From esoteric passion projects to mainstream talk shows, academic podcasting, like the medium in general, has grown tremendously over the last decade. Drawing on interviews with all sorts of academic podcasters as part of his new book, Jan M. Cook argues that the future of the academic podcast is still undecided and that it continues to fill an indie niche outside of mainstream academic communication.
Scientific podcasting is a thing. Many scientists do this, but why do they do it, how do they do it, and what do they do? Does anyone listen to this form of learning, and is it learning at all? These were some of the many questions I asked when I spoke to the 101 academic podcasters I interviewed for. Scientific podcasting: why, what, how?
Of course, there are many different ways to think of scientific podcasting beyond its technical definition as digital audio content to subscribe to. You can think about how knowledge is created or shaped, how it is transferred, who it is created for, and how it all intersects. Some podcasts are carefully crafted sound bites based on the possibilities of sound and the tradition of documentary radio; others are conversations between scientists and in fact only For academic colleagues; some of them are a key part of the researcher’s knowledge creation process; while others are more concerned with bringing research to the general public. And many of them have a little bit of everything.
Many of the science podcasters I spoke to were keen to point out that podcasting is inherently no more or less legal than other forms of science communication.
Thinking along with academic podcasters who create content for audiences outside of academia is exciting. They note the ability to publish complex ideas without gatekeepers, the thirst for this complex knowledge among the public, and the possibilities this opens up for academic practice more broadly.
Many of the science podcasters I spoke to were keen to point out that podcasting is inherently no more or less legal than other forms of science communication. Like Dallas Rogers, from City Road Podcast told me, “We teach people in our classes, we write research papers, we go to conferences, we talk to the media, and now we do podcasts. And I don’t think either one is more or less valid than the other. They are just different ways of communicating. So I think podcasting is absolutely core business and absolutely core to what we do.”
Speaking to the public without an editor acting as an intermediary is a huge appeal to many scientists. Like Mikaela Benson, sociologist and podcaster with Brexit Brits Overseas And Who do we think we are? Acounters: “I think it’s fair to say that we operate in an environment where the public is asking questions about academic research. You know how to do scientific research for the public in a responsible and ethical way – that’s something I really feel like taking control of. There’s a real tension here: you want to communicate complex understanding, but it’s a public landscape that doesn’t encourage complex understanding.”
This points to how the scientific podcasting phenomena have upended the perception of audiences’ desire for intelligent content, as many listeners want to dive deep into topics and themes. As Marty Martin, co-host Big biology podcast explains: “We used to go to extremes trying to get the ‘joe and jane audience’ so we used the first 10 episodes to create the long and short forms. The short form was very demanding of us. It was very distilled. We spent hours trying to perfect the script, talking about really difficult things that we discussed with our guests. And we stopped doing it, not because we didn’t want to attract an audience, but it struck us when we looked at the download statistics and saw that the full versions were about twice as preferable to these short ones.
Not all science podcasts find mass audiences: some may have tens of thousands, most only a few hundred (although even an audience of a few hundred is more than most conference keynotes). Most academic podcasters are also not in favor of chasing numbers, as creating a science podcast can serve multiple purposes beyond communicating with the public, from generating ideas to collecting data and building an academic community. Rather, it is an acknowledgment that in a world where managerial pressures seep into our texts, oversimplification and mainstream media hostility anti-scientific discoursethat for many I spoke to for a book there is something surprisingly liberating and exciting about science podcasting. As Neil Fox, co-host cinematologists says: “Okay, let’s be utopian. I think it might free the academy. It can provide space to do what academia says they want to do. It’s an active way to go beyond academia in terms of where your content is going and where your knowledge is going. It is an active way to cultivate and welcome different voices, either by decolonizing the curriculum or by actively recruiting people from different walks of life and encouraging and supporting their work, their opinions and their points of view. I think it’s limitless potential.”
The hope, meanwhile, lies in DIY podcasting, low-tech, hyper-niche basics.
This limitlessness gives me both hope and despair when I think about the future of science podcasting. Desperation arises as some science podcasting is copying the “mainstream”: instead of former presidents and former royals making millions on Spotify and topping the charts thanks to their celebrity, we have rectors and vice-chancellors using their university prestige and research funding for vanity podcasts. The hope, meanwhile, lies in the self-made, low-tech, super-niche foundations of podcasting: scientists will continue to use podcasting as a creative means of acquiring scientific knowledge in ways that transcend limited notions of career advancement or influence and that reshape the mold. and delivery of research. Science podcasting has not (yet) been swallowed up by the academic publishing machine of scoring and rankings, and so its future may be what we collectively want it to be.
Note: Interview excerpts have been cut and slightly reformulated to fit the format. Readers may also be interested in exploring the LSE’s own podcast, LSE IQ.
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