Podcasting as Digital Storytelling in Research and Outreach

Oh great, yet another podcast!

Like many researchers, I find myself listening to more diverse types of academic media in recent years. YouTube, podcasts, and simultaneous Zoom seminars have increased in prominence since the start of the Covid19 pandemic. Even though this shift was instigated by pandemic-induced isolation, many of us have found that these new forms of media, which we might have already enjoined in our personal time, have become essential parts of academic exchange and contemporary discourse. Initially, I accepted listening to podcasts as a way to consume media passively and stay up to date about new research and publications in a time-strapped workplace. It was a form of content input that could fit into my schedule around teaching, commuting, and more time sensitive research and writing tasks. Podcasts and the like were something that others did, those more charismatic, more technically savvy, or those with a special interest in public scholarship. This was underlied by the peripheral space that podcasts held in my work and personal daily routines.

This started to change in the past year for me. As an academic with ADHD based in Australia, I was increasingly finding that attending all of the newly available seminars from around the world at all hours of the day and night, usually for hours at a time, was alienating me even more from current research and researchers, no matter how interesting and valuable. I found value and accommodation with other types of academic media that were emerging. By necessity, YouTube videos and podcasts found a more central place in my daily workflow. This shift in media consumption also forced me to reconsider the role podcasts (in my case) found in my research. They became less passive and more active in the way I conduct research on digital manuscripts and repatriation in South Asia.

Last year, my colleague and co-conspirator at ANUBhasha, Dr. Stephanie Majcher, and I began production on what we originally thought was a seminar series on Zoom. We thought that we would take advantage of the new availability of Zoom as a platform and the willingness of our colleagues, especially in South Asia, to participate in these sorts of events to facilitate a global conversation on the topic of digital repatriation in a variety of contexts. During the initial phases of organising the seminars, it quickly became apparent that this ‘new’ type of academic event was essentially reconstituting traditional academic panels, seminars, and conference events in a new digital space.

So we thought to reimagine what we were doing for our series. On the way to an ANUBhasha team meeting one day, I found myself listening to a fascinating and inspiring ‘High Theory’ episode on the nature of university press publishing. I found myself being able to rewind and re-listen to valuable parts with the Airr app, and highlight valuable extracts for later reference in my research. This was the type of interactive, easy, and accommodating experience that I was looking for and luckily, Stephanie quickly agreed. 

Before we became bogged down in the technical tasks of the podcast production process, we spent about six months organising and recording our conversations with generous colleagues from around the world associated with institutions and disciplines that we might not have normally interacted with in traditional academic forums. What we thought was going to be a chance to listen passively to brilliant scholars, archivists, and activists instead turned out to be an intellectually creative process that has shaped our own research by becoming a central feature of the ‘Digital Repatriation in South Asia’ project. By this, I mean that instead of only being a ‘Non-Traditional Research Outputs’ (NTROs), as they are called here in Australia, our podcast series became an iterative process by which we both dynamically formed our understanding of ‘digital repatriation’ and produced a form of digital content that in itself could constitute a type of ‘digital repatriation’ by offering a type of media that could be easily consumed by stake-holding community members. 

My newbie’s guide to producing a podcast

While the pleasant surprises and new approaches to our research presented themselves to us during our conversations, the production process of making a podcast ourselves was much more elusive. Luckily, many non-academic entertainers, educators, and the general public found their way into podcast production during the pandemic and many tech companies developed apps, tools, and services to meet that demand. I found a variety of tools that suited our needs and might be helpful to others looking to expand both their research process to include a podcast or podcast-like approach of digital storytelling and as a component of project communication and research output. What follows is my personal workflow for producing my ongoing ‘ANUBhasha Podcast’ series on ‘Digital Repatriation in South Asia’ series with some suggestions for alternative processes. 

  1. Recording

There are a variety of ways to record your own audio input and guest interviews. While there are many dedicated, multi-channel, purpose-built services for recording interviews, these usually require an ongoing subscription or hefty one-time fee. They also require you to orient your guests and any part-time collaborators into that particular software. We were keen to leverage the generosity of our guests and their existing familiarity, so we opted to simply use Zoom backed up with recordings in a university-based cloud storage service (CloudStor). Since we knew our guests were likely only to have a basic microphone/audio set up, we would not have been able to take full advantage of the features of other services. Zoom, podcast editing software, and podcast hosting services support audio enhancement that is adequate in most cases, and in all but one of our episodes was enough to produce a comfortable level of audio quality. If you’re working with local collaborators, you might find that you could use the help of a feature-rich audio recording software setup. 

  1. Editing

After we recorded the majority of our planned interviews, the difficult task of editing and audio cleanup emerged. There are a variety of free, subscription-based, and one-time fee based applications and online services that could be used. Audacity is perhaps the original, free-to-use source, that while lacking in-depth features, covers the essentials to get your started in audio recording. There are also services that combine editing, audio engineering, and publishing in a full-service package, like Alitu, Castos, and others. 

I chose to go for a middle-ground approach. Having some background in audio editing and radio production, I chose ‘Hindenburg Pro’, a spoken audio-specialised suite of software designed with podcasters and journalists in mind. This software allows swift editing with a minimal UI that is not overwhelming. With integration with several services, it is easy to directly export your edited podcast episodes to many online directories. I just started using the new Hindenburg Pro 2 beta release which includes a multi-speaker, multilingual audio transcription service. This means that you can edit audio directly from the ‘manuscript’ of the audio as if you were editing an article. This feature makes it even more accessible for novices to audio production and for hearing impaired listeners on the front end. 

  1. Publishing

There are ways of ‘self-publishing’ a podcast, but the easiest option is to choose an online podcast host that works directly with the major podcast directories like Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and others. There are many to choose from (like Podbean, Transistor, or Libsyn). I have gone with Buzzsprout as the most transparent with their pricing and the most straightforward user interface. The Buzzsprout team also has an active educational wing that produces ‘how to’ content regularly to get you started with podcast production. With several integrations they allow for: (1)  direct import through a variety of podcast editing softwares, like Hindenburg, (2) in-suite design of podcast logos and images with Canva, (3) tracking of podcast engagement stats and the potential for monetisation support, and (4) promotion through social media and other platforms. The small subscription fee you pay to a service like this streamlines the production process and allows time-poor academics the opportunity to get their content out there faster. Buzzsprout and other services also include in-software help to improve audio quality, though this is a service I have not used yet. With some simple HTML tomfoolery, we can also easily embed Buzzsprout’s podcast player into our website. 

In the end, the investment of time, money, and labour required to produce an academic podcast proved to be worthwhile for my own modest aspirations for shaping research in the digital humanities and venturing into the field of digital storytelling as a means of public scholarship. Hopefully, this short post might prove useful to others looking to wade through the vast amount of scattered resources on podcasting. If you have been hesitating to translate your own work into online media like podcasting, just jump in and get started. The stakes are low and the potential rewards are high. 

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