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SymbioticA Talk – Token Skepticism: Podcasting Science And Pop Culture

Token Skepticism: Podcasting Science And Pop Culture – presented on 1st March at SymbioticA, UWA

What do you want your listeners to know? What can you produce, in a feasible manner? What can podcasting do that other social media mediums (or other traditional forms of outreach) can’t provide?

The Token Skeptic podcast began in 2009 and primarily features interviews with scientists and pop-culture figures involved in science and philosophy; it  also includes essays, travel journals and lectures. Average listening audience per episode over 11,000; around 3000-4000 downloads a week; one episode per fortnight (sometimes more depending on availability).

The creation of a podcast isn’t anything new – articles from way back in 2005 in the New York Times discussed the creation of amateur shows (e.g “The Podcast As New Podium“). The influence of mainstream media is questioned, as entertainment and as an information source, as demonstrated by the growth of online forums and outreach effort.

What has changed is the increasing commercial adoption (and even abandonment) of podcasts as a method of communication in general – so why do it for science?

Basics of podcasting:

  • online audio (sometimes used to refer as video); episodic and downloadable
  • program driven, mainly with a host and/or theme
  • convenient, usually via an automated feed
  • mp3 is usually the audio format
  • upload via sites like Libsyn to iTunes/Zune; AudioBoo, Spreaker, Stitcher also used to host audio (free or small cost).

Evo Terra, co-author of Podcasting For Dummies and early adopter of the medium once described it as “two dorks and a microphone” – but is it more than that now?

The example of the Young Australian Skeptics podcast The Pseudo Scientists (average age 21/2) – example of using computer, microphones, team hosted:

Podcasts can also be transcribed (e.g: CSICOP Curiouser and Curiouser,  the Token Skeptic book), be incorporated into lessons – for example, using audio for English as a Second language lessons.

Are podcasts good for communicating science? Good example of discussing science concepts via radio by David Kestenbaum, Science reporter for NPR on “Explaining the World in Four Minutes, including audio of environmental reporter John Neilson talking to a zoologist about the fears about West Nile disease and zoos.

The importance of the question: “How do you know that?” – helping scientists talk the way they would usually talk to others, asking the kinds of questions students would ask about concepts raised in science class (about science used in movies, books and in pop culture).

When looking at the communication of science: thinking about the target audience; a few main messages; realising that one size/strategy/vector will not suit all and that learning from your experiences is ongoing. The Token Skeptic podcast is increasingly getting questions from listeners that prompt investigations and being asked to profile scientists to bring their achievements to a wider audience.

The example of Google Hangout – Dr Pamela Gay and Fraser Cain:

An interview with Drs Gay and Cain features on the Token Skeptic podcast – Episode One Hundred And Thirty – On Science Podcasting (In Space!) – Interview With Dr Pamela Gay and Fraser Cain:

Kylie Sturgess:  Is it just a matter of sticking out with it, if you want to get into podcasting? You mentioned the 365 days of astronomy, which needs funding. Anyone can contribute. It is crowd sourced. If someone wants to start up their own podcast, perhaps being inspired by having a go at the 365 Days of Astronomy – why should they podcast and why should they reconsider it?

Pamela Gay:  That is getting to be a harder and harder question, as more and more people join podcasting. If you are passionate about astronomy and you do want to get involved, I highly encourage you to get involved in the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. We are someplace where, if you have every other week content, we have space for you. So we can help put you in that place, where you already can have an existing audience. Now, if you’re looking to do something truly original, there is still space for you. But, what we are finding is that it’s getting harder and harder to find new ideas. The one standout place for people, who are doing an old idea in a new way, is the people who are doing audio books. If you have a great story, this is a great way to share that great story.

Fraser Cain:  OK. No, I think I totally disagree. I think that, if you want to do this, then just do it. There is always room. People are going to be pod-fading all the time. If you have something that you want to talk about and reach out to people, then just get started and do it. You will figure out really quickly whether you are the right person for the job or not the right person for the job and whether you are enjoying it or you’re not enjoying it. If you are enjoying it, then just keep doing more, even if you don’t necessarily have a lot of listeners. But with this new world of media, it’s really about reaching out on every distribution platform that you have available to you. It’s on YouTube. It’s on podcasting. It’s on writing articles. It’s about going to meetings and all these kinds of things to have this large, wide audience that you can communicate out to.

Podcasting is one of the most powerful ways to do it. I really think, if you’ve got something interesting to say, you should do it at all times.

Another podcast, The Pod Delusion (crowd-sourced show), has around the same traffic as the Wired Podcast – link to Wired article about starting in podcasting with more advice.

Mixture of shows in the top 100 of iTunes – while the commercially-produced shows have an edge, the independent podcasts still are building an audience and often very dedicated ones.

ResearchResearch into podcasting demonstrates that in terms of retaining information and learning, short-form and dedicated to one topic shows have more influence; yet most people appear to listen to shows while exercising, travelling. Whether the show is about outreach, entertainment or education, a variety and a mixture may be beneficial.

Research papers used for presentation:

Benefits include – ease of use/relevance; focused topics for revision/education; share resources; popularity of shows

Issues include – time consuming; novelty effect/ duplication/ competition for topics; use of them and what resources help improve quality; cost.


  • Directories / databases / reviews
  • One stop sites (ScienceAlert has been doing this)
  • Transcripts and activities
  • Guided questions for shows

Overall advice for podcast beginners:

  • Show your working – have show notes, links, details on the sources of information that is accessible.
  • Make it easy for yourself – can you sustain same effort for a show weekly, fortnightly, monthly?
  • Podcasting isn’t new, so don’t be discouraged if you’re not immediately popular!
  • Research – not just the topics but how to format shows and what your audience is like and will want
  • The question about quality audio vs regular episodes – while quality and improving your show is good, don’t let it hamstring you when trying to get episodes out.

Additional links to podcasting equipment advice:

Basic podcasting Prezi:

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