moth Radio Hour.” Students will show what they’ve learned during two nights of live storytelling at the Portland Museum of Art, Nov. 12 and 13 at 6 p.m. Students will share stories in progress, including true personal stories. Blei will host. The events are free but seating is limited so registration is suggested.

“We have a lot of shared values, including robust public engagement and the desire to graduate ethical storytellers,” said Anderson. “With both (Salt and Maine College of Art & Design), it’s about using creativity.”


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