Podcasting 101

"Podcasting is about content," Ivan Semeniuk told the crowd of roughly 100 assembled for the Podcasting 101 session at the 2006 NASW Conference. "But I want to add one more layer to that: it's about identity." Semenuik, the host and producer of New Scientist's "Sci-Pod," and the four other panelists returned repeatedly to the themes of creating identity and grappling with technology as they explained the fundamentals of podcasting — from getting good sound quality for phone-recorded interviews to marketing techniques for recruiting more listeners.

Moderator Robert Frederick, a freelancer and science journalist for KWMU-FM, kicked off the session with a demonstration of how quickly a podcast can be assembled from its constituent parts. In less than two minutes, he pulled together a sound file, introduction text, and an image to create a ready-to-upload episode. "There are a lot of people who want to do podcasting and are maybe a little intimidated by it," Frederick said. But scientific content, journalism skills, and the ability to write effectively for audio media are far more important than the technical aspects of podcasting, he assured the audience. "Very quickly, the technical details fade into the background," Semeniuk added. It becomes like using your word processor for a print story, he explained.

The panelists agreed that, once the technical aspects of podcasting are mastered, the medium allows science writers to reach new audiences, and in the process, creates a community dynamic different from print media. Chris Condayan, who produces MicrobeWorld Radio for the American Society of Microbiology shared experiences of receiving email feedback from teachers using his cast in the classroom and showed how a subscriber can receive the MicrobeWorld on his or her mobile phone.

David Kesenbaum, a science correspondent for NPR, also emphasized the importance of identity in audio media. "People have an intense personal relationship to radio, and that's something to keep in mind when you're podcasting," he said. "When people come to visit NPR, it's like they're going to church." Much of the skill set required to produce good radio stories transfers to podcasting, so Kesenbaum offered tips for recording engaging interviews. He instructed budding pod-hosts to create a visual for listeners by interviewing the scientist onsite where he or she conducts fieldwork or describing the memorable details of the lab or home where the interview is being conducted.

Chelsea Ward, the producer of AAAS' Science Update, injected a dose of sobering reality into the presentations with a discussion of whether podcasting is feasible for freelancers. The cost of audio equipment — whether purchased or rented — and the amount of time and effort invested in producing a regular podcast generally make it a money sink. She cautioned freelancers to take on podcasting as a fun activity that can reach new audiences, but not as a way of making money. She also warned the participants to be aware of "pod fade," or burnout associated with the often-grueling schedule of producing a regular cast.

It is clear from this session that the new frontier of podcasting presents science writers with an array of benefits and challenges. Perhaps the best way to approach the new media is with optimism but also with expectations in check. Ward summed up the realistic benefits of podcasting well: meeting and working with interesting people, getting lots of feedback from listeners, and having fun.

Christine Hoekenga is currently pursuing a Master's in science writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She holds a dual Bachelor's degree in environmental science and rhetoric & media studies from Willamette University. She looks forward to covering the environmental beat after graduation.