The Modernist Podcast: Creating an International Scholarly Conversation for Public Consumption

Sean Richardson, Nottingham Trent University

The podcast is currently experiencing a golden era in popular culture. As of 2017, 112 million Americans have listened to a podcast, with listener rates having experienced an 11% growth since 2016. Overall, 40% of Americans age 12 or older have listened to a podcast, with 67 million Americans listening to podcasts monthly and 42 million Americans listening to podcasts weekly[i].

The Modernist Podcast is a three-year open access project launched in December 2016 that features interdisciplinary dialogue between scholars working across the broad field of modernist studies. In this article I discuss the potential of academic podcasting to create scholarly dialogue for public consumption, describing the approach of the project, its intended audience, engagement statistics from the first year of the podcast, and the benefits for those involved.

Podcasts and the Academy.

Podcasting became a popular form of digital media in the early 2000s after advances in music technology, most notably the proliferation of the MP3 player and the iPod, and the development of RSS feeds with enclosures by David Winer and Adam Curry. Initially referred to as ‘online radio’ or ‘audioblogging’, journalist Ben Hammersley first suggested the term ‘podcast’ in a 2004 Guardian article before the name became adopted by members of what was to become the early podcasting community[ii]. In June 2005, Apple incorporated podcasting to its iTunes 4.9 music software by adding a directory of podcasts to its iTunes Music Store, leading to the developments of podcasts for commercial ends. Shortly thereafter in 2006, The Ricky Gervais Show began to charge consumers to download their second season, becoming the first major podcast to do so.

From their advent, podcasts have often centred on teaching, learning and community building. Many of the first podcasts, such as IT Conversations and Daily Source Code, focused on computer literacy, while Curry and Winer founded PodShow in 2005 with the intent of supporting the public to create, disseminate and discover podcasts. This trend towards educational themes shows no sign of slowing down: in 2017, the top five most downloaded podcasts in the USA were S-Town, Serial, This American Life, RadioLab and Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, each of which relies on a storytelling narrative to inform and educate listeners[iii]. Congruent with these educational themes, podcasts have attracted academic attention since their inception (especially from those working within media studies, cultural history and the digital humanities), with recent scholarship seeking to situate the rise of podcasting within wider histories of digital media [iv], as well as develop a history of podcasting itself [v].

Crucially, scholarship has refrained from regarding podcasts as mere objects of discussion. Rather scholars have consistently asked how podcasting can be employed by the academy as a form of digital pedagogy. Since the incorporation of podcasts into iTunes, researchers have positioned podcasting as a pedagogical appendage that can be used to foster ‘always on’ learning styles [vi] and facilitate learning outside of the classroom [vii], with contemporary debates developing on these themes by examining the complexities of podcast production [viii] and uncovering the limitations of the podcast form [ix]. Indeed podcasts are now a firmly ingrained part of many institutions’ pedagogical practice. Instructors can utilize podcasts as learning tools to reach beyond the remit of the lecture theatre or teach students how to create podcasts as a means of improving digital literacy, media and communications skills. Outside of the classroom, podcasting presents novel opportunities for scholars to engage in dialogue with one another. Unlike the expensive and time consuming space of the conference, podcasts offer a relatively simple means of fostering international scholarly discourse. Able to record conversations that occur via Skype or over the phone, researchers can then release debates, interviews and discussions for public consumption through podcasts uploaded to sites such as Soundcloud, Stitcher or Spotify.

Following this interest in the relationship between podcasting and pedagogy, there has been a recent uptake in academics utilizing podcasts to discuss scholarship in an accessible, broader, non-traditional format. This kind of public scholarship has been discussed at length by Hannah McGregor (Simon Fraser University) [x], whose work on the podcasts Secret Feminist Agenda and Witch, Please, with Marcelle Kosman (University of Alberta), has illuminated how podcasting can situate scholarship, activism and feminist praxis in dialogue with one another. In particular, McGregor has stressed the importance of considering how podcasts present new ways of undertaking scholarship, including questions of open access, publicity, accountability, and the relationship between researcher and audience. What does it mean, for instance, to be a fan of a podcast that is primarily centred on academic research? Thinking through this question elucidates how the very public nature of podcasting can affect the way in which we discuss our scholarship without the protections afforded to us by standard academic practices, as well as different the kinds of engagement podcasting offers our research. Following McGregor, I am interested in how the formal differences affected by the podcast allow for a different approach to our scholarship, and have been exploring the outcomes of this through the Modernist Podcast.

Approach and Production.

I established the Modernist Podcast in 2016 with three primary objectives. Firstly, to create an international scholarly dialogue that extends beyond textual publications and offers an alternative to conferences, which put economic, temporal and personal constraints on attendants. Secondly, to offer academic discussion for mass consumption, allowing critical dialogues to extend beyond classroom based learning and into the public sphere. Thirdly, to create a space that platforms the voices of PhD students and early career researchers, who often struggle to gain a foothold in academic conversation. Overall, the podcast is motivated by questions of amplification: how can we amplify our critical voices to reach a wider audience as we amplify those who find it harder to gain a voice in the academic marketplace?

To achieve these aims, the podcast takes the format of a panel interview, during which I question researchers about the focus and findings of their scholarship. Panellists are grouped under loose themes such as ‘Modernism, Women and Feminism’ or ‘Modernism and the Environment’. Structurally, episodes include between three and five panellists, with individual episodes ranging in length between 00:30 minutes and 01:35. The podcast does not accept all-male panels, and participants are overwhelmingly PhDs or early career researchers within three years of having submitted their thesis. To date, the podcast has usually consisted of participants from Europe and North America, but has also featured researchers working in Asia and Australia. In its first year, episodes of the podcast were released on a monthly basis. With the project now in its second year, episodes of the podcast are released every two months, with smaller episodes (or ‘minisodes’) released on alternate months to main episode releases. The introduction of minisodes has been designed to afford scholars the opportunity to discuss the material conditions of working within modernist studies. This change was motivated in part by a reduction in my own free time as I progressed into the second year of my PhD, and in part as a response to strike action taken over changes to pensions in the UK during February and March 2018. The introduction of the minisode hoped to provide academics with a space to discuss the material conditions of working within the neoliberal university, allowing those outside of the academy to gain a greater understanding of how our labour functions.

The majority of the labour required to produce the Modernist Podcast is undertaken by myself and the participants involved in the episode. I edit the podcast using Adobe Audition CC 2017, while panellists are either recorded on a Dictaphone via face-to-face interviews or required to record themselves before submitting the sound files to be edited. Recording remotely allows a variety of scholars based in a range of countries to be included on the podcast, though face-to-face interviews have been recorded across the UK, as well as in New York, Montreal, Boston and at Yale University. This is because the mobile nature of recording the podcast allows for interviews to occur as I travel, as well as at very short notice. I have no professional training, having taught myself to use the relevant software via YouTube tutorials, but generally an hour long generally episode takes two hours to edit. The speed at which a relatively inexperienced researcher such as myself can create a podcast highlights how podcasting presents a user-friendly format for academics who may be new to the digital humanities and wanting to discover alternate ways of distributing their scholarship.

Audience, Statistics and Engagement.

The Modernist Podcast is primarily hosted on Soundcloud, then distributed via the iTunes podcast app and on our website. In its first year, the podcast was briefly hosted on Spotify, however this proved unprofitable and the podcast was soon removed from the platform. The podcast is promoted via a Facebook page and Twitter account, as well as through business cards and flyers at relevant conferences. Listeners are primarily located in the UK, the USA and Canada, though our audience has come from Europe, North America, Africa, Australia and South America.

In its first year of running, the Modernist Podcast had an audience of 5,088 listeners on Soundcloud. Growth was steady since the launch of the first episode in January 2018, with an average of 424 listeners a month. The UK provided 2,311 of these listens, the USA 1,543 and Canada 234. The remaining 1,000 listens were spread between a range of countries, though listenership was particularly prevalent in countries such as Ireland, where English is spoken widely. This is unsurprising as 58% of podcast panellists were based at UK institutions at the time of recording, while 29% were based at institutions in the USA and Canada. Nonetheless these statistics highlight the potential for podcasts to spark international dialogue, as well as to draw a cosmopolitan listenership. In particular, episodes that included researchers located in two or more different countries usually attracted more listeners than episodes where participants were located in the same country, showing the impact that panellists had on engagement.

Generally, the audience of the Modernist Podcast are listening to episodes either on Soundcloud (61%) or through the iTunes podcast app (22%), with the remaining 17% of our Soundcloud listenership stemming from our own website, Twitter, third-party websites and other streaming apps. The podcast has been downloaded 188 times from the website directly; combined with listeners from iTunes and other streaming apps, 18% of our listeners are consciously downloading the podcast to listen to on portable devices. The three most listened to episodes of the podcast were Episode 1: Modernism, Women and Feminism, which provided 24% of total listens; Episode 2: Modernism and the Environment, which provided 14% of total listens; and Episode 4: Queer Modernism, which provided 13% of total listens. Unsurprisingly, episodes tend to amass a greater listenership the longer they have been released, however this does suggest that new listeners are often listening to episodes chronologically, or taking the time to listen to the show as a whole.

A survey run by the Modernist Podcast has shown that 42% of our listeners are employed in academic roles, 16% are students, 11% of are employed in non-academic roles by universities and 31% are neither currently involved in academic or university work, nor studying. Further to this, the demographic of our listeners is significantly skewed towards those who have attended university. 78% of our listeners have an undergraduate degree, 60% have a Masters and 49% have a PhD. Though this is expected considering the content of the podcast, it is encouraging to note that 22% of our listenership do not have a degree and many are not involved in academic work. This suggests a wider listenership that allows panel discussions to reach a broader public audience. Feedback provided to the podcasts shows that our audience tend to listen to episodes in order to gain a deeper understanding of academic material, to keep up with current debates in the field or to deepen their knowledge of literature and the arts. It is expected that the last of these reasons attracts the most diverse audience participation, as listeners do not currently have to be engaged with academic thinking to enjoy the material being discussed.

Panellists and Feedback.

Case studies collected by the Modernist Podcast show the range of benefits that podcasting can have for panellists. Primarily, the podcast presents an opportunity for scholars to discuss their research in a different setting, challenging panellists to successfully describe their findings to a public audience. As one scholar notes, ‘I found the experience extremely enjoyable. Talking about the project for a general audience helped me to articulate my research aims and questions clearly and succinctly’. Another scholar echoes these sentiments: ‘The podcast required me to think in a different way. Though I wanted my research to remain rigorous, I also had to consider new qualities such as pleasure, humour and fun. How could I make my work interesting to the layman? This has had an effect on the way in which I write, even for academic audiences’. In this regard, the kind of public scholarship that podcasting offers can be seen as beneficial to panellists as much as it is to the audience, with podcasts adding a heightened sense of affect to scholarly discourse. A broader audience requires an extended academic toolkit that allows panellists to communicate in novel manners, a challenge that affords scholars the chance to develop skills which can then be redeployed within traditional forms of academic knowledge sharing such as conference papers and journal articles.

Further to this, the podcast has helped to open up extended dialogues between panellists that continue beyond the episodes themselves. One panellist expressed that ‘listening to the podcast has been an incredibly useful way of hearing about what other people are working on’ and that other scholars ‘got in touch…after I spoke on the podcast. It was valuable to talk to other researchers…[who] gave some valuable suggestions for reading’. Moreover, such dialogues are providing material opportunities for panellists to collaborate, with one scholar noting: ‘I found the overall experience of being on the podcast incredibly rewarding – and it also introduced me to a fellow PhD student in my field who has since been on a conference panel I organised, and who I hope to work with in the future’. The two panellists highlighted in this conversation are based in different countries, demonstrating how the podcast has allowed researchers to forge international connections. Such relationships are important in an ever more internationalised job market, as well as to scholars who may not have academic communities readily available to them at their own institutions. In this regard the affective dimension of podcasting serves not only to amplify the reach of our scholarship, but to amplify relations between scholars too.

Finally, the non-traditional format of the podcast has ramifications for scholars with various time constraints. One scholar with caring responsibilities involved in the podcast found the experience valuable as a ‘way of presenting my research without having to travel [that] has been more beneficial than most conferences I have attended’. So too did this panellist’s time on the podcast yield tangible benefits, introducing them to researchers within the field ‘with one conference paper as a result’. In this regard, it is interesting to consider not simply the kinds of conversation that podcasting permits, but the kinds of engagement that podcasting affords beyond a question of audience. Scholars who may not be able to attend conferences for a variety of reasons are able to engage in international conversations through podcasting.

Conclusion

In this article, I have described the background of, approach to, audience of and feedback from the Modernist Podcast. The engagement that the podcast has received demonstrates how podcasting can successfully be used by scholars to disseminate their research to a wider audience. In tandem with this, feedback from panellists has illuminated how this kind of public scholarship affects the way in which researchers present their findings, offering academics new modes of engagement with their work.

Following this, panellist case studies have shown how the podcast can easily become a site of international dialogue. As well as offering scholars the ability to open conversations across national borders, the podcast further affords a sense of camaraderie that allows researchers the opportunity to forge new relationships, share resources and continue discussions well after the episode has finished. Reflecting these international dialogues, user statistics have shown how the podcast can attract a cosmopolitan audience.

Sources

[i] http://www.edisonresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Podcast-Consumer-2017.pdf

[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/media/2004/feb/12/broadcasting.digitalmedia

[iii] http://analytics.podtrac.com/top-20-podcasts-of-2017

[iv] Bottomley, Andrew J., ‘Podcasting: A Decade in the Life of a “New” Audio Medium: Introduction’, Journal of Radio & Audio Media, 22:2 (2015), 164-169.

[v] Berry Richard, ‘A Golden Age of Podcasting? Evaluating Serial in the Context of Podcast Histories’, Journal of Radio & Audio Media, 22:2 (2015), 170-178.

[vi] Baird, Derek and Mercedes Fisher, ‘Neomillennial user experience design strategies: Utilizing social networking media to support “always on” learning styles’, Journal of educational technology systems 34, no. 1 (2005): 5-32.

[vii] Mark Frydenberg, ‘Principles and pedagogy: The two P’s of podcasting in the information technology classroom’, in The Proceedings of ISECON 2006, vol. 23. 2006.

[viii] Tiffe, Raechel and Melody Hoffmann, ‘Taking up sonic space: feminized vocality and podcasting as resistance’, Feminist Media Studies, 17:1 (2017), 115-118.

[ix] Markman, Kris M. and Caroline E. Sawyer. ‘Why Pod? Further Explorations of the Motivations for Independent Podcasting’, Journal of Radio & Audio Media, 21:1 (2014), 20-35.

[x] https://secretfeministagenda.com/2017/11/23/bonus-episode-podcasting-public-scholarship-and-accountability/

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