Why academic podcasts are much more valuable than people realise

There’s a great post on Savage Minds here which discusses a new anthropology podcast series. It makes some important points about the potential value of academic podcasts:

Its fascinating to listen to the interview version of an article (in fact, its much more convenient than reading the article!) but its even more fascinating to have a chance to get to know the authors behind the articles. This, to me, is the real value of the podcast: it gets you to the backstage of elite anthropology, to see what the people at the center of the discipline are like. Its an incredibly important experience denied to the vast majority of anthropologists who didn’t go to Top Schools, and the SCA’s willingness to share this with us is really fantastic.

Michael Fisch, for instance, is one of the many new hires that have recently been made at Chicago, where I earned my Ph.D. So, you know, my question was: now that he’s someone is he good enough for Chicago? The written work was less important to me than the character and the quality and vitality of the responses he made in his interview. For me, the most interesting part of the podcast came as he discussed his broader theoretical interest, and particularly the importance of moving past Latour to the thinkers that influenced him in order to dig out the genealogy (and thus possible future) of a realist, network-based ontology to ground future research. As someone who studies mining and petroleum, Fisch’s frustration that we hadn’t completed the seemingly effortless task of developing cheap sources of infinitely renewable energy was, maybe, not so insightful. But whatever — it was a great interview with a young and successful scholar. Surely other young scholars will want to see what success sounds like, eh?

The Handler interview was very different. Handler is a senior scholar (I mean that in a nice way) talking mostly about the kind of issues that comes at the height of one’s career, rather than at the beginning. It deals with administrative matters and big-picture issues in the organization of our discipline (and others). I’ve not always been interested in the topics that Handler studies (except Quebec, which I ❤ ) but I’ve always been blown away by his tremendous analytic ability. Its remarkable to me to have the opportunity to listen to someone who has spent a lifetime in the academy tell us what he has figured out about the professionalization of the discipline and how it related to the intellectual endeavors that it scaffolds. There’s a certain clarity that only experience can provide. Its valuable for anyone thinking about being involved in anthropology long-term.


This powerfully captures what I’ve always seen as the promise of academic podcasting. However I’ve recently felt  that I’m in a bit of a rut with my podcasting. Having seen the difference which quality editing makes to the finished product while working at the LSE I’m finding it difficult to be satisfied with what could be politely described as my ‘minimalistic’ approach to editing. I’m wondering if I should begin to approach the podcasts in a much more planned and episodic way, structured around particular themes and edited properly rather than simply topped and tailed in Audacity before being thrown online. It’s so much work though. But I think the promise of academic podcasts, as described so well in the extract above, can’t be realised without it. The direction in which Cheryl Brumley is taking the LSE’s podcasts is also a great guide to how this can be done:

Audio is important to the LSE Public Policy Group. Our blogs, funded by HEIF 5 – an innovation fund focusing on knowledge exchange – have continued to push the boundaries of academic dissemination. One of our highest aims is to bring academia online, and in turn, broaden access to the social sciences. Audio is integral to this process. By giving narrative to the full breadth of academic research, we hope to stretch the understanding and impact of research beyond the confines of universities. You can find all four of our podcasts series across these online platforms: LSE’s podcast channelSoundcloud, iTunes and iTunes U. 

Not only is the diversification of online output important for us, but the quality of output is integral to what we do. We want to challenge the idea that an academic podcast is merely a speaker at a microphone. We experiment with different podcasts formats and take many lessons from the tried and tested world of radio storytelling. 

I blog about issues related to sound and how it can be used to enhance social science dissemination. You can read my Simple Guide to Academic Podcast series, for practical and technical advice on how to begin your own project. If you have any audio-related questions, you can also find me at c.k.brumley@lse.ac.uk and on Twitter @cherylbrumley


My initial scepticism when confronted by Cheryl’s attention to detail (and the weird fear provoked in me by using microphones and headphones when interviewing) pretty quickly subsided once I heard how good podcasts sound when someone who knows what they’re doing works on them properly. Here are the podcasts I did with Cheryl when I was managing the LSE Politics Blog:

  1. 2 January 2013: A conversation with Tim Newburn: Combining journalism with academia: How to read a riot
  2. LSE British Politicast Episode 1: Reflecting On The Riots
  3. The ‘jobs for generals’ scandal highlighted important issues about UK defence procurement

I’m unlikely to produce anything quite this good on my own (I lack the skill, time and motivation) but I definitely want to start a podcast series which is much closer to this than the stuff I’ve done previously. I own the domain http://www.outflankingplatitudes.com which at present simply hosts a Rebel Mouse site. I’m not sure how to integrate the podcasts into the Rebelmouse page or if starting the former would mean abandoning the latter. But an idea is definitely taking shape in my mind about how the podcasts themselves could work.

I’d particularly like to do more social theory podcasts – these are probably the ones I’ve enjoyed most from the individual interviews that I’ve done but they’ve always been limited by being with one person on one topic. Instead I could choose a particular theme (e.g. relational sociology) and interview people who take contrasting approaches to it. I suppose it would also be possible to gradually incorporate some of the existing interviews that I’ve done (there’s about 60 or so) into thematic episodes. I definitely intend to use Soundcloud in future, as the habit I fell into of just uploading the MP3s to WordPress is quite limiting. Not least of all because it’s not possible to get stats on how many people actually listen to the podcasts.

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