Screen capture of remote podcast recording session during Fiona Pestana's summer internship with Spotify.
Photo courtesy of: Fiona Pestana

Summer at Spotify: Creating a new pipeline for podcasters

It was early July and Fiona Pestana was living in one of the large two-story houses near the University Park campus with nine other roommates. Sitting on her porch, coffee by her side, Pestana logged into a Zoom session where the Spotify trailer for the How to Save a Planet  podcast was being recorded. She, along with the engineer and the producer, watched and listened to Gimlet founder Alex Bloomberg in conversation with scientist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

“It was so fun, honestly, watching them go through the script and be like, ‘Ugh, I said that wrong, I need to go back,’” she said. “They had their microphones on and were asking, ‘Can you hear me, does this sound good?’ Watching them read from the script and see how the producer would keep them on pace, was amazing. It was cool just being a fly on the wall. It was really exciting, putting the lessons that I’ve learned from journalism school into action and seeing how prepared Annenberg has made me for the real world.”

Pestana was one of five USC Annenberg students selected for a 10-week summer internship program with Spotify, the world’s most popular audio streaming service. The partnership between Spotify and the journalism school allowed for both internship and fellowship opportunities that were aimed at promoting inclusion and innovation in podcasting.

“We had data from our students to suggest Spotify was a company of deep interest to them, and Spotify was looking to ramp up a more diverse pipeline, so this seemed like a natural partnership,” said Suzanne Alcantara, assistant dean of student affairs and director of career development.

The connection between USC Annenberg and Spotify started in May 2019, when a cohort of undergraduate went to New York City as part of the Maymester program and had the opportunity to visit Spotify’s offices. Then, in January of this year, Dawn Ostroff, chief content officer for Spotify, came to campus and spoke to a packed room of students during the “Lunch with a Leader” series.

“Before COVID-19, we started having these discussions with Dean Willow Bay about some of the curriculum that USC Annenberg has focused on around podcasting and journalism and decided to move forward with a partnership where we could see what the students had to offer with regards to their ideas and talent,” said Cherise Bernard, who works in campus recruitment and academic relations for Spotify. “It was a very targeted approach and we are so excited to engage even more with USC going forward.”

The original plan was for students to work in-house at all three of Spotify’s affiliates — Spotify Studios, Parcast and Gimlet —but when many businesses went remote due to the coronavirus pandemic, all internships became virtual.

“I was really grateful that even though the internship wasn't in person, I was still able to learn from these professionals in the podcast space, and see how their workload goes,” said Pestana. The senior journalism major worked for Gimlet, which Spotify purchased in early 2019, on their new show development team, doing research and pitching projects. 

Daric Cottingham had a similar experience. The specialized journalism master’s student started his own podcast in early 2020, Smile and Wave, which deals with issues around mental health and wellness. “I was looking to be in a space that was a very deep dive into audio, working behind the scenes,” he said. Cottingham had the chance to be part of an editorial team of six where he was tasked with multiple projects over the summer.

In addition to curating a number of podcast playlists, including one for Juneteenth, called Soul Foodie, Cottingham also spent the summer doing a deep dive into analytics and data to come up with some ideas on how Spotify could better market to Gen Z. Based on his recommendations, Spotify launched the first Gen Z focused podcast playlist, Information Z. “The internship wasn’t like a ‘Go get us coffee’ type of internship,” he said. “It was a legit internship where you were able to learn things from on the job experience, while still asking questions.”

When the internship ended in August, Cottingham launched his second podcast, Son of a Sneakerhead, which is more focused on pop culture and fashion. “The internship really gave me tools for figuring out how to strategize and implement from an editorial lens,” he said.

Jazzmin Stanberry-Lehn also came into this summer internship opportunity with podcasting experience under her belt. She and another USC Annenberg student created Sittin’ Sideline in August 2019 to talk sports from a female perspective. Stanberry-Lehn, who graduated in May with a bachelor’s in journalism, noted that this post-graduate opportunity was a “perfect bridge into the summer.” She had applied to be a sports podcast intern, having played sports — volleyball, basketball and track — her entire life.

Stanberry-Lehn worked with a team of seven Spotify employees, mostly on gaming podcasts, as sports was shut down over the summer. “The producer would send me a podcast on Thursday,” she said. “I would listen to it, edit it, send my notes, and then he would put the final touches on it. Then I would send it back to our project manager who would post it on our Spotify platform.

“Being in the industry and seeing how it works when there's a lot of money behind it and a lot of voices was interesting,” Stanberry-Lehn said. “I learned to speak up more because it was virtual meetings all the time and you can easily get lost. It's just your face there, but they really encouraged me to use my voice. I learned to not be intimidated by big names in the industry.”

In addition to Pestana, Cottingham and Stanberry-Lehn, Diana A. Postolache (BA, journalism, ’20) and Kylie Harrington (BA, journalism, ’20) were part of this first internship cohort.

“I think one of the greatest benefits of being at this school is its connectivity to really groundbreaking companies that are in the industries that we want to be in, and how tirelessly people at Annenberg work to make sure that these opportunities are available to us,” Pestana said.