Devin Wilkinson had done extensive research into his prominent podcast guests from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, but the nerves of launching his own student-run podcast were not something he could shake.
During his first podcast introduction, Wilkinson’s heart rate spiked. He was so nervous that the production team later had to slow down his audio by 30 percent, but the audience couldn’t tell. To them there was little wavering in his introduction: “Welcome to the first episode of Project Inspire, I’m your host Devin Wilkinson.”
Earlier this month, the podcast launched its second season with UT System President Randy Boyd sitting down to talk about setting big goals. But it was no longer Wilkinson behind the mic, because he knew if he was going to inspire generations of students with industry advice, it must live past his time at UT.
As a first-year student, Wilkinson—now a senior studying finance from Johnson City, Tennessee—turned to podcasts for inspiration. His personal favorite was hosted by a university that interviewed industry leaders. Each episode he left learning a little more.
“I felt more knowledgeable and inspired that I too could do big things in life just as the guests on the episodes had done,” said Wilkinson. “This combination is what inspired the creation of the podcast, and the name is derived from this, with the idea that each guest inspire the listeners to think bigger on what is possible.”
In the fall of 2020, Wilkinson created a pitch for his own podcast, based on models that successfully worked for other institutions, that would interview prominent alumni of UT. He reached out to the Haslam College of Business’s Center for Student Engagement and Success and its Office of Advancement for assistance launching the idea.
“When Devin proposed a podcast, I was like we don’t have it, and it’s a different way to engage,” said Mark Willoughby, director of student engagement for the center. “He came with a business plan, although he says it was less formal than that, but he had done his research on models and potential speakers. He had so many interview questions, you would have thought he’d done a background check. That was the part that really won me over and made me say let’s create this.”
The first episode with Clay Jones (’71) discussing leadership launched in January 2021 and was followed with three episodes—James A. Haslam II (’52) on business principles, Wilma Jordan (’70) on building business, and Don Frieson (’90) on diversifying your experiences—launching monthly until the end of the semester.
But Project Inspire wouldn’t be where it is today without Wilkinson’s crew. His close friend Nick Brodeur signed on as a producer but didn’t relate to Wilkinson’s passion for the podcast—until episode one was streaming.
Listening back, Brodeur, a senior business analytics major from Collierville, Tennessee, was struck by the platform that he had access to. “We can bring anybody we want on here as long as they agree, and we can basically ask them whatever we want,” he said.
He wanted the experience of asking a guest, of his choosing, questions he really wanted the answers to. As luck would have it, Wilkinson had an important summer internship approaching and needed to start focusing on his future career.
“I knew when I started the podcast that I wanted it to be something that was larger than myself which could continue on long past my time at UT,” said Wilkinson. “The critical piece of that longevity is transition of host responsibility, so it was truly bittersweet to see my hosting role come to an end while seeing the larger plan take shape.”
The opportunity made way for Brodeur to move to executive producer and host.
Like Wilkinson, he was nervous the moment he sat down for conducting his first interview but let his curiosity drive his questions.
“As great as the guest’s we’ve had on have been, they’re people like the rest of us,” Brodeur said. “By emphasizing more questions about family, learnings from failure, and other things that make their stories relatable, I think will create a more enjoyable listening experience for everyone. I also learned that not everyone gives the same advice. Every person has unique experiences from their life they learned something from and coming from a point of complete understanding rather than trying to categorize the guest’s response I think will make me a much better question asker and responder.”
This fall listeners will continue to hear Brodeur broadcasting, but as a senior, he will pass the torch on to the next host and continue sharing alumni inspiration onto future Vols.
Project Inspire’s next episode will be released Monday, October 4. The season’s guests will cover topics including entrepreneurial drive and inclusive leadership.
Lindsey Owen (865-974-6375, email@example.com)