Sounds of science: using audio to bring science podcasting to life

We now have more ways of communicating science, or anything else for that matter, than ever before, with podcasting now one of the most effective tools in a communicator’s bag of tricks.

Despite some believing at one stage that podcasting was on the wane, the medium continues to grow, with more that 8 million adults in the UK (16% of the population) saying they’ve downloaded a podcast, a bigger percentage than those using Twitter, says the BBC.

But with an estimated 150,000 podcasts available out there, how do you make yours stand out? And how can you use the power of audio to enhance science storytelling, and bring your subject to life? This was the subject of Talkfest – Sounds of Science, an event held in London yesterday evening (February 29).

The event, chaired by Dr Alice Bell, brought together five panellists who are all involved in communicating science through sound, and who chatted with the audience about topics including whether audio could be as interactive as video and text.

Lack of interactivity was one of the main shortcomings with audio, said Thom Hoffman, multimedia producer at the British Medical Journal (BMJ). He has been making podcasts, video and other online offerings for the publication for the last two years.

“Often multimedia is tagged as interactive, but pressing play isn’t particularly interactive,” he said, adding that most people didn’t like just sitting there doing nothing while listening to podcasts (commuting and working out at the gym are therefore among the most popular times for podcast listening), and were often unsure about where they should be looking.

One way round this problem was to give listeners images to look at while the podcast was playing, suggested Thom, using tools like SoundCloud, a site that includes a bar at the bottom of the audio player showing the comments people have made in response to certain points in the recording.

Bear in mind that people may not be so enthralled by the sound of your voice that they are willing to listen to it for ages – when it comes to podcasting, keep it tight, and easy on the waffle.

“Will people want to listen to you for an hour? Often they won’t,” said Thom.

One of the audience members asked whether podcasts are currently seen as a medium in their own right.

“I guess it’s a difficult one as you want to prove you are not just cannibalising the content of the website,” replied Thom, explaining the situation for websites deciding how to offer podcasts that add value, rather than just recycling their material.

“You don’t want to say to your magazine, ‘let’s give away all this amazing stuff for free’, and then people won’t want to buy the magazine.”

For Michelle Martin, senior producer at the BBC’s Science Radio Unit, the benefits of a podcast over other media is that it involves a “captive audience”.

“Compared to how long someone may read a newspaper or webpage, people are more likely to listen to a whole podcast,” she said. One of Michelle’s tips is to use sound as a landscape, such as using a far-off sound of a blackboard being moved, say, to show what is in the background.

“I changed the way I thought about sound after I heard a Norwegian broadcaster talking about it: she talked about using the microphone as a camera,” said Michelle. “I think that really helps with the texture of the sound.”

She also urged people not to be afraid of talking about pictures in audio because of concerns that it would be lost on listeners, saying: “I think there’s a certain amazing quality of talking about pictures that can fire up the imagination.”

So what’s the difference between a documentary and a podcast, asked one audience member.
Some on the panel thought there wasn’t much of one.
“I think it’s all storytelling,” said Michelle. “Maybe documentary needs to have more location recording on them  as a general rule. But I don’t think there are rules any more.”
Kate Arkless Gray, who currently works as an editor at Audioboo, a social media site for audio, said one slight difference was to do with quality.

“I think the difference is, do you want something that takes you hours to polish, or are you ok with something that’s really pure and natural and real?” she said, before adding: “But it all comes down to storytelling.”
Earlier on in the event, she played a recording of Discovery space shuttle launch, which she attended in 2011.
“Every time I hear that sound, it gives me goose bumps,” said Kate. “I think sound is a great way of story telling.”
I surely couldn’t finish this blog post without some audio, so below is Kate’s Discovery recording – turn up the volume for maximum effect! (Sound of launch from 4:48).

Discovery LAUNCHING! #nasatweetup #spacenomad (mp3)

  1. John Cashin

    That would be interesting and helpful especially in playing and recording audio files, since these type of file needs a specific gadget to make the job easier to do. Also, at this point and time the use of technology isn't anything too peculiar to do since technology do help people in making things easier to do compared to the usual pace we've got to use it.

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© Melanie Hall 2017