Lessons from Two Years of Podcasting

I’ve just hit ‘publish’ on the latest episode of Recycled Electrons, my (almost) weekly podcast with friend and Zooniverse colleague Chris Lintott. We started podcasting to ‘The Listener’ in September 2011. This was episode 87 – ‘Very Nice Equipment’ – and since it’s now two years that Chris and I have been producing this weekly dose of news, I’m feeling reflective.

The two-year podversary prompted me to check out our iTunes reviews and they’re marvellous! This one is a particular highlight because it sums up what I think we’re aiming for:

I find the discussion on this podcast to be both accessible to a non-expert, but not oversimplified to the point of “oh god, another Discover magazine-level discussion.” Its like science for scientists, without assumption that The Listener is a deep expert in the topic, other than having some background in science in general. Well done on science accessibility guys. – sfnm77 on iTunes

People sometimes ask how we have the time to do the podcast, but the truth is that it’s pretty easy. One reason that the podcast is still going after two years is that it was designed from the outset to be the lowest-effort it could be.

We use Tumblr and Dropbox (both free) and keep the website simple and structured. We try to keep recording, processing and uploading to a total of about an hour each week. We are lucky enough to have a free-to-use studio across the street from our offices thanks to the University of Oxford Press Office, and we use Audacity and GarageBand for editing (also free). We keep a rolling, weekly Google Doc of things we might discuss. Every week we try to find a time to record and then we just go for it. Note that this was episode 87 but it’s been going over 100 weeks, so we don’t always manage it, and that’s fine.

Before we started Chris was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough to talk about each week but I listen to enough podcasts where people talk at each constantly (TWiT, Back to Work, The Talk Show, etc) to know that there’s always more to say. Once Chris was in the studio, he was his usual self and time flew by. We can talk forever anyway, and so I just see Recycled Electrons as a slightly more formal version of our usual wittering. It’s ended up being a bit like listening in on the coffee time chat of astronomers at work, and I like that.

Recycled Electrons

It only took a few weeks to start getting tweets and Tumblr messages from The Listener with feedback. Sometimes it was about the audio quality or download link, but soon it was about topics for discussion and questions they always wanted answered. The power of podcasting was suddenly obvious and it has been fun to learn how to handle the sort of back-and-forth the medium provides.

It’s an excellent way of figuring out what does and doesn’t work in science communication. With a podcast as niche as ours, you really start to get a feel for the topics that general astronomy doesn’t hit on or discuss. Podcasting empowers the podcaster to go super-niche if they wish and I think we have done. We are able to talk about peer-reviewed research and not just headlines. We can talk about grants and telescopes and politics and the working lifestyle of our field. This felt a bit odd at first but it gets great feedback and was clearly something people wanted to hear.

It became apparent early on that lots of people listen to us in bed! It turns out that this isn’t just us, but rather bedtime listening may be a common podcast phenomenon (citation needed). I have to be honest and say that learning this totally changed the way I thought about the podcast. It suddenly felt far more intimate and it meant that I realised not everyone listens half-distracted on a bus or train. It also meant that they likely didn’t get to the end, so we started trying to wake them up.

Very entertaining podcast where Chris and Rob cover the latest astronomy and general science news mixed with funny banter and anecdotes. Warning, don’t listen to this in bed as they will usually try to wake you up halfway through the podcast. – H.Kramer on iTunes

We don’t rehearse – I hope that’s obvious – and we don’t normally edit. I once edited out a very loud cough. The only other edits I can recall were forced upon me. On one occasion the fire alarm went off and I really did my best to keep recording but had to edit eventually and another time a phone began ringing in the recording studio, that we didn’t even know was there, and one of the Press Office staff had to come and answer it.

We’ve had bad episodes and we are pretty harsh critics of our own work. We’ve had some great episodes too. Weirdly I’m having trouble coming up with any particularly good or bad episodes. The titles are all just quotes from the show and I rarely recall anything that’s been said once I’ve posted it online. I rarely listen to episodes unless I think they were particularly high/low quality and I rely on The Listener to let me know if the audio quality is a problem – and it was in the early days. In fact getting things wrong and being low-budget is, I hope, quite endearing.

Affable co-hosts Chris and Rob talk about the latest developments in astronomy and space news, while frequently digressing, getting things wrong, arguing, forgetting people’s names, ranting vociferously, and occasionally giving a running commentary on what they can see out of the window. One day all podcasts will be this good. – Keithlard on iTunes

So here’s to the last two years, which have been fun and informative and at the very least have meant that that the spiders in the Oxford University Press Office have had some company, even if they never say much when we’re recording.

At the end of the month I’m going to an event at MIT all about science communication and I hope to hear from others who are doing something a bit different. The web is such a wonderfully diverse place for talking about anything and with science there is so much to say. More please!


5 thoughts on “Lessons from Two Years of Podcasting

Add yours

  1. Yep, we have about 350 regular subscribers at present, with episodes usually being downloaded 500+ times in their first month or so. The most popular episodes have been downloaded 1000+ times. I have no idea how this compares with any other podcasts!

  2. Some of the big shows like TWIT do around 500k, but numbers are not important.

    Might help to have an RSS feed so we can subscribe to the show, people forget to come back each week and Apples little world only accounts for around 20% of the market.

    WordPress has plugins that allow you to easily create a podcast RSS feed, Podpress is one of more popular ones and will give stats on downloads.

  3. Hello Rob,

    I started listening to the podcast over a year ago and haven’t missed an episode since. I don’t have any sort of background in science at all, in fact I’m more of a literary type, but I do find the pod really accessible. There’s certainly stuff that goes over my head sometimes but the level of discussion seems perfect to me.

    It’s been a great way for me to find out more about astronomy – as well as other related (and I suppose totally unrelated) things – and I’ve learned a lot through listening. It’s also been inspiring me to go out and do more reading around the subject, which is always a good thing. Thanks very much for taking the time to do it.

    Keep up the good work, and here’s hoping you do make it to 999 episodes!

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