KairosCast · Why Podcast? - Episode 3: Making Podcasts Count, by McGregor and Copeland


[Sound of bustling makerspaces including… 3D printers, laughter, someone dropping a pencil]

Stacey Copeland: Sound-based scholarship opens our ears to new ways of doing academic work. We can see that change in the makerspaces popping up across university campuses, and we can hear it in the podcasts made by colleagues across the globe. But the ivory tower mentality of what counts as scholarship doesn't seem to be keeping up.

[THEME plays: "Dirty Wallpaper," a vibey 85 bpm instrumental electronic track with synth and electric guitar]

Hannah McGregor: Welcome to episode three of our podcast miniseries "Why Podcast?: Making Podcasts Count." I'm Hannah McGregor.

SC: And I'm Stacey Copeland.

HM: In Episode 1 we focused on the publishing affordances of podcasting: its scrappy, noncorporate, and maker-based ethos. In Episode 2 we considered the specific possibilities of sound-based scholarship, including intimacy, affect, and the politics of voice. But the question remains: If scholarly podcasting is so great, why is it still so rare?

[music fades out]

In the early stages of the development of The SpokenWeb Podcast, research assistant Megan Ryland conducted a review of the then-available literature on scholarly podcasting. Her conclusion is one we've returned to again and again: [SFX echoey electronic flourish]

Megan Ryland: Podcasting has historically been viewed as a part of the teaching work of researchers, rather than the practice or distribution of scholarship. Little scholarship covers the use of podcasts by academics to communicate with their peers or distribute research, although this work is being done. The lack of attention to scholarly podcasts outside the classroom presents a strange picture in which researchers seem to value podcasts for distributing knowledge only to students. Podcasting is an accessible distribution strategy and some among the academy have clearly learned how to use it, so why is there so little attention paid to using podcasts to supplement research?

[Theme music: quick up and echoed fade out]

HM: The obvious reason is the issue of credit: We don't have current models for counting podcasts as scholarship and, as we've seen from the example of scholarly blogging, there's still a lot of hostility within the university toward nontraditional and publicly engaged forms of scholarly communication. But, as we've worked on more and more scholarly podcasts, podcasts with funding support and production assistance and the legitimacy of a large research project behind them, we've noticed another significant barrier. That is the lack of accessible models.

[Music: "Dirty Wallpaper" Volda version minimalist with drum synth]

In 2018, I was invited to join The SpokenWeb project, a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council-funded collaborative research project focused on the digitization of audio literary archives in Canada and the development of new methods for engaging with literature via sound. My first role as the leader of the new Podcast Task Force was to work with Megan to develop the infrastructure for the podcast; [music fades out] we had to choose the tools and platforms we would use, create a style guide, build educational resources for potential podcasters, and outline the workflows and production approaches. The goal of The SpokenWeb Podcast was first and foremost to give collaborators a sort of audio sandbox in which they could play, trying their hands at producing sound-based scholarship without the commitment of creating an entire podcast series themselves. The secondary goal was to share this scholarship with a potential audience of interested listeners—a goal that has turned out to be in constant tension with the primary one.

[SFX echoey electric drum flourish]

SC: Where building an audience demands consistency, familiarity, and intimacy, an open collaborative ethos pushes aside those best practices in favour of creative freedom, experimentation, and play. [Background SFX: radio static, modulating, hissing and warbling with indistinct walla] This mode harkens back to another community driven DIY audio space: community-campus radio. When Megan Ryland left the project, I came in as the podcast project manager and supervising producer. I have a background in community radio organizing through my role as co-founder of the feminist radio collective FemRadio, out of AM campus radio station CJRU The Scope at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. FemRadio is a project that sounds a little like this:

[FemRadio Theme Music: vibey beats with backwards synth loops and strings]

VO: This is FemRadio, a production of CJRU's Feminist Radio Collective.

SC: Hello and welcome to FemRadio on CJRU 1280 AM in Toronto. I'm your host Stacey Copeland, and with me in studio today is Elena Hudgins Lyle…

Elena Hudgins Lyle: Hi Stacey!

SC: …Samantha Lapierre…

Samantha Lapierre: Hi Stacey!

SC: …and Sierra Nutkevitch!

Sierra Nutkevitch: Hi!

SC: Yeah! We've got a full house going on today!

EHL: Yeah! [laughter]

SC: The fullest of houses.

EHL: A fuller house, if you will.

SC: Yes, a fuller house. Now on Netflix. [laughter] (Strawberry Ceremony, 2017)

From my time with FemRadio, I wanted to bring this community radio ethos to the SpokenWeb project, an ethos of social engagement, community capacity building, and learning by doing. The goal of this ethos is to break down the barriers of expertise and the overall technophobia often experienced by first-time media makers both inside and outside the academic fold.

In fact, while podcasting may be culturally and technologically positioned as different from radio (Berry, 2016), community and campus radio stations continue to play an integral role in providing training, facilities, and community connection for scholars and community members alike. In Canada, for example, many community radio stations are housed on university campuses where students and local community members can engage in accessible alternative media practices (see also Fauteux, 2013). [SFX: "CJRU's Feminist Radio Collective" echoes, a radio dial clicks off]

HM: Even with our commitment to keeping things accessible and fun for collaborators, throughout the first year we struggled to fill up the schedule of monthly episode releases. Getting collaborators on board sometimes felt like pulling teeth. As we explored this challenge further, we realized that one of the key barriers was the high expectations most academics were setting themselves in terms of the quality of their imagined episodes. It didn't help that our first few episodes had been painstakingly put together with the help of experienced audio producers, setting a bar that felt intimidatingly high for a lot of potential contributors. This was especially the case for students, whose institutional precarity made it even more daunting to imagine putting something imperfect into the world. As we continued to create the first season, we actively worked to include episodes produced by people with a range of levels of experience, and modelling a range of approaches to scholarly podcasting.

In season 1 episode 5, for example, student contributor Kate Moffatt revisited "Feminist Noise, Silence, and Refusal"—a live panel from the 2019 SpokenWeb Symposium—weaving event audio together with interviews and framing commentary. [Panel sound plays under speech: ambient synth mixed with female video game character cries then fades out]

Kate Moffatt: Both Dr. Lorenzi's questions about silence and sonic refusal and Dr. Droumeva and Brady Marks' questions about how silence, noise, and performance can affect our perception or emotional understanding is found, also, in the last presentation of this panel. Blake Nemec's presentation questions how the voices of unprotected workers, and even the sounds, pitches, and intonations that these voices make, rather than simply their words, differ from protected workers. Nemec questions how sonic performances, how silence, noise, and unexpected disruption, can communicate the emotional and political circumstances of these individuals. (Moffatt & Levy, 2020)

[Fades into audio from "Lesbian Liberation Across Media," words inaudible]

SC: Season 2 episode 2, titled "Lesbian Liberation Across Media: A Sonic Screening," is an experimental audio collage created by SpokenWeb network members Felicity Tayler and Mathieu Aubin. Bringing together audio from a virtual screening of three iconic lesbian feminist films and including the voices of over sixty participants, along with original music scores, archival clips and more, the episode is a kind of feminist memory-work that aims to honor lesbian-feminist collective histories and renew public attention to lesbian feminist culture.

[Audio collage exerpt from Lesbian Liberation Across Media with dreamy guitar and acoustic drums]

"Lesbian Liberation Across Media" clip ft. audio from A Working Women's Collective: Why I was a printer and why all this had happened to me because women don't have access to the media and that women have to be printers or have to be publishers to—(crackle) (new voice)—fell into it too. You know, like I was working, designing posters and things, and I came down and I thought, oh, there's this press. And I knew one of the men, and he was doing dark room stuff. And so, I went in, and so he showed me how to do all the darkroom stuff. And so, I developed the negatives of my own, like my own artwork. And then he was starting to print it, and he said, do you want to do this? And I said, sure. [Laugh] And like, I was really afraid, but I thought there's this big press. And like, I can't drive a car, and I've never run a machine. And I had this mental block, and I thought, now's the time. (Tayler, Aubin, & Girouard, 2020)

HM: Katherine McLeod's ongoing ShortCuts series discusses short archival clips, inviting listeners into deeper engagements with the archival audio at the heart of the SpokenWeb project. SpokenWeb Theme Music: an ethereal vocal fades in and out]

Katherine McLeod: Welcome to ShortCuts. These minisodes take you on a deep dive into the sounds of the SpokenWeb archives. And this season we're going to be exploring even more audio collections across SpokenWeb's network. So we're headed into audio archives and we're taking a shortcut. We're getting there quicker through a 'short cut'. A cut. [Sound Effect: Scissors] Or a clipped piece of audio. Usually around two to three minutes in length. Sometimes it'll be a poem or sometimes the social noises around a reading that tell you about what it was like to be there.

Audio Recording, Maxine Gadd with Richard Sommer: Um, well, okay. Do you want to—oh, do you want to try it? Try improvising to, um, to, to, to, to a trip that's here. I'll let you read it. You seriously want to do that? Yeah, it's just going to be some sounds.

Katherine McLeod: That was poet Maxine Gadd speaking with Richard Sommer about an improvisation with poem and flute that they then performed.

Audio Recording, Maxine Gadd with Richard Sommer: Yeah. Are we on? Sorry. Go ahead. (McLeod, 2020)

SC: And some producers—most notably Jason Camlot, SpokenWeb's principal investigator—have taken on more ambitious audio documentaries.

[Jaunty instrumental music]

Jason Camlot: Ellipsis. Dot, dot dot. [Reading over scratchy archival audio] When can their glory fade? O, the wild charge they made. All the world wondered. Honour the charge they made. Honour the Light Brigade. Noble six hundred. [Resuming] This translation of an unintelligible old recording into clear or at least clearer words that I have just performed, represents an act of demystification, an unweirding of this old recording. Old sound recordings like the one we just heard are weird, not just because we can't always decipher what the actual sounds are, but because, well, firstly the recording has preserved the voice of a famous person from another century whose voice we may have thought was lost for all time. So it's weird to have an emanation from that body assumed eternally absent, resonate again, vibrate through the air for us to hear. (Camlot & Gladu, 2019)

HM: At the same time, we increased the infrastructure of support for potential episode-creators, offering more workshops and, starting in the second year of the podcast, informal creator hangouts where podcast-makers and the production team discuss episodes in progress.

Stacey Copeland: Hello, everyone! It looks like everyone is slowly coming into the room. So, a big congratulations to Klara… (The SpokenWeb Podcast, 2020)

SC: Resource building centered on a culture of creativity over formality was key to breaking down these perceived barriers of audio expertise. During the first year of the podcast, our initial resource spreadsheet was opened up for editing from every collaborator on the project to collectively and continuously build an open access database of podcast knowledge, from podcasting 101 guides, to the best transcription services and interview techniques, to the best tips on building your own DIY studio blanket fort.

These various opportunities of engagement for members across the SpokenWeb network facilitated a new spirit of collective accountability and collaboration in the podcast project. Collaborators could create an episode or participate in workshops or simply attend an episode listening party—

Klara du Plessis: …thank you everyone for listening… (The SpokenWeb Podcast, 2020)

SC: —or contribute to the resource guide to support others in their work. The effort seems to have paid off, as our second-year schedule filled up rapidly with new creators eager to contribute their own episodes. While the experimental approach has made it more challenging to pitch the podcast to mainstream listeners, we have seen a steady growth in engagement from the intellectual and creative community that surrounds the SpokenWeb project, and with popular episodes surpassing 500 downloads, we can certainly point to levels of engagement that outstrip conventional humanities scholarship. More importantly, The SpokenWeb Podcast has achieved its goal of becoming a space for scholars, so often paralyzed by the demands of professionalism and perfection, to play with the affordances of sound-based scholarship: intimacy, affect, and the politics of voice included.

[Sounds of laughter and people talking over each other in excitement as theme music rises beneath]

HM: Despite the ongoing professionalization of podcasting, there continue to be spaces where amateur podcast creation is not only possible but encouraged. The Vancouver Podcast Festival, in which both of us have been involved, centres local podcast-makers and low-cost educational opportunities through an ongoing partnership with the Vancouver Public Library (VPL).

[Music: "Kid Kodi," upbeat 100 bpm instrumental including Wurlitzer, bass, shaker, trombone]

VanPodFest Trailer: Welcome to the 2020 Vancouver Podcast Festival, at-home edition, showcasing the best storytellers and audio producers from Vancouver, Canada, and across the globe. Live, from our home to yours. This year the festival might look and sound a bit different, but we're excited to bring you five days of innovative virtual panels, workshops, and live events… (Copeland & Chen-Wing, 2020)

HM: Like many other public and institutional libraries the world over, the VPL has invested in developing makerspaces where aspiring podcasters without the budget for their own equipment and sound studios can create professional-quality audio at no cost. Alongside campus and community radio stations, these kinds of makerspaces embrace experimentation and network-building, offering accessible entry points for new podcast creators in keeping with the medium's ongoing DIY possibilities.

[Audio from VanPodFest "Ideas to Audio" Panel, held at the VPL in 2019]


Speakers: Alright, thank you for that lovely introduction. I want to start out with a quick poll. Who here has a podcast already? Okay… Alright, good. And who here is hoping to start their own podcast soon? Alright. Everyone else. [laughter] Well, that's good! (Noorani et al., 2018)

[Music: "Dirty Wallpaper" Volda version with drum synth fades up then out underneath speech]

HM: The playfulness, intimacy, scrappiness, and independence of podcasting as a medium makes it an ideal place in which academics can rediscover the joy of scholarly community, connect to non-traditional audiences, and move past the barriers of traditional scholarly communication to embrace experimentation, authenticity, and immediacy. With all of these possibilities, why then does scholarly podcasting remain an exception to the rule, an outlier form of research-creation that most academics consider out of reach?

[Theme Music with repeat delay on fade out]

One ongoing barrier is the challenge of learning a new technology. Current academic labour conditions do not encourage experimentation, with the majority of academics precariously employed and the shrinking minority of tenured or tenure-track faculty crushed under an ever-larger service burden exacerbated by the failure of universities to add new tenure lines. Nonetheless, the success of events like the Digital Humanities Summer Institute suggest an appetite for developing new research tools, and it's easy to imagine podcasting taking a similar approach, offering concentrated workshop-style opportunities. In fact, the National Humanities Centre has already started offering such an institute for graduate students in the humanities.

[Theme Music up and out]

SC: More significant than the learning curve, however, is the question of credit—and it's the question at the heart of the potential intervention podcasting is poised to make into the scholarly status quo. As universities attempt to address deeply embedded patterns of exclusion rooted in white supremacist, misogynistic, and ableist norms, an often unaddressed challenge is hiring Black and Indigenous faculty, faculty of colour, LGBTQ and disabled faculty, people who often arrive in the university with a sense of commitment and accountability to communities outside of academia. While the community-oriented or public-facing work historically marginalized faculty members create is often celebrated by the university, it rarely matters where it counts: in review, promotion, and tenure considerations. [SFX Collage: audience applause, smartphone notification alerts, deep voice "congratulations"] From Indigenous scholars fighting for oral literatures to be taken seriously to disabled scholars working to build space for other ways of communicating research, the question of how to make a non-traditional scholarly output like podcasting count is linked to the urgent transformation of the university into a more public-facing, community-accountable, and meaningfully diverse institution.

As interest in podcasting as a scholarly mode of knowledge translation increases, we've begun to see scholarly podcasts emerge that address and equally problematize diversity and visibility narratives in the academy and what counts as academic research. Take for example Transcripts, a podcast launched in 2020 using oral histories from the Tretter Transgender Oral History Project at the University of Minnesota. [Transcripts Theme Music: chill beat loop fades in]

VO: This is Transcripts, a new podcast series about how trans activists are changing the world.
[overlapping archival audio of crowds, protests, chants, conversations, etc.] (Beam & Jenkins, 2020)

SC: In a workshop for AIR Media, lead producer Cassius Adair (2021) describes how the project team aimed to address the question of how to disrupt the prominence of the visibility narrative:

[Theme Music electric bass cut comes up softly and fades out]

Cass Adair: The idea that because trans people have more media coverage in mainstream outlets, that life is getting better for trans people… Instead, as the voices on Transcripts argue, increased media coverage has actually made things worse for a lot of trans people, especially trans people of colour.

SC: In doing so, Adair and their team approach the podcast production process as a way to reflect on how tape editing, workflow, marketing, and story development can embrace a harm-reduction approach to create trans media that attempts to speak to trans listeners rather than sensationalize or objectify them. [Theme Music electric bass cut fades in underneath] As a result the podcast embraces a community driven approach that celebrates the affective embodied power of the voice not only through the voices featured in the podcast but in the very process of podcast production. Transcripts employs a project advising team of queer and trans activists, researchers and audio producers to provide feedback and insight during the production process and before any episodes are released to the public (Adair, 2021).

[music fades out]

HM: Figuring out how to count podcasting isn't as easy as recognizing that it's real scholarship, though. Non-traditional scholarly outputs demand new approaches to assessment, as Sarah E. Bond and Kevin Gannon (2019) have pointed out:

Kevin Gannon: For too long, academe [has] treated … work [that's] meant to be public-facing and aimed at a wide consumption as lesser-than, as not prestigious enough to count for real college faculty members. Considered in terms of impact and reach, however, this scholarly work—and make no mistake: it is scholarly—resonates far more widely and deeply than much of the traditional (and in large part literally inaccessible) projects [that are] prized by a more-limited view of [so-called] legitimate scholarly activity. […] As we broaden our notions of what counts as scholarship, [we in academia] must find effective ways to assess [and recognize] these pivotal forms of outreach—whether it's public writing, community initiatives, or open-access digital projects.

[Theme Music electric bass and guitar only mix]

HM: While the question of methods for peer reviewing and evaluating scholarly podcasts is beyond the scope of this series, it is worth noting here that Bond and Gannon emphasize a broadening of our notions of scholarship and an accompanying development of new methods of assessment, rather than the need for non-traditional outputs to be incorporated into the existing assessment structures for scholarship. [music fades out] Scholars have pointed out the current dearth of rigorous methods for evaluating and counting publicly engaged scholarship (Alperin et al., 2019), and the peer reviewers for Secret Feminist Agenda chaffed at the need to count the podcast at all, particularly by fitting it into the artificial subdivision of research, teaching, and service. Drawing together knowledge mobilization, research-creation, platform development, and publicly engaged pedagogy, scholarly podcasting defies easy categorization, and won't be served well by traditional ways of measuring output. But, as it turns out, those traditional measurements are not serving most of us well, no matter how traditional our work might look. New approaches to measuring impact like Humetrics are exploring alternate ways to value humanities scholarship outside "impact metrics" (HuMetricsHSS, 2021). Alongside arguments for the value of open-access scholarship, these kinds of projects provide potential models as we move forward with the challenge of assessing and valuing non-traditional scholarship.

[Theme music rises and continues to play until end]

SC: More than anything, the takeaway we'd like to leave listeners with is this: Now is not the time for gatekeeping, for bemoaning the idea that "everyone has a podcast" or insisting that people produce work within a particular standard, scholarly or otherwise. Much like in earlier eras of digital humanities, when people claimed that "real digital humanists build tools" or "real digital humanists code," attempts to distinguish between "real" podcasters and interlopers will only discourage the kind of playful, exploratory, and amateurish energy that podcasting has the potential to bring into scholarly communication. Now is the time to embrace the radical possibilities that come from experimenting in new ways to create and share your work.

HM: "Why Podcast?" was written and produced by Stacey Copeland and Hannah McGregor, on the traditional and unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations, as well as the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit, the Anishnabeg, the Chippewa, the Haudenosaunee and the Wendat peoples.

This miniseries is part of the ongoing work of the Amplify Podcast Network. For more about Amplify's work, check out amplifypodcastnetwork.ca, or follow us on twitter @AmplifyPodcasts. Our theme music is "Dirty Wallpaper" from Blue Dot Studios. Our web designer is Luisa Martinez.

Special thanks to everyone who lent us their voices: Juan Pablo Alperin, Dario Llinares, Rohan Maitzen, Daniel Zomparelli, Dina Del Bucchia, John L. Sullivan, Alyn Euritt, Andrew Bottomley, Erin Wunker, Daniel Heath Justice, Kim Fox, Megan Ryland, Cass Adair, and Kevin Gannon. You also heard clips from Anil Dash, FemRadio, and a whole bunch of podcasts, including The SpokenWeb Podcast, Witch, Please, Secret Feminist Agenda, This is the Sound of my Voice, Waste Product, Cited, Can't Lit, Another Round, Stop Podcasting Yourself, Within the Wires, The Heart, and Transcripts.

This has been "Why Podcast?". Thanks for listening.