The podcast, while by no means new, has come of age in 2020. More than a quarter of a million new podcasts launched this year alone, and the coronavirus pandemic gave millions of people new listening opportunities while stuck at home.
But despite the exponential increases in production and audience, many podcast series begin and are quickly abandoned once the enthusiasm and ideas start to dry up.
I’ve spent several hours listening to podcasts produced by universities in North America and the UK and, broadly speaking, they can be broken down into three categories: those made for marketing and recruitment; podcasts for teaching and internal communications; and programmes that focus on news, research and current affairs.
It’s important to highlight the distinction between a podcast (a planned and edited programme) and an audio recording (which is simply an audio version of a lecture or interview).
Because of the bewildering array of university podcasts out there – the University of Oxford alone lists several thousand – I’ve put together a selection of some of the most ear-catching, accompanied by notes on what makes a good podcast and what to bear in mind if you’re about to produce one of your own.
Marketing and recruitment
By definition these podcasts are aimed at a wide audience. They seek to show off people, research, facilities and know-how.
Many universities have devolved podcasts to the individual expert but the University of Portsmouth’s Life Solved podcast presents a pan-university perspective, showcasing a range of insights from within the university and beyond.
The Made at UCL podcast also draws speakers and inspiration from across faculties. The combination of a broad range of topics and high production values make this a compelling listen.
Harvard Business School produces 10 distinct podcast series to reflect the range of expertise and research specialisms within the school. The criticism would be that that’s too many and the distinction between the different strands is not sufficiently clear. How much difference is there really between IdeaCast and The Future of Work? Podcasts should not be vanity projects. The university communications team should have a view about which are the strongest.
The University of Sunderland also deserves a mention for its Sunderland Talks series, which underline the university’s commitment to diversity and inclusivity.
Teaching and internal communications
Podcasts are an important part of the mix of channels used by universities to deliver courses. Before hitting the record button, it’s worth checking what’s already being done and why some podcasts succeed while others fail.
Podcasts that are simply an audio recording of a lecture have the benefit of convenience, but lack of interaction and poor audio quality is a problem. Listening to someone reading a script for an hour is not a good experience.
Teaching podcasts often work best as a complement to more conventional tuition. Oxford Brookes University’s Women and Spinouts podcasts accompany a research programme that is aimed at encouraging women into STEM roles. It summarises the research and invites contributions from experts in the university and beyond.
In addition to lectures, many universities (and businesses) are using podcasts for internal communications. Good examples include McGill University’s Buddle Huddle, which addresses cross-campus issues, and Royal Holloway University’s Bear Necessities podcast, which is made by undergraduates to help new students to settle in.
News, current affairs and research
The third category of higher education podcasts are those made by academics to highlight their research. Among the best known is Talking Politics hosted by University of Cambridge professor of politics David Runciman. Although not formally affiliated to the university, Talking Politics has achieved the holy grail of podcasts: reaching a mass audience and attracting high-calibre guests.
Having a dedicated production team helps to ensure your podcasts are sustainable, because delivering a new episode every week is tough. Proper recording and editing also lift a podcast from being an “audio fanzine” to something that reflects well on the institution behind it.
Loughborough University is world-renowned for its sports provision. Consequently the excellent Experts in Sport podcast is a reminder of the university’s credentials.
Entirely different but equally engaging is The Crux podcast from Boston University. The Crux looks at PR and corporate communication and its interface with higher education.
Things to consider
There are three elements to a successful podcast: audio quality, editorial purpose and effective distribution.
If your podcast is poorly recorded and edited fewer people will make the effort to listen. Everything can be improved by judicious editing – not least podcasts.
Editorial integrity is equally important. Before you embark on making a podcast have you asked yourself these questions: What and who is it for? Is this a one-off or part of a series? If it’s a series, is it sustainable? Are you doing something original and worthwhile?
Do not forget the critical importance of promotion and distribution. You can make the world’s greatest podcast but how will people discover it? This may be fine if your podcast is aimed at a defined group and forms part of their course, but it’s tough to reach a big audience in a world that already has more than a million different podcasts.
Lastly – and most importantly – making a podcast should be fun. Enjoyment and enthusiasm combined with expertise is a potent mix: go ahead and bottle it.
Adam Batstone is an associate consultant for Communications Management, a global higher education communications consultancy, and a former journalist who produced some of the BBC’s first ever podcasts 20 years ago. He now works with universities to produce podcasts.