Posted on behalf of Alan Boyd.
A disclaimer: when it comes to communicating science, podcasting is my medium of choice. Though I’ve more recently made forays into writing, editing and public demonstrating, for me the draw of a live microphone and the prospect of a late night editing session cannot be beaten.
The term “podcasting”, a portmanteau of “iPod” and “broadcasting” was first coined by Ben Hammersley in the Guardian newspaper in February 2004. Other suggestions of a name for this new form of media included “audioblogging” and “GuerillaMedia”. A part of me wishes that the latter term had caught on.
My approach to podcasting has always been to use the freedom of the spoken word to add an accessibility and emotiveness to a featured science story that you might not get as easily from a written article. In the early days of the EUSci’s (the student-run science publication of the Edinburgh University, UK) podcast, our most accessible and engaging sections came from our group discussions. A good discussion required three things: a well written introduction, a number of important points to choose from within the story and most importantly a group of people who were enthusiastic about the subject to be discussed. While we occasionally failed on the first two points, we were never short on enthusiasm. The reason I think that science communication can
be performed so well through podcasting is that all scientists are obsessives, to varying degrees, and many can talk better than they write, due perhaps to a lifetime of writing for academic journals. When you get an obsessive talking about the subject of their fixation, their enthusiasm for the subject can be infectious, even if you don’t fully understand it. I think that it’s a lot easier to convey that enthusiasm by discussing a story at length and editing it into something more listenable than it is to interview someone to get just the right quote to use in a written piece.
And therein lies another advantage of podcasting—size. No longer are you limited to a word count, demonstration time-limit or a broadcast timeslot. If a section runs long, you can produce a slightly longer episode, or at most release a special episode including extra content for those who are interested enough. In this way podcasting is similar to online publishing and brings with it similar pitfalls. With no limits on how much content you can release, you can quickly dilute the quality of your output and as Myspace and YouTube have shown, if there’s one thing the Internet needs, it’s more unnecessary content…
Listening to a podcast can also give your visual system a much-needed rest. We increasingly spend our lives in front of screens of various sizes and often, (I’m almost ashamed to admit) after a day of programming, checking results and reading papers, the last thing I want to do is read more. With a podcast, I can learn and be entertained with my eyes shut—lazy science for the fatigued worker! In a similar way, with a podcast you can reach people when they’re away from a computer screen. Housework, washing the car, grocery shopping—all of these activities can be greatly improved by putting some science in your ears.
For all the myriad advantages of podcasting laid out above, even an evangelist of audio like myself must concede some issues: some scientists can’t get over their microphone fear or speak all that clearly or cogently; listeners must actively subscribe to your podcast feed and then remember to listen to it; in many cases, only a written piece can provide serious in-depth analysis of a piece of research, due to the equations involved or the amount of data required to understand the result. For instance, it’s very difficult to describe a graph adequately over a microphone. However, many of these problems can be applied to other forms of media for science communication and one former issue, equipment cost, is no longer valid.
With a modern laptop computer with a built-in microphone, some free software and a little experimentation (which should come easily to a scientist), a listenable podcast can be produced for no additional cost.
So hit record and start talking, you never know who might want to listen.