In 2020 over 155 million people listened to a podcast every week. Academics and research organisations, encouraged by the potential of this audience, have started to pay attention to this new channel for reaching and engaging audiences.
Podcasts reach a diversity of actors, putting research on a completely new platform and thereby increasing the odds that new audiences will hear about your work and its impact. They allow a body of work to be found long after they have been produced: this is especially important for specialist topics which can be found by a small community of people over a long period of time – the ‘long tail’ of marketing. Importantly, they are a fun and creative way to bring life to your research, to bring different voices to global audiences, and to foster engagement and conversation around important topics.
What are podcasts?
A podcast is simply a ‘container for audio content’. Once made, your podcast files or episodes need to be placed with a ‘podcast host’ (e.g. aCast, Soundcloud etc.) that store and distribute your content. They do this by providing a podcast RSS feed (basically a listing of all your episodes) that are made available to the main directories such as Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google podcasts etc.
You can find a podcast for just about every subject under the sun. There are podcasts that communicate research and science e.g. the award-winning Curiosity series; podcasts that are about communicating research and science e.g. the Research Comms podcast; and podcasts about podcasts e.g. The Podcast Host.
The podcast format lends itself to storytelling – all too often, an overlooked format for research – which invites engagement and debate. Audio is becoming a cheap and accessible tool for people – including journalists – who want to capture many voices and to get their audience involved. It’s quick, it’s cheap, and it’s easy to incorporate into broader information packages. A recent piece in a UK trade journal for the media argues that it encourages engagement from ‘sources who might struggle to provide written answers (perhaps for reasons related to linguistic or literacy challenges) to emailed questions, those who feel apprehensive about being interviewed by a journalist face-to-face, and people who simply do not have the time for a standard phone or in-person interview.’
Making your own podcast is incredibly easy to do. But not so easy to do well. The marketplace is very busy and ‘competition for ears’ is fierce! As with all of your communication products and services, you need to be clear about your objectives; creative and entertaining with your content; and audience focused.
Experimenting with audio
CommsConsult ventured into podcast production in a serious way in 2021, with two flagship series, ‘Louder than Words’ for the University of Essex, and ‘Adolescents in Crisis: Unheard Voices‘ for the Gender and Adolescents: Global Evidence (GAGE) programme.
‘Louder Than Words’ aims to show how research delivers solutions to global problems; how it improves people’s lives and how it can inspire people to take action. Each episode looks at a key global issue and hears from leading researchers, policy makers, thinkers and campaigners plus those directly affected by the issue. The first and second series were produced by CommsConsult and led by Cornwall-based BBC World Service journalist and media trainer Martha Dixon. “It was a privilege to be at the sharp end of groundbreaking research”, says Martha. “The audience travelled around the world with me: we went up glaciers in Iceland to talk about climate change: we went to a meeting of brain injury survivors to talk about the impact and resources needed to turn things around; and we took tours around museums uncovering Britain’s lost heritage. Audio really showed the impact of academic research, in a very direct and connected way for the audience.”
With the Adolescents in Crisis: Unheard Voices podcast series, we were able to be more ambitious about bringing in multiple voices to reflect the many different realities of living as a young refugee. Almost half of the world’s 70 million displaced people are children and adolescents under the age of 18. As the largest global study on adolescents, following 20,000 girls and boys in developing countries the GAGE programme has unique insights into the challenges faced by young people forcibly moved from their homes, and the resilience that helps them survive and thrive. Having just published a new edited book Adolescents in Humanitarian Crisis: Displacement, Gender and Social Inequalities aimed at an academic and policy audience, the programme wanted to experiment with a new format to reach a more general audience. Specifically, they wanted to unpick and unpack the evidence and stories that are too often masked by the headlines and shocking statistics. As Nicola Jones, the GAGE Director noted: ”It was also a really valuable opportunity for the researchers involved in the study to take a moment to reflect on the significance of their work, together with the young people at the centre of these stories, with policy actors championing change for the most disadvantaged in humanitarian settings, and with programme designers and implementers.”
Aided by an army of researchers and translators, we spoke directly to teenagers at Rohingya refugee camps, and other young people who’d been forced from their homes in Rwanda, Ethiopia, Lebanon and Jordan. Using audio helped us get to the crux of issues quickly and powerfully across the five episodes, painting a clear picture of what life is like in some of the most difficult places to live in the world. “Capturing their lives through audio interviews helped me and the audience really hear and picture what life was like”, explains Martha. “It was emotional at times, yet so telling.”
The humanitarian ecosystem is complex, fast-moving and built on a web of interdependencies between the different players who are all doing their best in impossibly difficult circumstances. The podcasts capture the value of research and evaluative evidence to key players in this ecosystem. “Without evidence our work is incomplete”, says UNICEF’s Kenan Madi who oversees the Makani programme in Jordan. Makani (‘My Space’ in Arabic) is one of the initiatives being evaluated by the GAGE programme. Makani centres provide a safe space for children and young people to access learning opportunities, child protection and other critical services. “(GAGE) provides compelling testimony of the value of the work being done by a programme” says Kenan. “Capturing what the refugees themselves actually want, as GAGE is doing, is crucial to UNICEF and future education programmes around the world.”
What does success look like?
The usual metrics are important of course – downloads, subscribers, traffic to the website and increased demand for research and collaboration – but so are more intangible effects like increased curiosity, understanding and empathy for what are often complex and difficult issues. “What’s it really like to be a teenager ripped from normal life and now surviving in a refugee camp far from home?” asks Martha Dixon, podcast lead. “And how can this impossible situation be turned around so you can live a fulfilling life – and not end up trapped in ongoing cycles of poverty, violence and extremism? The international community and governments desperately want to know the answers to these questions. But the answers are there, to be found with those who are affected, the teenagers themselves. An audio interview with them can say so much, and find solutions to challenging situations.”
Of course, communicating research through podcasts is not without challenges. “Academic life is complicated”, says Martha. It was sometimes hard work to help researchers get to the crux of what they wanted to say – in a short way!”
“Before lockdown I would have been immediately expecting to travel to do a quality audio interview. But (the Covid19) lockdown has taught me you can train others to support you and really gather what you need in a remote way. It was such a privilege to travel all around the world in the latest series of podcasts for CommsConsult, without any of the environmental guilt of using flights or cars.”
- Tell a good story. As long as there have been campfires, humans have gathered around them to tell stories that help to make sense of the world and their place within it. Storytelling forges connections among people, and between people and ideas. Good stories are never forgotten
- Be entertaining. Audio is personal – people often ‘plug in’ to podcasts and the voices are speaking directly to them, so you want to keep their attention.
- Include many voices, especially those we don’t normally get to hear in original languages e.g. the participants in a project; the recipients of a programme or intervention; the normally ‘invisible stakeholders’ whose views are rarely captured.
- Find people who can speak about the value / importance of your work: what makes it interesting; what contribution does it make; how does it add value etc.
- Market your podcasts. It’s a noisy world out there so you need to draw attention to your content – both amongst your existing audiences and those who don’t (yet) know you but who might be interested in the topics under discussion. The combined GAGE/CommsConsult team created and packaged great visual products to promote each episode through other digital platforms e.g. twitter
- Amplify your stories by actively encouraging others in your networks (and all the people interviewed in your podcasts) to spread the word
Podcasts are just the start!
Podcasts are just one way of communication research in an engaging and creative way. The digital world is your oyster if you’re brave enough! Research to Action had enormous fun experimenting with Instagram a couple of years ago with the #R2ACareerChallenge – and will come back to the platform soon! We are also planning our own series of podcasts on communicating research, bringing experiences and insights from the R2A global community – if you want to be first to hear launch details.
Dr Anna Blakney and Dr Will Budd have led the way on tiktok, a short-form, video-sharing app that allows users to create and share 15-second videos, on any topic. They are increasing public understanding of the Covid19 vaccine and tackling vaccine hesitancy to millions of people who would not normally engage with science content.
What other platforms would you love to experiment with? Which ones have you tried? Keep innovating and tell us what lessons you learned! 2022 is the year for being digitally brave and our community look forward to hearing all about your adventures!