Let's hear it for pod people

Sally Feldman on a new wave of academic impact via the online ‘airwaves’

May 3, 2012

Twenty years ago you had to scan the radio and television channels to find a working academic. British viewers seemed to like specialist knowledge served up by cheerful amateurs rather than knowing professors. David Attenborough handled the seminars in zoology, while astronomy was the preserve of the homely Patrick Moore and pond life the natural habitat of David Bellamy - who exchanged his university post for the happier role of bearded boffin. Any genuine professors who did appear would be expected to conform to the comic book stereotype: the formidable polymath Jacob Bronowski, for example, or wild-haired Heinz Wolff with his waving hands and guttural vowels.


But now anyone flicking channels could easily believe they’ve come to rest permanently on The Open University’s site. We’ve had Mark Miodownik telling us all about plastics, Mary Beard on the Romans, Marcus du Sautoy demystifying numbers, Hans Rosling juggling statistics, Michael Sandel philosophising and even our own Kevin Fong plunging into extreme emergencies. And it’s all happened so recently.

Not so long ago it was difficult to persuade university scholars to come anywhere near the limelight, as I discovered when I conducted an informal survey of my own colleagues. Many fought shy of media exposure for fear that their work might be trivialised or distorted. Others were just terrified of drying up or of being asked a question outside their field. And back then, those academics who did shine on air were resented by their peers as flashy, superficial, populist sops to dumbed-down culture. Now everyone wants a slice of media stardom.

And this sea change is a direct result of the new emphasis on “impact” that is to be measured in the forthcoming research excellence framework, and which is increasingly required when funding bids are considered. Take the Economics and Social Research Council, for example. “Communicating research findings to people outside the academic community,” their website sternly advises, “whether in government, in business, in the voluntary sector or to the general public - is essential.”

So scholars, far from being shy or precious, are now falling over themselves to promote their work. The trouble is, there just aren’t enough outlets for the hundreds of research projects, new discoveries, scientific breakthroughs and groundbreaking new theories. So a new venture launched this week aims to step into the breach. Pod Academy, set up by a group of academics, journalists and IT specialists, is the brainchild of social entrepreneur Tess Woodcraft, who recognised that academic research was a hugely untapped resource of intellectual richness. “What we’re aiming to do is to bring to a general audience a broad spectrum of new research ideas and findings,” she explained. “Too much important and fascinating stuff stays stuck up in academia’s ivory tower.”

Pod Academy claims to be a repository of accessibly presented research, organised into faculties: Arts and Culture, Science and Environment, Humanities and Social Sciences, and Business and Economics. Each podcast is devoted to a single research project, and is about 30 minutes long - far longer than a contributor would normally be allocated in media interviews. And, say its directors, they’re offering a unique opportunity to scholars to disseminate their research. Those timorous about appearing on air, or worried that their findings may be distorted, can relax, as the academy promises that they will have control over their podcast, with the space to explain and amplify the research. And the potential audience is vast, given the global reach of the internet as well as the international mix of content.

The 20 items already on the site include an exploration of the effectiveness of international justice in Serbia; poverty in Calcutta; Noam Chomsky launching a new journal, State Crime; and a Ghent-based academic on a quest for “hidden” novels of the past. And the launch podcast interviews Sujatha Fernandes of Queens College, City University of New York, about her book on international hip hop. Of course, not all academics make ideal broadcasters, so quality is bound to vary. But at least they’ll have the opportunity to present their work to a wider audience.

But just how wide is that audience likely to be? After all, the internet is a crowded marketplace, and with so many sexier packages on offer, it’s quite a risk to expect the general public to want to listen to scholars rambling on about their obsessions. Woodcraft, though, is confident. She says she got the idea for Pod Academy from her own passion for speech radio downloads, and freely admits to being addicted to podcasts. She’s not alone.

More and more people are listening to podcasts. The market is growing at a rate of about 20 to 25 per cent a year in the UK. A survey conducted by Ipsos MORI in May 2009 found that 7.8 million people in the UK had downloaded a podcast - up from 6 million in May 2008, an increase of 30 per cent in a year. And 4.2 million said they had listened to a podcast at least once a week, up from 3.7 million the previous year. BBC figures for Radio 4 podcasts suggest a rise of more than 20 per cent year on year, with many of the most popular downloads drawing heavily on university research. They include More or Less, Thinking Allowed, In Our Time and Start the Week.

Closest in spirit to the Pod Academy model is iTunes U, a showcase for universities and their lectures. But there doesn’t appear to be any other platform that presents academic research as broadcast features. So Pod Academy does appear to have carved a clever clearing in the fraught jungle of academic publishing. But the big question, on which its future may rest, is what the REF panels will make of the format. And how many clicks it will take for a podcast to count as impact.

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