May 2020 − Bright Minds
Whether it is comedy, culture or a personality show – many, mostly young, listeners love podcasts.
But – are these any good at communicating science? Benjamin Thompson of “Nature Podcast” says: Yes!
Benjamin Thompson is a curious spirit. Since 2017, the Doctor of Microbiology has hosted the “Nature Podcast”, which belongs to the scientific publisher Nature Research. “I love two things”, says 40 year-old Thompson, “learning about the latest topics in science and telling stories.” With this, he succinctly summarizes the main components that come together in the Nature Podcast. But what is it that differentiates the audio format from the large numbers of journals and magazines published by Nature Research? In other words, from the digital and print publications that one must read, line by line. In strict scientific tradition, the answer first leads to the definition.
The podcast is a fairly new addition to the history of media. Even though audio formats are most often associated with the term, podcasts also include videos. Per definition, podcasts comprise media data that one can automatically access via a web feed. Storage and distribution of podcasts are thus Internet-based and differ from classic
analog radio. According to a common explanation, the name “podcast” is composed of the English “to broadcast” and the latter part of the brand name “iPod”. At the time of the inception of podcasts, in the early 2000s, this portable MP3 player by Apple was a common tool with which to listen to such podcasts. A different definition of “pod” – the acronym of “play on demand” – also fits the bill. Once subscribed to, podcasts are available at any time via a suitable device such as a smartphone or tablet.
Benjamin Thompson, himself a passionate listener of podcasts, considers this to be a huge asset of the medium: “Many people listen to podcasts while traveling or while they exercise.” They thus fill “dead” time or routines with entertainment or knowledge. The latter is provided by the Nature Podcast once per week. The regular show illuminates the most exciting scientific news. “Our production process always starts on Wednesdays”, says the reporter, “that’s when we sit together and hold our editorial meeting to discuss which two or three topics from the current Nature publications will be included in the show.”
The constant challenge: how to distill a lengthy paper written in scientific language into an interesting six to seven minute-long audio story? Thompson follows his instinct: “I ask questions to which I myself would like to know the answer.” Every new topic involves interviews with scientists from all over the world. Thompson and his colleagues then weave the story around these contributions. One day, it’s the mathematical three-body problem; another day, it’s the genome of butterflies – the range of topics is as broad as science itself. Typically, the scientists enjoy being available to talk about their discoveries; most scientists join the Nature team via phone. At the Nature Research branch in London, the team occupies a small studio – which affords it the necessary quiet time to conduct telephone conversations of acceptable sound quality. “Only the time difference can at times be a bit of a predicament”, laughs the host of the show.
In addition to the news show, there are other recurring formats; for example, the monothematic discussion round “Backchat”. Or “PastCasts”, which tell the best stories behind the stories from the Nature archives. Since its beginnings in 2005, more than 600 episodes have been produced, and a broad and diverse base of regular listeners has been established. The latter is really the crux of the matter when it comes to employing podcasts: their success, in terms of reach, is difficult to measure. Numbers of downloads, for example, do not reflect on whether or not an episode was actually listened to in its entirety. At Nature Research, however, the podcast is a fixed component of the entire output, and it complements the magazine world. “We are fortunate in that we are able to focus entirely on the quality of good stories”, says Thompson.
Even though he came on board only three years ago, he is a podcaster through and through. While working for his previous employer, the Microbiology Society, he was responsible for the podcast “Microbe Talk” – a very specialized subject. In practice, moreover, he learned to appreciate another advantage of the medium: the enthusiasm of the scientists who are being interviewed is palpable in a much more personal and direct manner. “It is a very personal matter; you broadcast directly into the ear of the listener.”
Podcast tips from Benjamin Thompson
• “Ask yourself who should be your target audience. Whom would you like to address? All your stories should be geared towards your listener base.”
• “There are already many podcasts on various topics. Find your niche! Make what you know, what you’re good at and what you enjoy be your podcast topic.”
• “Aim for regularity, but be realistic. You're unlikely to be able to produce an episode a day, so go for once a week, or once a month when you start out.”