This post is part of our ongoing project of SMASH Reflections, authored by our inaugural class of Fellows.
by Amy Gilson
If you listen to podcasts or have considered making one of your own, you may have noticed an explosion in podcast offerings over the past couple years. According to one analysis (http://bit.ly/podtrendm), the number of podcasts launched on iTunes each month went from 1,500 in 2010 to 6,000 in 2015. The audience for podcasts is growing as well. Over that same period, the percentage of Americans who listened to a podcast in the past month increased from 12% to 17%, based on a Pew Research report (come on, let’s get that number up, people!).
Podcasting is in a similar phase to blogging and vlogging a couple years ago, with many amateurs and professionals stepping into the space. Along with radio shows released in podcast format, such as This American Life, several new podcast networks (PRX’s Radiotopia, Gimlet, Slate’s Panoply) support a cornucopia of high-quality podcast-native content. Amateurs with passion for a particular topic or just for chatting with friends start successful podcasts as well. All in all, there’s not much separating a person with an idea from a lucky listener’s ear buds. It’s this immediacy and intimacy that has become the stylistic hallmark of the podcast medium.
However, that doesn’t mean podcasting is easy, and podcasting about science comes with its own unique challenges. I found this out as part of a team of graduate student scientists at Harvard University that launched the Sit’N Listen science podcast about a year ago. Our original idea was to make a conversational podcast, similar to Slate’s Political Gabfest, but about scientific topics in the news. We decided on egg freezing as the subject of our first episode. It seemed like a winning topic, but recording did not go well. As soon as the tape was rolling, our tongues turned to wood. We’d use a piece of scientific jargon for several minutes without realizing it. Eventually, the conversation devolved into mad Googling over the details of ovum maturation. We coped by beginning to script each episode. This brought big improvements in clarity and content, but we lost the flow that comes from natural conversation or good acting.
On September 22, the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH) featured a panel focused on radio and podcast science media. Nathan Tobey (@natetobey, Nate Tobey Consulting) produced the panel with Ari Daniel (@mesoplodo, NOVA) as moderator and panelist Mary Harris (@marydesk, New York Public Radio), Adam Cole (@cadamole, National Public Radio), and Genevieve Sponsler (@genevievetweet, Public Radio Exchange).
Here are the four things I learned from their discussion:
1. Tell a story
A podcast episode doesn’t have to be over in three minutes like a YouTube video, so story can drive the episode. A story isn’t about a topic or program, it’s about a person, place or a thing. Taking this message to heart can lead to some extremely visceral episodes. To bring the experience and science of hypothermia’s onset to listeners, PRX’s Outside podcast narrated the story in second person: “At 95 degrees, you’ve entered the zone of mild hypothermia. You are now trembling violently as your body attains its maximum shivering response.”
The process of doing scientific research is another source of narrative for science journalists. For example, Ari told a story about traveling to the Arctic to tag narwhals with a team of scientists. As he puts it, he’s happiest making a radio piece when he feels like he’s populating a play, so he thinks about the characters, the backdrop, the sounds… This method brings out the drama behind publically visible results, such as an article or a new medical treatment, of scientific research.
While narrative leads an audience down the road of a scientific story, a complex scientific concept can be a bump in the path. In this case, metaphor is your best friend. Mary used cruise control as a metaphor to explain a glucose meter and insulin pump that worked together to maintain stable glucose levels in a diabetes patient. While you were listening to that audio segment, you were right there in the car with her.
2. Embrace the role of producer
What a scientist thinks is the most interesting might not be the best for the audience, and if you’re interviewing or co-hosting with someone who isn’t used to radio, it’s your job to work with them and get a good recording, or “good tape” in radio lingo. In general, people want to sound good, so it’s okay to be upfront with what they can do differently to sound better.
Science podcasts are a great opportunity for collaborations between scientists and journalists. PRX’s STEM Story Project finds new content through an open call for science, tech, engineering, and math pitches that are screened by a team of scientists and journalists. Scientists working closely with producers host some of PRX’s podcasts. This is a nice way to bring in different types of voices.
4. Be yourself
Messy is okay in a podcast, and sounding stupid can make for great tape. Have a long conversation with a co-host and edit this audio together with audio from interviews. Try to sound as much like yourself as possible. It can be awkward and nobody likes hearing his or her own voice, at least at first, but there’s no need to have a great newscaster voice or to channel Ira Glass.
Technical aspects of getting started
The barrier to starting your own podcast is lower than ever. Even a simple smart phone can record decent sound, and free audio editing software and audio file hosting makes it an affordable hobby too. Here are some resources either mentioned during the session or that I’ve found helpful while getting into podcasting.
Tools, techniques, and ideas: http://transom.org, recommended by Genevieve
Beginners guide to podcasting (http://bit.ly/2cWtEEc) I’ve found this one helpful
Connecting SoundCloud to iTunes and other podcast apps (http://bit.ly/2dCNwyO)
Free audio editing software: Audacity (http://www.audacityteam.org/)
Free sound effects (www.freesound.org)
5 science reporting pitfalls (http://bit.ly/2do9PVq)
So what are we going to do with this new perspective over at Sit’N Listen? Well, I think we’ll venture into unscripted territory again and tell more stories as a tool for illuminating science.
About the author: Amy Gilson (@aigilson) As a graduate student at Harvard University, Amy is working on understanding how the protein molecules encoded in our and every organism’s genomes evolve. Throughout graduate school she has been in the leadership of Science in the News, Harvard's extensive graduate student scicomm organization. Last year, Amy helped launch the podcast Sit'N Listen (http://bit.ly/sitnlist), which presents science in its social context.
As the curators of the Science Media Awards Summit in the Hub (SMASH), we believe storytelling is a common thread in our shared human experience, and that new media allows us to convey the wonders of scientific discovery in new and compelling ways.