I’ve been in the academic podcasting game since 2015 (with the launch of RightsUp), but my love affair with radio (the grandfather of podcasting) probably began in elementary school when we were tasked with producing a radio play for class. I loved it – writing the script, rehearsing the character voices, finding and recording the sounds of doors slamming and footsteps approaching and airplanes flying overhead. Our audio-noir mystery programme probably wound up being fairly nonsensical and was undoubtedly hindered by one too many Backstreet Boys references, but the experience stuck with me.
One of the awesome things I get to do as a podcaster in a university setting is teach other academics how to get started in podcasting. I run a termly workshop for doctoral students and post-docs at TORCH on audio production, from storyboarding to post-production, and it’s always the highlight of my term. Participants bring such awesome, innovative ideas, and it makes me think about my own podcasting goals in new ways. I wanted to write a post about one of the key points I like to emphasize in these workshops: why academics make good podcasters.
For a snappy overview of what makes podcasting such an easy fit for nerds like me and my academic colleagues, I really like this interview with Open University Senior Lecturer Nigel Warburton, whose podcast, Philosophy Bites, became a huge success. So, listen to that. But here are my thoughts on why academics make good podcast producers and guests.
Good research = good podcasts
If there’s one thing academics know after 20+ years of continuous education, it’s that you should always do your homework. It’s true of all research endeavours: you need to do some background reading and know the literature to know the lay of the land. Well, the same is true of good podcasts. The best magazine-style podcasts are meticulously researched using the best journalistic tools and practices. And even the more relaxed, conversational podcasts require preparation. You have to know what you’re going to talk about!
Academics are used to this kind of preparatory work — we do it when we write articles or present conference papers. We know the value of being prepared (and the pain of procrastination). When I prepare for my podcast interviews, I ask interviewees to send me literature, recordings, press releases, bullet points, or any other background they’d like me to have before we meet. I also do my own research ahead of time. It helps me prepare questions that are well suited to both the interviewee and the episode. Like planning a book chapter or a lecture, podcasts have a narrative arc, and you need to know where the conversation is headed. Good news – we already do this kind of background research ALL THE TIME!
It’s all about editing
You’re on Draft 6 of your journal article, and you feel like it will never be finished, and you’re wondering why you got into this field in the first place. We’ve all been there. But in the midst of polishing up that peer reviewed publication, it’s easy to forget the very valuable skill set you’ve developed to get there. You’re an expert editor. Podcasts require both technical and conceptual editing. The technical side of things, you can pick up along the way (or find someone who already knows a thing or two about audio editing!), but the conceptual side of editing a podcast taps into the same skills that contribute to good writing — a sense of organization, narrative, and style.
It’s useful to think of a podcast episode in the same way you would think about an essay or a paper. How will the different interviews fit together? What will be the beginning, middle, and end of the episode, and how do I transition between them? Planning and editing a podcast are very similar to outlining and drafting an academic paper.
You have to like learning new stuff
Of course, there’s going to be a bit of a learning curve when you get started. There’s a small amount of equipment required (although I recorded my first podcast almost entirely on iPhone voice memos), some software, and a few skills. All of those things can be acquired as you go. The only essential prerequisites are a sense of curiosity and an interest in learning about new topics and new technical skills. If you’re still holed up in the ivory tower at this point, chances are… you like learning. That’s great! Because a willingness to pick up new skills and acquire new knowledge is the engine that drives an independent podcast.
The weirder the better
What are academics known for if not our niche interests? The narrower the better, right? Well, while in the ‘real world’ our specializations earn us more than our fair share of eye rolls at dinner parties, narrow/niche/unexpected/under-explored topics are the stuff of podcasts. Some of the best podcasts out there (think Invisibilia or 99 Percent Invisible) zero in on a minute topic – one you’ve probably never heard of – in order to make a broader point. If that doesn’t sound like academic research, I don’t know what does. Podcasts often go ‘off the beaten track’ in terms of content. There’s a reason that they’re related to radio but have flourished entirely independently of established radio stations. They speak to the niche!
So, embrace your unusual interests and your obscure research agendas! They’d probably make great audio programmes. Importantly, putting together a podcast also makes you think about what makes your niche interest interesting. Framing your research this way challenges you to communicate better, or at least differently, and can open the door to new insights into familiar subjects.
And importantly, academics know a lot of cool stuff. Even if you don’t want to create, record, and edit your own podcast, consider participating in other ways (scriptwriting, interviewing, etc.). The knowledge you’ve acquired over all those long years of study makes you a wonderful resource for podcasters working on their own niche subject areas. Team up, collaborate, and share what you know! There are lots of ways to do this, and podcasting is just one, but it’s a low-cost, wide-impact way to get your research out there.