From Kate Bowler of the Duke University Divinity School to Sam Wang of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, there’s no shortage of faculty who are breaking out of academe’s confines to reach a whole new audience through their podcasts. Podcasting is something that can be done entirely online and from a distance, so in some ways, as we all adjust to the new normal amid COVID-19, the time to consider starting one has never been better.
Podcasting is a great way to spread the word about your work, build thought leadership in your field and make new connections. I’m part of the team that hosts and produces the Democracy Works podcast for the McCourtney Institute for Democracy at Penn State University. The show has opened a lot of new doors for us and provided an outlet for scholars from around the world to share their research with our listeners.
All that said, after releasing more than 100 episodes since March 2018, I can tell you that podcasting is a lot of work and is not something that you can or should do casually. I recommend that you consider a few things before deciding whether or not to take the plunge.
Consistency is everything. Listeners subscribe to podcasts and expect that content will arrive on a regular basis. If your show is not in their podcast feed, they’ll find something else to replace it. And then you’ll have a more difficult time getting them back when you release your next episode.
It’s easy to think about a podcast over the summer when things are slow, but can you commit to producing content during midterms or finals? In the middle of faculty and graduate student recruitment season?
This is not to say that you should rush out episodes that are subpar quality just to keep on a consistent schedule. You’ll lose listeners that way, too.
The bottom line is that you need to be aware of your schedule in relation to how often you’d like to record and publish new episodes. Depending on your subject matter, you might be able to work ahead and bank episodes during slower times of the year to release later. Or maybe you can take a serialized approach and release a group of episodes over a short period of time, then take a break and start again the next semester.
Either way, you need to pick a schedule and stick to it -- and let listeners know when to expect the next episode.
Personality matters, too. One thing that separates a good podcast from a so-so one is the personality of the person or people behind the microphone. Many people listen to podcasts while they are doing other things -- driving, walking the dog, cleaning the house and so forth -- and your content needs to be sufficiently engaging to keep them focused enough to retain information despite whatever else they might be doing.
Having a cohost and/or guests on your show can help with this. It breaks up the voices that people hear and provides a format you can stick to each week. It also give you more opportunities for banter, jokes and the things that engage listeners and demonstrate you don’t take yourself too seriously.
For example, we have three hosts and a guest or two on each episode of Democracy Works. We’ve heard from our listeners that they appreciate the different perspectives, particularly when we don’t all agree on something.
Keep in mind, however, that the more people you add to a podcast, the more complicated it becomes to record consistently. You need to find times when everyone is available, you must obtain more equipment to do the recording and the editing becomes more complex when multiple voices are involved.
And, again, you have to obtain the best balance between creating compelling content and doing so in a way that’s not going to drive you crazy in the process. No matter what format you decide on, I highly recommend recording a pilot episode or two to make sure that you are comfortable behind the microphone and enjoy the process of making a podcast.
The communications office is your friend. I hope the first two points I’ve raised will make you pause for a minute to consider how much work it is to produce a podcast but not feel so overwhelmed that you abandon the idea of doing one. If you take nothing else from this article, remember that you do not need to produce a podcast alone. Other people on your campus can help you take your idea and turn it into something tangible.
Being a podcast creator is one part having something to talk about, one part making it sound good and one part finding people to listen to it. Your college or university’s marketing office can help with all three.
A communications professional can help you understand what you want to say and how you want to say it. Apple’s directory contains more than 800,000 podcasts, and probably at least a few are in your area of expertise. How can you stand out from the crowd and bring distinct value to listeners? Professional communicators think about these things all the time.
Working with the communications office can also help you nail down a consistent production schedule. As someone who has worked in higher ed marketing for more than a decade, I can tell you that we are wired to make plans and keep track of due dates -- and then help faculty members stick to them. They might even have equipment you can use or resources to help you with recording and editing.
So before you go out and buy a microphone or hit “record” on your computer, find out who the communications person is for your department, college or unit and get in touch with them. They’ll be glad you did and can help give your ideas the audience they deserve.
Keys to Podcasting Success
To sum up, there are a lot of podcasts out there, but the industry as a whole is still very much in its early stages compared to blogging and other forms of online communication. It’s still possible to make your mark and stand out from the crowd if you keep the following principles in mind.
Consistency. Pick a schedule and stick to it. This will help establish your podcast in your listeners’ routines and keep you motivated to continue working on it. We release new episodes of Democracy Works every Monday and are usually recording two to three weeks in advance, so we have a backup plan in case something goes wrong. Other higher education podcasts, like Big Brains at the University of Chicago and With a Side of Knowledge at the University of Notre Dame, stick to regular biweekly publishing schedules.
Personality. Podcasts are driven in large part by the personality of their hosts. Michael Barbaro is the reason some people listen to The New York Times’ The Daily, and Joe Rogan has built a podcasting empire based on the strength of his personality. As a faculty member, you have something to offer the world. Let your work speak for itself, but don’t be afraid to let your personality shine through along with it.
Strategy. If a podcast is released in iTunes, will anyone hear it? Not if you don’t tell them it’s there. One of the great things about podcasting in higher education is that colleges and universities already have a built-in audience of students, faculty, staff, alumni and friends. You can work with your institution’s communications team to help spread the word about your show and help grow your audience on and off your campus.
Podcasting takes effort, but it’s also a lot of fun and can be both personally and professionally rewarding. Do your homework, but don’t be afraid to jump in and take the plunge.