Reasons why your research should be a podcast

Podcasts are having a moment. The success of Serial podcast, a true crime spin-off from the widely popular This American Life, has introduced new audiences to a modern form of broadcasting and has inspired a new generation of producers. As part of a preview series of the new book Communicating Your Research with Social Media, the authors Amy Mollett, Cheryl Brumley, Chris Gilson and Sierra Williams argue knowledge workers should take advantage of this podcasting renaissance.

In the Autumn of 2014, a new podcast series was launched which would go on to forever change the way the public in North America, the UK and wider, would interact with and understand the potential power of on demand audio. Serial, a 12-part spin-off from the popular radio and podcast, This American Life, kicked off its inaugural season with an investigation into the murder of a Baltimore high school student, Hae Min Lee. It was an automatic hit. Serial listening parties sprang up around the US and UK along with lengthy Reddit threads devoted to solving the case, and – in a meta way that can only be spawned by the fog of an internet frenzy – it even spawned podcasts about the podcast.

A poll of Serial’s listeners undertaken by the creative ad agency McKinney, showed that nearly a quarter of the podcast’s listeners had never heard a podcast before, with nearly half going on to listen to podcasts on a weekly basis as a direct result of the show (McKinney 2015). From the same poll, a staggering 90% of those first-time listeners said it changed the way they thought about podcasts. This was all part of the so-called ‘Serial Effect’ (2015).

And so, at last, the podcast was having its moment, nearly a decade after the first of its kind came on the scene out of a Harvard university research centre. But, of course, a phenomenon like this does not exist in a vacuum and Serial alone cannot account for the totality of the medium’s resurgence. The ubiquity of smartphones has been the biggest boon for podcasts in recent years. Additionally, podcasts are an increasing feature on car journeys through Bluetooth technology (Zorn 2014).

Podcasts from academic and research organisations – though dominated by the standard lecture – are becoming increasingly varied as universities and funding bodies invest more in diverse forms of dissemination in order to react to audience trends and interests. Below we show why knowledge workers should also consider podcasting their research:


Why you should podcast your research or project:

  1. Podcasting helps you reach wider audiences

  2. No topic is too niche: riding out the long tail

  3. Podcasts are research


1. Podcasting helps you reach wider audiences

As shown in previous chapters on blogging and social media, digital engagement can help grow your audiences beyond the confines of academic journals and those research communities already plugged into the literature. Likewise, podcasting puts your research on a completely new platform, increasing the odds that new audiences – from politicians to the lay persons – will hear about your research.

Todd Landman is Professor of Political Science at the University of Nottingham, as well as the creator and host of The Rights Track, a podcast on human rights in which he aims to ‘raise awareness about human rights analysis for students, academic researchers, policy makers and practitioners working in the field of human rights’ (Landman 2012). Landman has had such a positive and rewarding experience that he is surprised more academics do not podcast. In a 2016 article in The Guardian newspaper, he commented ‘The podcast format is like a fireside chat – it allows listeners to hear experts discuss their work in their own voices, and allows the experts to express themselves more freely than in the usual academic forms of dissemination. We have even been able to work in questions from social media to provide real-time responses within our podcasts’ (2016).

2. No topic is too niche: riding out the long tail

NPR, BBC and podcasting companies like Midroll and Gimlet, dominate the iTunes charts. These podcasts generally have high production values as evidenced in aspects like their scripting or sound design, which can be a daunting listen for those thinking of starting their own project. However, they sit at the head of what writer Chris Anderson would call the ‘long tail’ (2008) and (Berry 2015:172), and on the actual tail end of digital audio offerings sit a plethora of novice and niche podcasts.

Anderson’s ‘long tail’ is namely applied to the retail economy but the theory is widely applicable to internet-based content. ‘In the long tail marketplace, a small number of traditional hits still dominate at the head of the curve, but they now compete for attention with an increasing array of niche products, populating the tail’, write Markman and Sawyer in their article on independent podcast makers and their motivations (2014:25), ‘Anderson argues that access to low-cost (or no-cost) production and distribution tools has created a new class of producers, frequently technophiles or innovators, who can exploit the economics of the long tail by marketing to a specialized but geographically dispersed audience. As a result, independent podcasts situated in the long tail can offer a more diverse range of audio content than traditional broadcast radio’.

Although it is the big hits that dominate the headlines and garner attention for the medium in the wider press, the podcasting space is in fact, largely comprised of amateurs providing narrowly targeted content and who sit on the ‘infinitely thin end’, of the ‘long tail’ (Berry 2015:172), creating content more tailored for smaller but interested or to some, influential, audiences. Markman and Sawyer, in identifying motivations of independent podcasters found, those motivated by the ‘long tail’ factor produced podcast content because ‘they liked the convenience of the medium, freedom of the medium, were interested in filling a niche/un-served market’ (2014:27).

3. Podcasts are research

But what about podcasts as pieces of research in themselves, separate to the data collection and dissemination parts of the research lifecycle? Whilst producing the Brazil series of podcasts for the LSE Review of Books Podcast, Cheryl Brumley, and co-author of our book, interviewed renowned criminologist Silvia Ramos about violent crime in Rio de Janeiro. The interview would feature in a 30-minute podcast on how Brazilian NGOs were transforming the lives of young people in violent communities. [You can listen here:].

During the interview Ramos commented that Brumley was utilising an ‘investigative methodology’ and by doing so, she was producing a piece of research that could stand on its own. Brumley explains, ‘I never really thought about podcasting as creating a distinct piece of research. With my background in radio reporting and producing, I was simply asking questions, and piecing together parts of a story in the way that I always did. In this case, I was looking into how deprived areas of Rio benefitted from community arts programmes. I had never previously thought of it as an academic activity. But Ramos was right. By asking questions, and delving deep into the facts on the problem of crime in Rio de Janeiro, I was stitching together a story that was in its own way, a piece of research: how to stop a cycle of violence in the urban space. The sciences and social sciences at their core are about putting together the pieces of a puzzle. This experience therefore got me thinking about podcasting as more than just a means to an ends. The microphone forms a sort of contract; you listen, collect and clarify. The interviewee in turn understands they must deliver opinions, facts, and in some cases, emotional responses, to your questions’.

After reviewing some advantages podcasts can offer you, we hope you remain much more convinced of the many merits of podcasting for sharing research. Researchers looking to reach wider audiences outside of those already in tune to the usual ivory tower publishing channels can do so through podcasting. Podcasting is also useful as a tool throughout the research lifecycle. The audio-based medium also presents a means to distinguish yourself from the crowded and competitive research landscape. At the same time, it is an accessible and easy means of achieving all these ends.

Chapter 5 of our book Communicating Your Research with Social Media examines the ways that podcasts can help bring new audiences to your research and demystifies the technical skills required to produce a podcast.