My favourite episode of Global Lab


The Magic of Podcasting

CASA’s homegrown Podcast, The Global Lab is shortly to relaunch with a new team of interviewers appearing alongside the wizened faces (/voices) of Steve Gray, Hannah Fry and Claire Ross (and me, of course). As part of this relaunch, we’re also getting our back catalogue onto Soundcloud and linking to all of those interviews over the last two and a bit years, and getting the original team to give a shout out to their favourite episode as it goes up. Because it’s March, I started to use the #marchOfGlobalLab hashtag, which quickly turned into #theImplacableMarchOfGlobalLab in my mind, thanks to its connotations of an army of podcasters and interviewees.

What have I learned from Global Lab since Steve and I started it in 2011? Well, I arguably already knew a fair bit about podcasts, at least if my share of two Sony awards is to be taken seriously*. I suppose I learned things I already knew, namely that the most important and valuable thing about any endeavour is usually people, and people in demanding jobs with other priorities will struggle with time-consuming things like podcasting. But I’ve also thought about ways to help with that, so I’ll share some of those here for other podcasters.

So, firstly, lower the barrier to entry. The original show format contained a “news section”, which was basically a chat between two hosts, followed by a short interview, then a brief outro. The news section might take half an hour to prepare, an hour to record and two hours to edit. Half a day’s work every fortnight was too much, so we ditched it. Also, a light edit is ok in the right circumstances. Our interviews used to run for 30-60 minutes, edited down to 15-20 minutes (which takes at least two hours unless you’re very fast/experienced) or unedited, which is too long for a casual audience (IMHO). Now we record 20-25 minute interviews and edit very sparingly.

That means interviews have to be well done. Although I’m not an expert interviewer, I love interviewing people. It is fascinating, it’s a real art, and I think I’ve massively improved at it since my first attempts. Making inexperienced interviewees feel at ease is important, and usually the best way to do that is to be better at interviewing – for example, knowing when to interrupt and interject, because then it will feel more like a chat and less like a monologue, and when not too, because it can be offputting. It’s important to know that the interviewer isn’t there to look like an authority on the topic. The interviewer is the voice of the audience, so if I know (or am busy showing I know) too much, I may not ask important questions at the points where the audience is getting lost. I tend to think that the audience aren’t tuning in to hear my personality, but for a show like Global Lab, we have different guests each episode, and the interviewers are the glue that bind things together, so we need to have a little personality. Hopefully not a deplorable excess.

From the perspective of bringing people in as part of the team, I’ve increasingly tried to make the tech easy. Our original workflow led to a really strong web frontend, but the process was a bit complex and not readily transferable. So we’ve reduced edit expectations and are experimenting with a Soundcloud feed. Sometimes the off-the-shelf option is the best. Also, if you have a team, use the team to train each other in the tech, technique and workflow – they will improve by teaching, and the learning process is fresh in their minds when they train someone else.

My current thinking is that getting any ongoing outreach or engagement activity rolling is in great part about finding enthusiastic people and lowering barriers to them starting and continuing, so that it becomes a small bit of their research life that they look forward to! Having a group of people who are keen really helps, as they can support one another. I hope that this normalisation of public engagement, outreach and dissemination as part of the research process will have long-term impacts. I guess we will have to check with the Global Lab team and see what they say a little bit down the line.

I’ve carefully avoided divulging my favourite Global Lab episode to date – possibly the Sounds of Science panel I participated in, but that’s not a proper Global Lab episode, just me talking about microphones and the sound of a shuttle taking off**. I honestly don’t have a favourite interviewee, and it would be a bit unfair to pick if I did. Maybe Nicholas Peroni’s social life of bats, or Jason Dittmer’s nationalist superheroes. Now if only I’d got James Kneale to talk about H P Lovecraft…

*if you haven’t heard of the Sony Awards and therefore struggle to take them, or me, remotely seriously – you are reluctantly forgiven

**it is really good

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