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Science podcasting is popular, fun and informative… but how do you make a success of it? Is there a formula that the experts use to get a show regularly on the air? How much research and effort goes into every show? What about new technologies like Google Hangout and should you even consider starting your own podcast?
I talk to podcasting pioneers Dr Pamela Gay and Fraser Cain about their experiences in the field as science communicators via podcasts, even how they got featured on Google with their astronomy hangouts!
Some of the research I mention into podcasting that was done by Dr Pamela Gay: the first peer-reviewed papers (1,2) on what it takes to make a podcast and find out who is listening (Astronomy Cast and collaborators have followed up with three more papers – 3, and two not yet online).
Please also check out Fighting Funding Cuts and Sequestration, on what is being faced by science outreach in the USA, and send in any feedback that could help.
Fraser: I think, when I first wanted to get into podcasting, I looked around and I noticed that there was this pod-fading thing that starts to happen with people. They come up with this really grandiose idea and it’s very production heavy and it’s got lots and lots of work that they have to do.
They embark upon this, in the beginning, with great enthusiasm. Then, over time, the lack of results with the increasing workload really just starts to wear them down and people really lose their enthusiasm for the project. I looked at that, right from day one, and tried to bake in our future disappointment and frustration that things weren’t going at the pace that we wanted them to go.
Things always take longer than you think they are going to take. You need to figure out that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. We wanted to figure out a concept for a show that we could start from day one that we could record quickly, be done and then come back a week later and not have been completely burned out, especially after years.
I knew that this was going to take us years to get it just to grow and grow and grow. When I looked at what, ironically, right what Pamela was doing was Slacker Astronomy, they were doing a tremendous amount of work. I was like, “No. No. No. No. That’s too much work. Let’s figure out something that’s easier.”
Pamela: Yeah, that’s the incredibly crazy part. Slacker Astronomy was eight to twelve minutes, once a week. Astronomy Cast is 30 minutes. It took us about two full days of effort per Slacker Astronomy episode. It was because it was scripted. It was because it was based on something in the news that week. There was the whole matter of find what you want, write the script, proof the script, make sure the timing is correct, then have to do multiple takes because someone goofs up a line. All of those things, we had a blast with it because we were a bunch of dorks – but it just took so much longer to do it!
Fraser and I, if I’m having a really, really busy day, Fraser is, like, “OK, let’s do something already in your head.” On those days where life is just overwhelming, there’s always some part of astronomy that we haven’t talked about that is hopefully already stored locally.
Kylie: Who are your typical listeners? What do they want out of the show every time they click on?
Fraser: Well, the objective early on was for us to create something that would bring a person up to speed with all of the concepts of astronomy at a level of detail that they could read any “Scientific American,” or any article on Universe Today, or anything like that and be able to understand what was going on, and maybe go a little deeper. We originally sat down and said, “What does that look like?” That’s black holes and that’s galaxies and that’s cosmology and that’s the Big Bang. The topics start to fall out.
Then we just created the structure of, let’s just cover one topic each week in a level of depth that we feel like we’ve gotten there. That we’ve gotten to the point that we’ve explained it that a person can walk away. Then over time, the pieces of knowledge start to overlap with each other.
Our audience is anyone who is looking to understand more about astronomy. Understand it not at a professional level, but to understand it that you can have an in‑depth conversation with somebody. That you can digest anything you see and be able to understand it.
Pamela: One of the crazy things we’ve seen is while the majority of the people who come and listen to our show are people who are after that astronomy content, we’ve gotten a lot of really neat secondary audiences. At one point, we did a survey and found out that there are a bunch of people who start off coming to our show because the two of us have fairly neutral accents and we have transcripts for all of our episodes. They were coming to our show to learn English, and along the way they were also learning astronomy, which is really awesome.
Fraser: We get people who will put it on in the car when they’ve got their loved ones trapped and will play it and the whole family turns into fans. It’s quite funny. This is one of the other pieces that we really baked in right from day one, which was there’s something magical about this natural language. That as we just talk about a subject like human beings and not with a script, it’s very endearing and very engaging and worms into your brain and you want to listen to it, because when human beings just talk, you can’t help but want to overhear it. That’s another part of it, which is why I love it, because it’s also lazy!
Pamela: At a certain level, it’s the interaction with each other, and that’s half the fun of it.
Kylie: How many podcasts are you currently involved in? You started off with Slacker Astronomy. Where has it gone from there?
Pamela: Well, I left Slacker Astronomy back in 2006 and started Astronomy Cast. Then in 2009 we started the International Year of Astronomy. With that came the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast, which is still going. Desperately needs donations to keep it going, but it’s still going.
Fraser: It’s already won the Parsec Award.
Pamela: But in addition to these typical podcasts that are audio‑only that we do, we’ve also started using the Google Hangout’s On Air technology to do a variety of new types of content, some of which we’re also outputting as audio into our podcast feeds. This is really all Fraser’s brainchild.
Fraser: Less lazy, though. I don’t know what went wrong with me, because these are a lot of work. [laughter]
Fraser: But you know what? It’s video with the least amount of work possible, so that’s still a good compromise.
Kylie: How did that end up being advertised on Google? I popped in and suddenly there’s this beautiful video saying, “As you can see, these fabulous astronomers using Google Hangout. Aren’t they cool?” I was like, “Damn, that is fantastic.” Was it immediately seized up by Google as being what they want people to use Google Hangout for, or was it something that evolved over time and they’ve been checking you out?
Fraser: Back in November was the first time we did this, and I literally just had an idea. I was doing Hangouts and I thought, “I wonder if we could get a telescope connected into a Hangout.” Then I just put a post on Google+ saying, “Does anybody think they could try and figure this out with me?” A couple of people got back to me and we started to run some tests. We got to a point where we were able to actually get the moon hanging out in Hangout.
Kylie: Really? Brilliant.
Fraser: Yeah. If people don’t know, Hangouts are this service on Google+ where you can have multiple people all just have a big video chat. But they have a version that’s called Hangout On Air where you can actually publicise the Hangout and make it visible by the public. You can have your people meeting, but other people can be watching it. Anybody can use this service. We did this Hangout, put it on air. We got a great response. Once we had a couple people showing how to do it and other astronomers came on board, then after a while, we had 15‑20 astronomers.
In the beginning we were just dropping everything we were doing and showing at various random times, but then we collected it together and went for every Sunday night, which was the most appropriate time for the most astronomers that we could do it with.
We got to the point where we were getting quite a long following, pretty early on, actually. I would say by March, Google reached out to me and said, “This is really interesting. We’d like to showcase what you’re doing.”
Now, I didn’t know what they were actually going to do, but it ended up being they sent a camera crew out to Mike in Virginia, Pamela, me and then down to Los Angeles and built this wonderful documentary. Then they showcased it during the Google I/O Keynote. It was amazing.
Kylie: Is that, for you, do you think the future of podcasting? I mean Pamela’s done some early research into podcasting and comparing it to the reach of non‑science podcast. Have things changed dramatically over time?
Pamela: We’re still getting a lot more downloads on our audio podcasts through iTunes than we are through YouTube. At a certain level, an audio file is something you can listen to while you’re running, something that you can walk all over your house and listen in to while doing laundry, while cleaning. I can listen to stuff while I’m riding my horse. I can’t watch YouTube on the back of a horse if I want to live!
There’s always going to be a place for the audio show within all of this rich media. Google Hangouts is a new way to allow us to do things that you can’t do without video. Astronomy Cast, we’re both still baffled that pull of doing only audio to talk about such a highly visual science, but that’s really where there’s an audience. There’s, again, that ability to get your spouse, your children, your commute buddies trapped in the car with you and inflict audio on them! To listen to our words during an amateur astronomy star party. You can’t do these things with the Hangouts On Air.
Fraser: Yes, we get orders of magnitude more listeners for the audio version of Astronomy Cast than we do with any of the other stuff that we’re doing. Again, this really goes right back to that fundamental that we started out with, which was video was important. Lots of people like to consume video. We need to understand how to do it. It’s incredibly time consuming, so what is the easiest possible way that we can investigate that? That’s what the star parties are, because again, we just meet once a week and everyone connects their telescopes and we have a party. Then we wrap it up.
I always have that same method. We don’t know where this is going to turn out to be, but we know that we need to come up with a concept that we can maintain week after week, month after month, year after year before things will get some momentum.
But at the same time, that made us very well‑positioned to do really interesting things as well. Like, we did a virtual star party during the transit of Venus. When normally we might get a couple of hundred people watching live, we had six or seven thousand people watching us live. We are going to be covering the landing of the Curiosity Rover.
Pamela: Which is called Mars Science Laboratory by everyone in NASA. You never hear them say Curiosity. I have to point this out, because it’s really funny.
Fraser: That’s very interesting.
Fraser: No. No. The Mars Science Laboratory…the MSL!
Kylie: No, Curiosity sounds much better. Curiosity sounds much better!
Fraser: Yeah, the Curiosity Rover. We are going to be covering that and we are going to do that live and we’re going to try and show the landing and the video feed and all that kind of stuff. I think that’s going to be, again, maybe even bigger. What it’s doing is giving us the technical chops to be able to do other interesting, weird things. As you investigate these other platforms, you don’t necessarily know what it’s going to turn out to. But it’s the Woody Allen quote ‑ right? ‑ “80 percent of success is just showing up.” If you can figure out the technology, you can learn how to be in front of the camera, you can pull these feeds together, you can build some expertise, then, when the really interesting opportunities come along, you’re ready to take advantage of them.
Kylie: Is it just a matter of sticking out with it, if you want to get into podcasting? You mentioned the 365 days of astronomy, which needs funding. Anyone can contribute. It is crowd sourced. If someone wants to start up their own podcast, perhaps being inspired by having a go at the 365, why should they podcast and why should they reconsider it?
Pamela: That is getting to be a harder and harder question, as more and more people join podcasting. If you are passionate about astronomy and you do want to get involved, I highly encourage you to get involved in the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. We are someplace where, if you have every other week content, we have space for you. So we can help put you in that place, where you already can have an existing audience. Now, if you’re looking to do something truly original, there is still space for you. But, what we are finding is that it’s getting harder and harder to find new ideas. The one standout place for people, who are doing an old idea in a new way, is the people who are doing audio books. If you have a great story, this is a great way to share that great story.
Fraser: Sorry, I’ve got to go and tell some children to be a little quieter. Give me one second. Sorry…
Kylie: …Just when I was about to ask you about children and podcasting… The first thing to do, make sure they are quiet, during your own podcast!
Pamela: Yeah, it’s really funny, because occasionally they will photo‑bomb. They will photo‑bomb the Google hangouts occasionally. It’s really adorable!
Kylie: Yeah. Unfortunately Curiosity isn’t as cute as a small blond-headed child pulling a face at the camera.
Pamela: No. No. Entirely.
Kylie: Why podcast and why not podcast?
Fraser: OK. You said it’s getting harder and you answered that question, Pamela, right?
Fraser: OK. Now I’m going to completely disagree with you!!
Kylie: Oh, good!
Pamela: That’s okay!
Fraser: OK. No, I think I totally disagree. I think that, if you want to do this, then just do it. There is always room. People are going to be pod‑fading all the time. If you have something that you want to talk about and reach out to people, then just get started and do it. You will figure out really quickly whether you are the right person for the job or not the right person for the job and whether you are enjoying it or you’re not enjoying it.
If you are enjoying it, then just keep doing more, even if you don’t necessarily have a lot of listeners. But with this new world of media, it’s really about reaching out on every distribution platform that you have available to you. It’s on YouTube. It’s on podcasting. It’s on writing articles. It’s about going to meetings and all these kinds of things to have this large, wide audience that you can communicate out to.
Podcasting is one of the most powerful ways to do it. I really think, if you’ve got something interesting to say, you should do it at all times.
Kylie: …Even if a child photo‑bombs the background of your Google hangout, yes.
Fraser: Exactly. Yes!