Hannah McGregor: Between the two of us, we've taught a lot of people how to podcast.
[THEME plays: "Dirty Wallpaper," a vibey 85 bpm instrumental electronic track with synth and electric guitar]
My name is Hannah McGregor. Since 2015, when I started my first podcast, Witch, Please, with my collaborator Marcelle Kosman, I've probably delivered dozens of podcasting workshops, introducing scholars to the medium and arguing for why they might want to experiment with communicating their research differently.
Stacey Copeland: And I'm Stacey Copeland. During that same time, I was engaged in teaching students and community how to work with audio, before joining Hannah as a project manager in the world of scholarly podcasting through The SpokenWeb Podcast and the Amplify Podcast Network, two projects that return to this question of "why podcasting?" time and time again.
HM: People are often looking for concrete forms of advice: What kind of microphones do I need? Where do I publish it once it's done? But these are scholars we're talking about, so many are equally interested in the question of why they might want to start a podcast in the first place. We all have finite time, resources, and energy to produce our work. Factor in the potentially steep learning curve of getting comfortable with a new medium, as well as questions around whether or not a podcast will count as scholarship, and this hesitation makes a lot of sense. And it's also an invitation to ask: why does podcasting lend itself to the communication of scholarly knowledge? And what new possibilities does podcasting open up, especially for those of us interested in publicly accessible or community engaged scholarship?
SC: This three-episode podcast miniseries is a pitch for scholarly podcasting rooted in the theoretical and practical benefits of experimenting in sound-based scholarship. It's based on our collective years of experience working in podcasting as well as related research on open scholarship, media culture, radical amateurism, and the subversive possibilities of DIY creation and self-publishing—linking podcasting to the early promises of web 2.0 with its decentralized and noncorporate logics, the ethos of public scholarship that emerged around scholarly blogging, and the intimacies and affordances of sound-based scholarship. Ultimately, through this miniseries we hope to demonstrate to you how podcasting and academia—as Hannah puts it—are two okay tastes that taste okay together.
HM: Significant barriers remain around the problem of making nontraditional scholarship count. But now is the time to take risks and think boldly about the work of the university. As Kathleen Fitzpatrick (2019) has argued, publicly accessible and accountable scholarship offers a path forward to saving the public university by centring its public mission—a mission with which scholarly podcasting is deeply resonant. So here's part one of "Why Podcast?: Podcasting as Publishing."
[Sounds of background chatter and applause]
HM: In a talk delivered in 2012 at Harvard University's Berkman Center, technologist Anil Dash offers some reminders about what the web was like before it consolidated around a handful of massive corporations with almost complete control over user experience and very little transparency. While the web we currently have may seem an inevitability—just how business is done—Dash wants to push back against that assumption.
Anil Dash: This is actually a battle. This is a battle against values that the early social web had. And I'm talking about a time, about a decade ago, it may have ended as late as 2005. But between say 1999 and 2005, there was the creation of the social web, and this is the rise of everything from blogging tools to social photo sharing like Flickr and the host of other things that eventually got branded web 2.0 and turned into the social web we have today. And I got to be witness to it! You know I was a blogger, as David said early on, and the interesting thing for me about being introduced as a blogger is, it's a little bit these days like being introduced as an emailer. [audience laughter] It's not really a meaningful introduction, it's like, this is something hundreds of millions of people do, what do you mean. And part of the reason I cling to that as an identity is, there was a time when it was a statement of identity, it was a meaningful thing to say "I do this task." Because the community shared values, because the action was uncommon enough that it distinguished you and who you were. And that is something that's completely evaporated in our perception of what the web is…
[Music: "Dirty Wallpaper" alt minimalist version with a soft electronic pad lead]
HM: Dash points to blogging and the early practices and shared values of the social web to contrast them to the current landscape of corporate control, arguing that those early values were systematically dismantled by corporations. The logic of the RSS—a user-curated syndicated feed that automatically delivers new posts on blogs or other websites—has given way to the logic of the algorithm, in which corporations control what information does and does not appear in your feed, often with the goal of driving up user time on a platform (and thus ad revenues). The result for independent creators and publishers has been a need to either game the system of algorithms or buy your way onto the feed, leading to greater consolidation around an ever-smaller number of media outlets backed by significant corporate wealth.
SC: Until recently, podcasts remained a space where the logic of the RSS feed culminated—RSS being a sort of ghost of what Dash calls the web we lost. That's largely because, during the early growth of the medium, tech giant Apple took a hands-off approach, choosing for Apple Podcasts (formerly known as iTunes) to function as a database of user-submitted RSS feeds rather than a curator or a revenue-generator (Quah, 2019). With the exception of the "New & Noteworthy" page—which is, shockingly enough, still curated by actual humans who you can send an actual email to—and their other various curated collections, Apple Podcasts does little recommending at all, leaving users to search for the podcasts they're most interested in. The result was an ecosystem that remained meaningfully accessible to independent creators, who could gain a significant following through word-of-mouth and cross-promotions. Today as the number of active podcasts continues to grow, we are seeing more competition enter the podcast platform game.
Take Spotify's foray into podcasting for instance. Spotify's entry into the podcasting world can be viewed as an attempt on the part of a large technology platform to do with podcasting what Facebook has done with blogging: to absorb a predominantly DIY media practice into a privately owned platform.
[Music: "Dirty Wallpaper" fades in]
The goal? To monetize it by funneling the most valuable of all digital commodities: attention. [SFX: "attention" accented with a ping pong echo effect] This phenomenon is echoed in the rise of premium subscription podcast initiatives by Luminary and Audible, and yes, even Apple Podcasts. No longer tied to the RSS feed, shows like Spotify's The Joe Rogan Experience drive listeners exclusively to their platform. While Spotify insists that the platform-specific audio shows they are creating are still podcasts, their rejection of the open technology of the RSS feed suggests something different.
[Music: "Dirty Wallpaper" out]
But what does this all have to do with scholarly communication? Well, the consolidation of information around a small number of corporately owned platforms driven by secret algorithms is as bad for scholarship as it is for journalism or independent publishing. These platforms drive monetization and radicalization in all things, and scholarship is no exception. Consider the kind of success a scholar like Jordan Peterson has seen by capitalizing on platforms like YouTube, with its documented tendency to drive users towards increasingly radical content (Tufekci, 2018). If scholars are interested in reaching an audience beyond our immediate peers, then the existence of robust, decentralized, user-driven web publishing options should matter a great deal to us all.
[Music: "Dirty Wallpaper" guitar and synth pad fade into theme music from Witch, Please, "Dance of the Priestesses of Dagon (Saint-Saëns)" recorded on Edison Cylinders in 1911 by the Victor Herbert Orchestra]
HM: It is possible, within the world of podcasting, for people with little to no platform or name recognition to build a dedicated following. This was something Marcelle and I learned first-hand when we began making Witch, Please in February of 2015.
Both of us were unknown junior scholars at the time—I was a postdoctoral fellow and Marcelle a PhD candidate at the University of Alberta—and we were naive about this new medium we were venturing into. We didn't know enough to be worried about the possibility of building an audience. Our project was modelled on the extremely casual podcast a friend was making, a kind of lightly edited conversation recorded onto an iPhone and shared via a WordPress site. And, as with his podcast, we anticipated a small listenership of, basically, our friends. But, through a combination of luck, timing, Marcelle's perfectionist approach to audio production, and the sheer enthusiasm of the Harry Potter fandom for anything wizarding-world-related, we managed to build a subscriber base of 20,000. That following bolstered my subsequent project, Secret Feminist Agenda, and allowed us to reboot Witch, Please in 2020 with a network, Not Sorry Productions. The network provides vital support in terms of the labour of episode production. Most of that labour is funded through a Patreon that leverages listener support and engagement, a funding model that is well-suited to independently created media without significant corporate funding behind it. The emergence of funding models to support independent podcast production suggests a path forward for shows that cannot or will not buy their way into listeners' feeds.
[Music: "Dirty Wallpaper" alternate start version with a slow ambient synth]
SC: Increasing the accessibility, community accountability, and public uptake of scholarship is a complex problem without a single conclusion. Scholars can pitch op-eds to prominent platforms, make ourselves available for media interviews, of course, providing clarity around timely topics, or perhaps we publish in open-access online journals to increase the uptake of our work. We might work with trade publishers to reach a non-scholarly audience, or directly engage with our community and followers via social media. No one of these opportunities will work for everyone, though we would argue that everyone should be taking advantage of at least one—if you have no other interests in making your work accessible, the bare minimum is to adopt an open-access ethos, either strictly publishing with open-access journals or ensuring all of your work is available on your institutional repository. As Juan Pablo Alperin and co. (2019) explain in their analysis of how review, promotion, and tenure documents articulate the value of public work:
Juan Pablo Alperin: [W]e might expect the emphasis on publications to move towards the use of open access (OA) models with the public gaining access to the work they are funding. OA has indeed grown, with around 50% of the most recent literature being freely available to the public… Yet, OA remains low on the priority lists of faculties, even when surveys indicate that many faculty believe open access to their published works is beneficial to their careers due to wider readership.
[Music out with a guitar riff]
SC: A failure to adopt even this baseline orientation towards accessibility shows a disinterest in engaging communities outside of the university that is distinctly short-sighted, especially when we take into consideration the current crisis of funding facing postsecondary institutions around the world.
Podcasting, then, is one of a whole bevy of possible approaches to increasing the audience for scholarship, and even within the world of scholarly podcasting there are gradations and nuances. Scholars might, for example, appear as experts on a popular podcast that touches on their research, or work with veteran radio producers through a project like Cited:
[Theme music from Cited: Dark plucked strings and bright percussion]
Gordon Katic: I'm Gordon Katic, and this is Cited.
SC: The form of podcasting that interests us here, however, is an approach that has its most obvious precursor in the rise of scholarly blogging in the mid-2000s. The link between blogging and podcasting is well-established; in fact, when Ben Hammersley coined the term "podcasting" in 2004, he also, according to podcast scholar John Sullivan (2018), considered using the term "audioblogging" (p. 38). Dario Llinares (2018) similarly points out this connection:
[Music: "Dirty Wallpaper" solo echoic electronic drum loop]
Dario Llinares: This correlation between the ethos of podcasting and the more open, unruly written form of blogging, both deriving from the creative expression facilitated by the internet, is commented upon by Madsen and Potts who suggest that "the broader social context of podcasting includes the culture of weblogging into which the new audio platform, and a rhizomatic 'links' culture help[s] to extend the podcast through time and space…" (p. 134) [Music out]
SC: Unlike scholarly podcasting—a nascent field with only a handful of articles really discussing it, despite how widespread it actually is in practice—scholarly blogging has an established body of literature arguing for its contribution to the transformation of scholarly communication. Veteran scholarly blogger Rohan Maitzen (2012) describes the various ways in which blogging pushes back against the habits and norms of scholarly communication:
Rohan Maitzen: In retrospect, it seems inevitable that blogging, which fosters a spirit of open inquiry, exchange and conversation, would after a while make the conventional forms of academic research and writing feel constricting. Less predictable is that this discomfort with specific academic habits would prove so productive or so profoundly alter my general outlook on academia. Academic research has become defined by depth and specialization; I have (re)discovered the value and pleasure of breadth and exploration. Academic publishing proceeds glacially; I have learned the stimulation of immediacy. Academic publishing is also insular; blogging reoriented me towards the fundamental purpose of scholarly writing: communication—or what we now more elaborately call "knowledge dissemination." [...] Blogging—free, accessible, [and] interactive—restores immediacy to scholarly discussion, removes logistical roadblocks to knowledge dissemination, and up-ends the communication/validation hierarchy in favour of the open exchange of ideas. Is that not what academic publishing is actually supposed to accomplish? (pp. 351–352)
SC: All of these characteristics of blogging—immediacy, accessibility, openness, experimentation—are equally true of certain forms of podcasting. While there is a certain tradition of highly produced and non-fictional audio storytelling emerging out of very professional studios, podcasting also has strong roots in the scrappy, DIY, just-in-time practices of blogging as well as community campus radio, itself a site of DIY production and radical amateurism. A simple glance at a list of most popular podcasts points to the lack of liberatory politics emerging in the medium itself.
[Voice reads from The Top 50 most listened to U.S. Podcasts of 2020, according to Edison Research in a monotone while radio static buzzes in the background.]
SC: And yet various characteristics of podcasting, including the low barrier to access and capacity to foster micro-communities of engagement, continues to leave space for this kind of experimental, amateur, and DIY creation.
[Voice and radio static fade out. Radio click off. Theme Music picks up again]
Jen Sookfong Lee: I'm Jen Sookfong Lee.
Dina Del Bucchia: And I'm Dina Del Bucchia.
JSL: And this is Can't Lit.
Can't Lit theme plays: Over upright bass riff, a deep voice sings "Can't Lit, we talk about books and stuff"
DDB: [echoing lyrics from theme song] "Can't Lit, talk about books and stuff." Right Rosie? Rosie! She just looked at me like, Del Bucchia, please stop… (Del Bucchia & Lee, 2019)
HM: A case in point is Vancouver-based podcast Can't Lit, created by writers and Poetry Is Dead editors Dina Del Bucchia and Daniel Zomparelli in 2014, with Jen Sookfong Lee taking over from Zomparelli as co-host in 2017. In most episodes, the hosts have an author on to talk about books and feelings and CanLit feuds. Sometimes they play games; frequently they make fart jokes. As the hosts explained in an interview for Discorder Magazine in 2017, just before Lee took over as co-host, their goal is to make Canadian literature both less insular and less serious.
Daniel Zomparelli: It's important because people are having these conversations like the ones we're having in the podcast, but they're not recording them. We're able to create some sort of a record of what's going on in Canadian literature. (Yang, 2017)
HM: In the interview, Del Bucchia and Zomparelli emphasize the conversational informality of the podcast as a genre, the way it can break down perceived cultural barriers between potential listeners and this thing called literature.
DDB: Yep, podcast, podcast…
DZ: Hi! It's episode six of Can't Lit
DDB: (whispering) Episode six…
DZ: with Dina Del Bucchia
DDB: And Daniel Zomparelli!
DZ: We had some earlier technical difficulties so…
DDB: We just garbaged that episode and started fresh.
DZ: There is a secret episode of Can't Lit that is never ever going to be heard.
DDB: Because it's already been deleted.
DZ: And Wayde Compton, our guest—
Wayde Compton: Mhm, hi!
DZ: —he told us a special bee story that you will never ever hear about.
DDB: It's gone.
DZ: Potentially! Unless he tells it again.
DDB: (overlapping) Unless he tells it again.
DZ: So, because we garbaged an entire episode because I'm an idiot—
DZ: —we're going to go ahead and jump into "what's happening" and I'm not going to start this time. Dina, you're going first! (Del Bucchia & Zomparelli, 2014)
HM: Zomparelli and Del Bucchia originally—and now Del Bucchia and Sook Fong Lee—embrace the messiness of a medium that must go on no matter how flawed. The promise of seriality as a contract with the listener produces something more raw and immediate than academics or writers or editors are used to. The possibility for goofiness, profanity, and, of course, error is what makes podcasts in general, and this podcast in particular, so appealing. Tintin Yang (2017) of Discorder Magazine describes this appeal:
Dina Del Bucchia (reading for Tintin Yang): By placing emphasis on the more relatable, less academic perspectives on literature, Can't Lit follows a similar mandate to Daniel's project, Poetry is Dead: "If it's not fun, don't do it." Can't Lit is one solution addressing the problem of framing Canadian literature in an inaccessible and pedagogic way.
HM: In more recent years, Del Bucchia and Lee have embraced this messiness further, opening up in a more overtly confessional mode via guestless episodes in which they discuss, amongst other topics, gossip, self-loathing, jealousy, and the challenges of being in public.
DDB: And this time we're going to talk about how to be in public.
JSL: How do you––
DDB: How do you be in public, as a human? an artist? a person?
JSL: Yeah! How do we be be be in public?
DDB: … a being? A sack of organs? [laughter] and hair?
JSL: I don't even know if I have organs. I feel like one day they're gonna do an autopsy and they'll just find out I'm stuffed with gumballs, that's just it. [laughter] (Del Bucchia & Lee, 2019)
HM: Can't Lit is rooted in a feminist ethic of inclusivity and a decidedly anti-institutional aesthetic. It embraces the informality and spontaneity that podcasting can make possible. And while we've pointed to informality and spontaneity as characteristics of blogging, podcasting studies scholars have also identified these as defining characteristics of the medium. As John L. Sullivan (2018) writes in his exploration of the drive to formalize podcasting as an industry:
John L. Sullivan: The popular fascination with podcasting stems mainly from the home-grown, grassroots nature of its content. Thanks to independent and amateur podcasters creating new podcast episodes on a continual basis, podcasting has developed a powerful ethos of authenticity. (p. 39)
[Music: "Dirty Wallpaper" soft leader version with ambient synth open]
SC: From a publishing perspective, podcasting offers exciting opportunities for scholarship that resists the corporate logics of contemporary digital platforms while building community through its openness and timeliness. The same can be said of scholarly blogging. But podcasting has another, unique affordance: It isn't just indie, DIY media creation, it's also sound-based. In our next episode, we take a closer look at some of the unique affordances of podcasting as a sound-based medium, including the way sound can build emotional connections between creators and listeners through the production of both intimacy and authenticity. That is to say: Sound makes us feel.
[Sounds of dial-up internet overlapping with music, fading to silence]