Podcasting has emerged as an effective tool for humanities scholars and researchers to communicate with a broader audience and build community. The medium's collaborative nature and ability to reach diverse audiences have made podcasting a valuable new form of public engagement.
Recently, the JHI hosted two podcasting workshops led by Jaclyn Rohel and Betsy Moss. In this article, they share their insights into the value and impact of podcasting for academic research, as well as the practical considerations that people should keep in mind when starting a podcast. They also share resources for inspiration and advice for beginners.
Rohel, JHI’s 2022-23 New Media Public Humanities Postdoctoral Fellow, began developing podcasts two and a half years ago as part of her work with Gastronomica: The Journal for Food Studies, which led to her producing and co-hosting the Gastronomica podcast series on Heritage Radio Network. She also co-produces the Voices from the Food Frontlines, Pandemic and Beyond podcast, which Rohel notes “is a co-created series that is built on a foundation of community-engaged research that was years in the making.” Although the two podcasts are very different for Rohel they highlight “that podcasting is a highly collaborative endeavour, even in higher education and humanities research.”
Moss, Events and Programs Coordinator with the Critical Digital Humanities Initiative at the U of T, remembers being inspired by listening to This American Life on public radio: “Listening to This American Life as a radio show, which developed into a podcast, planted the seed in me to think about audio as a deeply engaging form of research and storytelling.” She now produces The Circled Square: Teaching Buddhist Studies in Higher Education podcast with her collaborators Sarah Richardson and Frances Garrett.
Podcasting offers a unique set of benefits for scholars and researchers in the humanities. As Rohel says, “podcasts have great reach, which means that scholars have the potential to connect with an audience well beyond their area of specialization, and even beyond their discipline.” And while podcasts are great for bringing research to the public, they “also to create an archive of that research and the development of ideas over time; this aspect is especially beneficial, I think, for early career scholars.”
Podcasting has the potential to impact research with its usefulness as a communication and community building tool: “At its heart, podcasting is a form of communication”, states Rohel. “As an academic tool, it is an opportunity for knowledge translation and knowledge mobilization. But I’ve found it to serve another important communicative purpose too; it can build new connections and community, within academia and well beyond.”
When asked about the essential components of a good podcast, Rohel emphasizes the importance of having a clearly defined goal and audience. She also says that “strong storytelling always helps bring research to life, and this can be amplified with careful attention to the use of sound – be it through music, pacing, tone, use of silence, and sound effects, for example.” Moss agrees, adding that a good podcast needs a strong, clear idea that is engaging and relatable to a variety of listeners. She suggests developing a profile of an ideal listener and asking “What would that person want to hear about your topic? What would they already know about your topic? How can you tell the story about your idea through interviews, recorded sound, monologues, music?”
Starting a podcast may seem daunting, but Moss reassures beginners that it's easy to get started with just a computer or phone microphone. However, she notes that staying on target with editing and production schedules can be challenging and is often more difficult than the technological aspects of podcasting.
Moss advises beginners to avoid common mistakes when recording and editing podcasts and recommends that podcasters be clear and succinct, and pay attention to the sound quality of the recording for the benefit of listeners. “It is easy to make technical mistakes like not paying attention to the levels of your final edited recording or not trimming down your clips enough resulting in what feels like an overly long recording. Your listener is giving you, the beginner podcaster, the gift of their time and attention. Concise and clear clips are the most important elements in a strong podcast.”
Some other tips for beginners from Moss include:
- Dampen the sound of the room where the recording takes place. “Blankets or foam blocks help absorb the extra sound and will make your recording sound clearer. Then, be sure you pull your microphone close to the mouth of the speaker. Getting a clean, clear recording will help you the most during the editing process.”
- Be succinct. “Many novice podcasters—especially those of us who are working with academics and researchers—tend to preface our ideas with too much background. But too much preamble just leaves your listener wondering, why should I continue to listen to this?”
- Limit expressing affirmations. “If you are new to the interview process, you may find yourself expressing your affirmation of your guest by saying such words as, yea, uh huh, mmm. This form of audible listening is normal in everyday conversation and is often a desirable way to show your guest that you affirm their ideas. But, in a podcast interview, those words and sounds we make as engaged listeners can be distracting to your listener. Try listening quietly without saying those short words. And in your editing software, try silencing your track while your guest is speaking.”
Other practical considerations that potential podcasters should keep in mind include:
- Set up an RSS feed. “This is the only way to get your project listed on the directories that populate the most widely used podcast catchers like Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. You will need to pay a small fee to have your podcast hosted by a platform like Podbean or Anchor.fm.”
- Transcripts are important. “Transcripts are an important tool to make your audio more accessible to more people. Many of the recording and editing platforms like Zencastr and Riverside now offer an automatic transcription service. The transcript is an essential tool for the editing process, helping you identify the parts of your recording that you want to keep.”
- Choose the right microphone. “Your choice of microphone will make a significant difference in the quality of the sound that you produce. Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution to microphones, you should remember that the tiny mic on your earbuds or airpods is not designed to record rich, dynamic audio.”
When it comes to finding inspiration and guidance, Rohel recommends the Humanities Podcast Network for those interested in creating podcasts related to humanities research and teaching. Moss suggests that attending a gathering of other podcasters is a great way to develop a network of like-minded people. For example, attending conferences like WerkIt (presentation available as a podcast) or the Hot Docs Podcast Festival in Toronto allow you “to connect with other podcasters and learn more about the creative process of producing complex shows.” She also recommends utilizing free or low cost online resources, such as Adobe's Audition tutorials, YouTube videos on how to use Audition and Audacity, and LinkedIn Learning's audio editing resources.
For those who are completely new to podcasting and are unsure where to start, Rohel has some advice. “Try to get some experience in a smaller role with other podcasts first, before creating and launching your own podcast. One could start out by joining another podcast as a guest. Some podcast series welcome pitches from prospective guests. Even joining as an interviewee would offer some insight into the technology and recording devices, production process, and the different possibilities of episode format and structure.”
Similarly, Moss advises potential podcasters to “Try your best to connect with other folks who are producing podcasts or who work in radio. Podcasting is a communal activity, one that fosters connection with other people. Talking with other people who work in audio will help you solve problems and develop creative and imaginative ways to develop your ideas further.”
Podcasting offers scholars and researchers in the humanities a valuable tool for sharing their research and engaging with a broader audience. With careful attention to storytelling and practical factors such as equipment, production quality, and distribution, anyone can create a successful podcast that resonates with a community of listeners.
Stay tuned for news about a specially designed podcasting booth with equipment located in the Jackman Humanities Building that will be available soon for your humanities projects!