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Lessons from award-winning podcasts: Nature podcast’s Benjamin Thompson

The winner of the Science and Medical category in the 2020 Publisher Podcast Awards was the Nature Podcast from Springer Nature. We asked Benjamin Thompson, a Senior Multimedia Editor at Nature, to share some of his insights into what has made the Nature Podcast so successful.

We’ll be releasing audio excerpts in a special Media Voices episode in August, as well as full transcripts from all the winners at a later date. For now, here are the edited highlights…

Launching

I think 2005 was when we started. I’ve been working for Nature now for three years give or take. So I obviously wasn’t part of that, I was still at university, I think, when it was decided!

But from having spoken to the people who were there at the time, and who obviously developed it, they thought this new-fangled medium would be a really great way to talk about science and tell some of the stories about the scientists themselves, and not just necessarily the research, but how they went about doing it, and how they felt about it.

Evolution

Fast forward to where we are now: I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase ‘golden age of podcasts’ so many times now it makes your head want to spin, but I think we really are. We’ve been going for so long now, and honing this product, that I think it’s a bit of an institution in the science podcast world.

Science continues to run at a pace. And I think science has changed somewhat, teams are getting bigger and things are getting more expensive. But I think we’ve really stuck to that kind of core principle of telling people’s stories. And I think that’s something that’s super interesting as well, and we’ve kept going with that.

I think the main show, the spine of the show, has been massaged somewhat, and has been improved and honed, but it is broadly comparable in many ways to that original show all those years ago.

Print vs Podcast

The weekly Nature journal has some of the biggest stories in science each week, so we’re never lacking for research content to talk about. But we’re also very lucky at Nature, we have a team of amazing journalists and reporters and editors, and we have Comment articles, and what we call World Views by people around the world. So it’s not just science papers that we have access to, we have access to this font of knowledge and information as well.

I guess it is a jumping off point in some senses but the Nature magazine as a whole with its front half content, which is the journalism content, and the back half content, which is the straight research, we’re so lucky that we have both of them.

Expert audiences

Our core audience – I think that’s something that all podcasts should be considering when they’re striking out – are research scientists, or people who work in the scientific sphere. We know that because we asked them, ‘What do you do for a living?’. Most people would say they work in academia or in science institutions, so we definitely pitched the show towards them. 

But what I would say is, science is so amazingly broad, you could be an astrophysicist, or a zoologist, right? So although scientists are at our core, we have to obviously be a little bit careful when we’re introducing words, subjects and complicated things to make sure that as many people get something out of it as we can. And of course, I hope that non scientists will get things out of it as well.

We never shy away from using technical language where appropriate, but I think you need to be careful to introduce it in such a way you don’t just drop it in. We’re quite cognizant that different people understand different words in different ways.

Recording episodes 

Where I am now is sitting under a duvet with a microphone attached to a coat hanger! But putting that to one side, if we talk about the old normal maybe, rather than the new normal, we have access to a studio with four microphones set up, and then a separate production room; we can record phone calls from there.

We’re quite lucky in that aspect that we can get a good sound pretty consistently. We know that we have broadcast quality microphones, so for in-situ stuff, no problems at all. 

Recording interviews 

A lot of our interviews are done over the phone and that can introduce technical issues, but we try and get our interviewees to record themselves on a smartphone, and send us that.

The good thing about voice memo on an iPhone or whatever voice recorder you have on an Android, they are pretty easy to set up. And I think I certainly have the spiel of how to find it and how to set it up. I could probably do it from memory… please put your phone on flight mode and so forth.

Recording from home during lockdown

I’m blessed to have such amazing colleagues because we knew that we were going to be having to work from home. And so we said, a bit like Apollo 13, we’ve got this bag of leads, we’ve got this bag of recorders, how can we get a good sound out of it? 

We did some videos and some photographs of each of our setups, so I’m sitting here underneath a washing line and duvet! One of our colleagues took his sofa apart and sort of moved the cushions around. Another one of our colleagues, she lives with an engineer, and they actually repositioned the sofa into this amazing kind of vocal booth. So we have managed to get the show put together.

It changes the dynamic slightly, recording in the same room and playing off someone is very, very different to doing it over a conference line. But we’ve managed to record three or four shows already. Two of the main show, one documentary about coronavirus, and we launched a new show – the best time to launch a new show is obviously when you’re all at home trying to deal with technical woes.

It is obviously a difficult time, but I think you make use of what you have. I’m really pleased with how it’s been working so far, and our listeners as well I think appreciate the efforts we’ve gone to, and maybe give us that little bit of leeway; obviously it doesn’t sound like when we’re in the studio, but I think everyone can understand the situation that the world finds itself in right now.

Sound quality

I think there is, of course, a minimum barrier to entry. I think it’s something that needs to be considered.

There are so many podcasts out there. If something sounds unpleasant to listen to, then people will go elsewhere and find that content somewhere else. So I think you need to make sure that you have a half decent setup before you start.

Audience growth

I think the majority of our growth has been organic. It has been just telling really, really interesting stories, doing solid science journalism, and getting it out there. And of course, it’s snowballed, but again, we have the advantage of 15 years of doing this, and so the numbers have grown and we know that people have been listening since episode one are still with us now. 

When we did a listener survey a while back, we asked people how they’d heard about the show. A lot of them said, ‘I’ve been with you for years and years,’ so we know that we have that longevity of listeners. That’s amazing, and we thank them for sticking with us.

In terms of growing it, I mean it’s a difficult time now for a lot of podcasters, because there’s so many more out there. It’s something that we’re obviously trying to do and thinking about, but I think making the graph go up is not necessarily our most important thing. 

Telling quality stories and doing quality journalism is the most important thing for us. And so the rest will come I hope.

Launching Coronapod

The agenda has changed dramatically for all of science, particularly here in Europe and the US in the last couple of weeks.

So we have launched this new show, Coronapod, that’s going to be a weekly show going out on Fridays. And there’s going to be a lot of talk, obviously, about the science of what’s going on. We’re going to use our pool of reporters and their expert knowledge.

We really started looking at [the virus] in January, and it was in the regular Nature Podcast, in the weekly show. I think it got to the stage where there’s so much news coming out – I mean, it’s one of the events of our time – we realised that we had to really concentrate on this fully, and give this a lot more bandwidth.

How long the series goes for, I really don’t know at this point. But we have the people, we have the knowledge, and I think we can tell those stories and get it out there to everybody.

We’re trying to keep the regular Nature Podcast as a corona-free show as well. So, if people need to think about something else for a bit, there’s still a lot of science going on and they can still get that regular sort of hit of science news.

Advice on getting started 

If you’re just starting out, I think you need to have a good plan of: ‘What is this? Who’s the audience for this?’

There’s so many shows out there, and it’s easy to say, ‘I’m going to do a daily show about X’. If that already exists, then maybe think about what’s your angle, what’s your audience? I think that’s something that you really need to get a good strong sense of. 

Do some good research about what’s out there, where you can step in, and where you can tell interesting stories that people want to hear.

Nature Podcast at the Publisher Podcast Awards

Republished with kind permission of Media Voices, a weekly look at all the news and views from across the media world

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