Fran Bartkowski & Nancy Cantor
Toggle caption Photo by Dana Damiani

Professor Fran Bartkowski Rocks Steady With Express Newark Podcast

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many aspects of life at Rutgers University–Newark inexorably have been altered, as they have at many university campuses. RU-N's arts incubator, Express Newark, has also been affected, seeing its lively halls, classrooms, and studio and conference spaces fall mostly silent. Its online programming, however, has done an admirable job filling the void to keep its myriad university-community arts partnerships alive and well.

Among those at the forefront of this effort is Express Newark’s Acting Co-Director Fran Bartkowski, who recently launched a new podcast, “Rock Steady,” available at or on Spotify and other streaming avenues.

Bartkowski arrived at RU-N in 1989 with an appointment in the Department of English and has been worn many hats over her illustrious career, serving as Director of the Women’s Studies Program (now the Women’s and Gender Studies Program) and as Chair of the English Department. With a Chancellors Seed Grant in 2015, she created the Grant P3 Collaboratory to encourage interdisciplinary partnerships among faculty on campus. The following year she created Cherry Blossoms in Winter, an art installation in Branch Brook Park that drew thousands of visitors from across the region as part of the 350th Anniversary of Newark celebration. Over the last two years Bartkowski served as Acting Chair of the Arts, Culture and Media department before stepping into her current role as Co-director of Express Newark.

Bartkowski kicked off her podcast series two weeks ago with a special guest, RU-N Chancellor Nancy Cantor. We sat down with Bartkowski to discuss her new endeavor.

What inspired this podcast?
As director of Express Newark for this academic year, I wanted to find a public-facing way to be alive and well during pandemic times. There’s a lot of virtual programming going on right now with community partners, artists in residence, and others. For example, Shine Portrait Studio recently got a catalyst grant from Newark Mayor’s Office, as did the Paul Robeson Gallery for online programming. That’s why I wanted to do this podcast. A big part of my job entails operations, communications and planning, all behind the scenes, but it also involves the public-facing part, and so the podcast is a way to be present and disseminate our efforts to the broader public.

What kinds of topics will you be raising with guests?
I want to ask guests to think first about how the present has changed or inflected their cultural, creative, activist production; to reflect on the past three years of Express Newark; and finally to envision the future when the world is right-side-up again some time in 2021 or thereafter.

I was wishing for a creative solution to give Express Newark a public-facing aspect at this time to maintain contact with the city’s arts ecosystem and community.

This podcast came together quickly, yes?
Yes, it did. The idea came to me maybe a month ago, after Dean Mattis held her Town Hall with SASN faculty, where she stressed the importance of finding creative solutions to new problems. I spoke to some people, including Chancellor Nancy Cantor, about how I was wishing for a creative solution to give Express Newark a public-facing aspect at this time to maintain contact with the city’s arts ecosystem and community. So, it went from idea to execution in record time, mainly because Express Newark’s Eric Johnson and Dana Damiani were right there with me as audio engineer and social-media person, and Peter Englot gave me the thumbs-up the first time I mentioned it to him.

Where did the Rock Steady title come from, and what does it signify?
I was thinking about the name Express Newark and the ways it’s about expressions of and what’s going on in Newark, but I also was hearing the “express” part in my head, as in how things are moving fast during this pandemic with medical science and the virus, and how we need to keep adapting. At the same time, Covid has forced us to take it slow. I was in a Zoom meeting with colleagues, and we were talking about the metaphor of planes and boats, how we wanted our ship not to be dry-docked during the pandemic. And I knew I wanted a two-word title—the best radio and podcast titles are, such as “Fresh Air” and “On Being.” That made me think of Rock, as in rocking out, and Steady, as in steadfastness. When I ran the title by people they responded well, and so here we are.

What's your guest lineup for the remainder of the semester? And how often do you plan on producing/posting episodes?
I have a long and growing list of faculty, community artists, and folks in the arts ecosystem of the city of Newark. People are already reaching out to participate from other cultural and arts institutions in the city—those working to anchor us ever more steadily. So, the idea has really caught on. I hope to keep recording as everyone's schedules align—mine, my guests’ and our audio engineer, Eric Johnson’s—and would love to get one out every couple of weeks for the coming academic year.

Your intro/outro music for podcast is very catchy. You're using snippets of Aretha Franklin’s 1971 hit “Rock Steady,” but you have a surprise on the horizon, yes?
Yes! Dr. Melanie Hill, one of our new professors in the English department, is also a very accomplished violinist and has recorded her own variation of bars of “Rock Steady” for the podcast, working her musical magic on the electric violin. I haven’t heard it yet but am looking forward to it.

Thank you for sitting down with us, and good luck with the podcast.
Thank you!