Where radio meets the internet

Academic podcasting is a vital tool for public engagement, say Sampurna Chakrabarti and Annika Pecchia-Bekum.

In 2004, BBC journalist Ben Hammersley was hastily finishing up his piece on “Audible Revolution” and he was about 10 words short of the required length. So he wrote the following line: “But what to call it? Audioblogging? Podcasting? GuerillaMedia?”

The term “podcasting” went on to become an internet phenomenon, but its definition remains elusive. Last Saturday, a few Gates scholars and Dr Stuart Higgins of “Scientist not the Science” and “The Naked Scientist” fame explored the whats, whys and hows of Academic Podcasting as part of the Gates Cambridge Learning for Purpose Workshop series. We were all there for different reasons: some already had a radio show which they wanted to convert into a podcast, some were hoping to start a new podcast while others were just curious. The workshop had something to offer to each one of us.

The term “podcast” is a blend of iPod and broadcast and occupies the space where radio meets the internet. It combines the intimate voice of the radio show with the low-cost flexibility of the internet. As long as there is entertaining and insightful content, a podcast can be as broad in scope as “Answer me this” to niche topics like “The Green Lantern Corps”. Stuart explained that if you have an idea to share, like to meet interesting people, like working with audio and want a small but dedicated audience, you should consider podcasting.

Additionally, a good podcast requires good quality audio, well edited transitions and a host with an engaging personality. As an academic podcaster himself, he cautioned against using the same tone and jargon as in academic publishing. While journals require us to include background, results and statistical analyses, a podcast can begin and end with just the interesting aspects of science. In order to save future embarrassments in the small world of academia, he also urged podcasters to be courteous to the guests they interview.

From a technical point of view, podcasts can be defined as a combination of an audio file and an RSS feed. The audio file is the actual content recorded in a compatible audio format (like .mp3, .wav etc.) and the RSS (Rich Site Summary) feed stores the address of podcast directories (like iTunes and Stitcher) and acts as the “gatekeeper” between podcasters and their audience. Although the audio file can be directly attached to your podcast website, Stuart advised against it because this method requires the user to code their own RSS feed and a sudden spike in traffic can cause the website to crash. Instead, he advised uploading podcasts using online hosts like libsyn, soundcloud or Blubrry that charge about £8 a month. These hosts write their own RSS feed and are designed to handle spikes in site traffic.

Acast is a podcast host that will let you upload your podcast for free, but will insert adverts within your audio.

The right equipment

After the whats and whys of podcasting we were on to the hows. The first step in starting a new podcast show is acquiring the right equipment. As you might expect, the cost involved is commensurate with the joy of creating your own content and sharing it with the world. Recording on a smartphone microphone might be a zero cost option, but it is not ideal for making a professional sounding podcast. A budget arrangement will be a smartphone with amplifier and microphone, a set of nice headphones for monitoring your interviewee and some cables. The whole set will cost around £200. You can choose to add other pieces of equipment like portable audio recorders, two mics with a stand and that can raise the cost to about £600. The next step is to edit the recordings. Free or low cost softwares like Garageband and Audacity are suitable for this purpose.

Besides money, podcasting is also a time-consuming hobby - from travelling for interviews to editing recordings it can take quite a lot of your time. For example, 20-minute episodes on “Scientist not the Science” take Stuart 10-12 hours to produce.

Once you have made a podcast, the next step is to make it marketable. For this step, Stuart stresses the title and artwork. A good podcast website title is short (for Twitter to handle), relatable to the subject matter and search-engine friendly. Radio shows used to be completely devoid of any visual component, but websites give us the opportunity to add descriptions or blogs with our podcasts. Artwork is also essential and it should look good in large (for iTunes display) as well as small sizes (for social media displays). Then it is up to the podcasters to let people know their show exists and interact with the podcasting community and with their audience through social media or meetings.

In the afternoon, we shifted to a hands-on session, putting into practice the skills and theory Stuart had discussed in the morning. We used handheld recording devices to make our own two-minute interviews and then edited together the audio using Audacity. There were many elements to recording podcasts that weren’t immediately obvious. For example, wearing headphones plugged into your recording device allows you to hear the potentially overwhelming hissing ambient noise of the cafeteria you inadvisably decided to record in. Also, that you should check your equipment is actually recording all of the fantastic content your guest(s) are providing!

Interview techniques

On a more serious note, Stuart explained some basic interviewing techniques that proved to be invaluable (which are summarised on his website here). As the podcasts are edited later, the interview does not need to progress in a linear way. In fact, after you and your guest have warmed up in the session and broken the ice, it is possible and sometimes incredibly important to go back to your first set of questions and ask them again. As the interview has progressed, your guest (and you) have become more comfortable and the first few (potentially stilted) questions and answers will flow better.

We also discussed strategies for editing. Key questions to consider were:

- Who is your audience?

- What is the goal of your interview?

- Do you want the interviewer to be a voice in the final cut audio? If not, it is possible to conduct an interview by asking open-ended questions.

Once the recording is completed, you can listen to the material in its entirety and identify the most interesting and engaging segments to include. Stuart utilised this format for the work he did on a podcast for Cavendish Inspiring Women. It started with an interesting narrative hook, then came the introduction and a brief discussion of the field.

Effective communication is a major challenge for researchers today. As research topics in every field, from neurobiology to politics, become increasingly complex, researchers struggle to explain their work to the general public. This lack of public engagement leads to knowledge being trapped and un-transferred in the academic bubble. Academic podcasting will create dents in this bubble to usher in a new age of concerned and informed people. It is no wonder that Ben Hammersely thought “GuerillaMedia” and podcasting might be replaceable terms.

*Sampurna Chakrabarti [2016] is doing a PhD in Pharmacology. She has her own neuroscience blog. Annika Pecchia-Bekkum is doing a PhD in Medicine. Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons.