Podcasting in higher education

Podcasts have come to feel ubiquitous following the pandemic, with periods of confinement to the home for significant swathes of the population creating a hunger for engaging digital content. Their popularity had been growing for years before this, with many crediting the Serial true crime podcast in 2014 for helping the medium break into the mainstream. While the use of the internet to disseminate audio has a longer history, their growth in recent years relies on what internet scholars Rainie and Wellman (2011) describe as the ‘triple revolution’ of social networks, high speed internet access and mobile computing. The easy and low cost way with which it became possible to download audio content from a mobile device, as well as to talk about what you listen to on social media, left  podcasting ripe for a breakthrough into mainstream media consumption. Viral hits like Serial and the unprecedented conditions of the pandemic might have accelerated the process but it was a trend which was already underway. This only looks sets to grow with huge investment in podcasting as part of a broader economic struggle to shape the landscape of ‘social audio’ even if enthusiasm for these services has waned since its peak during the pandemic. Podcasting has become a huge industry in its own right, as well as a speculative focus for investors trying to shape the future of digital media.

In the setting in which we now find ourselves, in which Statista (2022) report that 21.2 million people in the UK listen to podcasts, it is unsurprising that podcasts are increasingly a focus of academics undertaking research communication and public engagement. They promise an accessible, engaging and (relatively) low cost means of reaching audiences outside of higher education. This is indicative of a broader tendency within universities to see digital media as a solution to the problem of research impact i.e. as powerful dissemination engines which enable us to make content circulate beyond the ‘ivory tower’ (Carrigan and Jordan 2021, Carrigan 2019). Much as with other forms of digital media (such as blogging and social platforms) the reality of their use by academics is more ambivalent. There are significant success stories in which academics have built and sustained vast audiences for their podcasts, in some cases generating significant income through crowd sourcing platforms like Patreon in the process. But there is also a great deal of effort undertaken with little to no reward as academics flood into an already highly saturated market, often with too little sense of who their audience is and how they might build a relationship with them over time. It is important to think carefully before starting a podcast in order to ensure your time and energy are used effectively. The enthusiasm many academics feel about podcasts can be a valuable resource in motivating creative projects which fall outside the traditional categories of research communication. But they can also be a pitfall leading academics with an overly narrow conception of what a podcast can or should look like and leading them to underestimate the difficulty of building and sustaining one.  

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