CAREER COLUMN

Lessons I’ve learnt from creating a science podcast

Making a podcast as a side project involves a steep learning curve, and although it might never beat Serial in the podcast rankings, the process can have myriad other benefits, says Katherine Bassil.
Katherine Bassil is a PhD candidate in neuroscience at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. One of her current interests involves integrating neuroethics education into the training of future neuroscientists. Twitter: @katherinebassil
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Photograph of Katherine Bassil recording her podcast

Neuroscientist Katherine Bassil recording a podcast.Credit: Katherine Bassil

As a neuroscience PhD student at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, I struggled to find adequate resources to feed my interest in neuroethics, an interdisciplinary area that deals with ethical and societal problems raised by the development of neuroscience and its related practices.

I also wanted to raise awareness about neuroethics and to learn the opinions of neuroscientists in my own department. But I felt that individual discussions were not enough. I needed something broader — that could reach those who had questions but didn’t know where to begin. I started a podcast: The Neuroethics Police.

I’ve created seven episodes since I started in January 2019, and enjoy the process of creating, interviewing and marketing the podcast, but the road has not been smooth, and I’ve faced several challenges along the way. So if you are planning on creating your own science podcast, I have some insights to share.

Make something novel

Find a topic that stands out and is not being covered in other podcasts. Your audience will be more engaged if they feel they’re listening to something unique. Even if the topic of your choice is already out there, ask ‘what is not being discussed?’ and focus on that.

Work out your goals

Once you’ve selected a topic, you should set some goals. Ask yourself:

What is the main aim of the podcast? Mine was to raise awareness on the ethical and societal implications of neuroscience, something that I thought was missing in the podcast world.

What message would you like to deliver? I wanted my audience to realize that the way neuroscience is done might come with moral and ethical issues that we should be aware of.

Who is your intended audience? My main message was intended for a broad audience. It was clear to me that my target audience had to be anyone interested in neuroscience research and practices, which included non-experts and the general public.

How frequent would you like the episodes to be? I decided on releasing one episode monthly because the podcast was just one of many projects I was juggling, and the whole process of creating an episode can be time-consuming.

Once you find the answers to those questions, share them with your audience in an introductory episode. Writing down your podcast’s goals is a major step towards more efficient project management. This was something that I would have preferred to learn before launching the podcast. After the release of the first episode, I realized that I hadn’t expressed the aim and content of the podcast. It was in some way clear to me in my head, but my audience would not have known why I created it in the first place, and why they should keep listening.

Initially, I had intended to keep the episodes relatively short — around half an hour — but it became clear to me that the discussions I was having with my guests needed more time, so my self-imposed time limit increased to one hour.

Technical matters

Producing a podcast takes equipment and software to record, edit and publish. You do not need to be a creative director, audio expert or podcast professional. When I first started, I had no idea what I was doing. Eventually, I found the tools that worked for me.

For recording, editing and publishing, I use Anchor, which is designed for use across the entire podcast process and has an option to automatically publish to all podcast platforms.

I bought my own equipment to record audio: the Yeti from Blue Microphones. If you do not wish to purchase a sophisticated and costly microphone, your laptop’s microphone will probably do the job. Some institutions might also have finances or facilities available for projects around science communication — ask your supervisor or appropriate department member.

If my guests are local, I make my way to their office space with my microphone. If I conduct a Skype interview, then I do my best to find a noise-free space and record directly from my laptop using QuickTime Player (for Mac users).

Manage your time

I struggled to find guests for my first few episodes, to finish the recording sessions on time, to choose a topic for each episode and to squeeze the episode into my self-imposed time limit. It got easier eventually, but I have to be strict with myself by managing my time more efficiently. I once contacted a professor whom I thought would be the perfect guest for an episode, but after a week I had heard nothing back. I had to move on and contacted someone else. In some projects, waiting an extra week might be justified, but not when you have a podcast to produce. Set deadlines and stick to them.

Prepare well

If you are creating a podcast in which you will be conducting interviews with guests, then improve your episodes and save your time and theirs by preparing carefully.

I start by setting a topic or theme that I would like to discuss on the next episode. Then I create a list of potential guests and invite the one at the top of my list.

Once I’ve received a confirmation, I start editing the episode’s script and decide on a date on which to record the episode together with my guest. When2meet is the perfect tool for that. I send my guest a broad overview of topics I’d like to raise at least a week before the recording date so that they can prepare useful answers.

On the day of the recording, I eliminate any sources of distractions (for instance, by muting phones and alarms) and start the session with a short ice-breaker with my guest by asking, for example, how busy their schedule is. (Everyone wants to tell you about how busy they are!) Finally, and most importantly, don’t forget to press record!

You might choose to structure your episodes differently. For example, you might choose to be the host and lead a solo show, or to conduct interviews with one or more people, or even a mixture of the two. All of these options will require preparation, and you might have to learn as you go along.

Create a script

You should prepare a script for each episode to keep track of what you will say and the topics you would like to cover. Creating a script for your episodes is not the same as memorizing what you will say; leave room for some spontaneity.

Share your work

There’s no point in keeping an episode to yourself. Start small. Share it with your close friends; with your colleagues at work; with your room-mates; with your professors; with your LinkedIn connections; with your Facebook friends. Share it with the wider world through Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and the many other platforms available (Anchor did the hard work for me). Add a note about your podcast to the end of your slide decks and to your e-mail signature. After you’ve found some subscribers, you will be able to tailor your episodes more towards the interests of your audience, and that can add value to your podcast.

Embrace feedback

Once you share your podcast with others, they will almost certainly not love every bit of it and will be a valuable source of feedback.

After releasing my first episode, a friend approached me to let me know they thought I was imposing my opinion in my questions, which damaged the objectivity of my interviews. In later episodes, I asked questions much more carefully. It was the best thing that ever happened to my podcast; the second episode was more successful. I learnt from people’s feedback, and the podcast was more positively received.

Seek out help

Creating a podcast can be very challenging when you are all on your own. It is difficult to be a creative director, an audio professional and a marketing person in a single session. When in doubt, express your needs and find help from others.

Keep practising

You will start seeing change and progress one step at a time. More people will appreciate your work, and you will learn from your experience on the go. It’s important to manage your own expectations: do not be fooled into thinking your podcast will be the next Serial. Think of creating your podcast as like making a short film with your friends for your local community: your neighbours will love it, but it will not necessarily be a blockbuster. Don’t aim for a million subscribers; a handful is also great. When it comes to podcast subscribers, quality over quantity is the way to go.

In a nutshell, I’ve found making podcasts fun, positively challenging and definitely worthwhile — but keep in mind that different things work for different people.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-02096-4

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for Nature readers to share their professional experiences and advice. Guest posts are encouraged. You can get in touch with the editor at naturecareerseditor@nature.com.

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