Podcasting and public engagement

Liveblog notes from an OU e-Learning Community event on Podcasting, 16 November 2010. Martin Weller started off with his talk on Academic output as collateral damage.

Nigel Warburton – Will podcasting win friends and influence people?

Nigel is a prolific and popular podcaster on philosophy. Giving a talk direct, no slides, no notes.

Short answer is yes and no.

(cc) nattu on Flickr

First experience at the OU, wrote a book on his word processor. Got handed over to secretary who retyped it. With errors. He corrected it … and it was re-typed again. But now digital technologies have changed everything – a lot of ‘unrealised potential’ for academics. OU slow off the mark in some respects.

Don’t want to separate out a particular platform (podcasting) – use many. Podcasting is one thing he does, but it’s part of a whole range of things: Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, blogging. Chances are few will find you if you do only one.

Got in to podcasting by experimenting with blogs, used to giving lectures, added as audio so not lost to posterity. Isaiah Berlin recorded his lectures on dictaphones, most of his writings are transcriptions of talks he gave. So not a new idea in philosophy. Now have a great way of getting stuff out there.

OU very empowering for the students. Less empowering for academics to change lives. Many colleagues have the knowledge to reach a mass audience, but have to work within a complex, expensive framework. Don’t have to settle for being small fish. We haven’t missed all the boats (to mix metaphors).

He started interviewing philosophers – the start of philosophy is based on dialogue (Socrates). Many great philosophers great at thinking on their feet. Now done about 150 philosophers, with a friend who also wrote Wittgenstein’s Poker and is a radio producer. Nigel has picked up some of those skills. He bought the equipment they use, outside OU framework.  Both do 4d/w for main job (OU, BBC). Did about 70 in first year. Internet makes it easy to contact academics, and they are usually happy to talk to you. Catch people who are visiting through. Usually Oxford, London, but as far as Southampton and Cambridge (!) but have interviewed the majority of significant philosophers alive today. (Did do a couple in California.) A lot of academics go through Oxford, Cambridge, London.

Format: short intro, 15 min interview. Top and tail with musical sting composed by a friend.

World is full of poor podcasts, not edited with any ruthlessness. Typically book interviewee for 1h, talk it over for 15-20 min but avoid pre-empting discussion, plan the trajectory. Straight in to it, for about 25-30 min, cut down to about 15 min. Cutting it down takes a long time – Nigel is slower than his friend. A good speaker, will take a whole days’ work for him to edit, probably two, to cut down to 15 minutes. Quite creative process.Voice communicates a lot, more than in print – style, irony, enthusiasm.

Researched how best to release podcasts. Some penalise you if you’re successful – penalise for success. Libsyn charges fixed monthly rate – $7/month regardless of downloads. Fortunate,  have 139 eps, 8.5m downloads. Favourable comparison with many universities. OU iTunesU has 30m; this one series has 8.5m.

Another series – Philosophy: The Classics – 27 chapters, each about a great book in philosophy. 2-3000 words, simply read out. Has 1.5m downloads, not complete release yet.

Tremendous potential to reach a mass audience. Not doing it to make money. But indirect rewards are substantially larger than e.g. the best paid Chair in the OU. If you’re an academic, you want people to hear about it. In philosophy, has interviewed most people, so they know him. You think they’re giving you something, but they feel pleased about having been in that interaction, very positive. Perhaps because of positive editing to make them sound good.

Big reward was renewing his faith in philosophy. Drier ends are most tedious deserts known to humanity, not of any obvious value to the worlds. But has interviewed major figures in the world of philosophy – they can enthuse listener, and him. Book out with Oxford UP based on series, could produce five books on what done.

Commissioned series Ethics Bites for OU. Amazing training. OU training can help you, but nothing compares with hearing your own voice, feedback. The hours put in have been very rewarding. Also has generated many exciting invitations to many interesting things.

If you value your subject, what could be better than communicating it to the world? He gets many interesting connections / email feedback. The Internet – and especially iTunes – reaches people. And creates a dialogue, not just broadcasts. It’s not about the rewards in the OU system; it’s wider than that. Self-taught skills.

A podcast isn’t a monolithic thing – nest of things, allows people to become aware of what you’re doing. A link on Twitter gets him a lot of interest (has 7000 followers). It doesn’t just happen, you have to build it up. It doesn’t just come to you. They won’t find you, you have to go out and do it. It’s not like fishing, putting out the bait and seeing what bites – it’s more like machine-gunning the water and see what comes up.


Chris: value of collaboration with someone outside the OU?

Nigel: Mine was with radio producer. Has to be a way to empower academics. Some of us taught ourselves to type, produce stuff faster. Get good advice early on.

Chris: Not necessarily expert technical advice, but with someone with their own links?

Nigel: But he doesn’t use them, it would be awkward if he were seen to do something based on BBC contacts. Within the OU we have people who can train you. There are two skills he has – radio producer, technical equipment/editing (available to all, not rare); other is shaping a programme, putting things together. We have whole history of working with BBC producers. Other ways of learning how to do it – analyse how people put things together. All you need is a basic system that works. Microphone cost £70 plus his iPhone. Uses Audacity to do it (free software), does more than you ever need if you’re working with audio.

Crossover effects – interviewed Alain de Botton. He asked Nigel to go to book launch, chatted to Derren Brown, made some YouTube videos with the OU. Unexpected chaining of things. Visual medium – if you want it to look amateur, go to YouTube. Visual editing skills tougher to acquire. If you join bits in audio, can hide the join. But really, amateur video editors can’t hide the join. Primarily verbal subject really helps. You can inserts images in to podcasts – e.g. profcast, puts powerpoint slides in to correct bits of an audio track. To produce professional-looking video is hard; but threshold-level audio is easier. Not BBC standard.

Someone 1: Role of interrogator. Can you be someone who speculates personally in a podcast? One effect of compression, editing down, is that you say less, don’t have room to speculate. Can you do that?

Nigel: You can do whatever you want! Someone who goes on for two hours might not get an audience. I teach for Tate Modern, they record these symposia in massive files, it’s hard to navigate. So two-hour things don’t work in the medium. The media I’m talking about allow you to go on in much greater volume than traditionally – can stick up lots. If you want an audience – they’ve got to be interesting. Edit things carefully: that’s what creates content people can bear to listen to. We’re not even good at that in writing as academics. Many things could be much more succinct and well-expressed. Edit so no terrible pauses, ums and ahs, false starts – key to audience. Active rather than passive in promoting what you do. Once there’s momentum, people come to you and promote you.

Some people think they only have small audience. But if want to survive as a university, have to communicate widely.

Someone 2: Big craft to audio production. Technical skills easy to learn, but story-telling is harder and key. Had a two-day course on this. Audio/radio is great, also cheap to do. It has to make sense as a story in an elevator pitch. Team academics with producers, have 20 minute videos representing research across the OU. Have to change how we’re thinking. Nigel’s way of working represents a big change. It’s a global audience – the OU’s audience on iTunesU is mostly from the States.

Nigel: Same for me. Lots of people listen when travelling long distance. There’s a moment of podcasting – if get in now, could be one of the first in the field.

Someone 2: There are people who can help you here. Experts, academics, always help – if you have a good idea.

Nigel: Not technical, but used to teach film, so does have some training in that side of storytelling. Can’t expect people to listen to drivel. Won’t listen unless there’s a structure, will come to an end.

Someone 2: Have to focus down. Can’t assume audience knows anything about what you’re doing.

Nigel: Do get feedback on the audience. People can email you and tell you what they think. Some interviewees say controversial things and get bombarded with email.

Giles: Do you show the interviewee the final version before publishing?

Nigel: Rights issue interesting. Considered giving a consent form, but thought it would corrupt the understanding, they understand what’s going on. But for the book, insisted publishers paid each contributor. Thought it was cheeky to transfer it – so gave them something like £200, unexpected. Have been appalled with treatment of some interviewees by external producers. Relationship is very important. We follow BBC standard practice – we put it out, send them the link. If they have a problem they’ll let us know. You don’t let them discover it, you tell them it’s up. We changed one word of one podcast once.

Another spinoff – two iPhone apps based on podcasts, also taking off. Another level of interactivity, lots of extra features. Once had interviewee, interesting anecdote about Wittgenstein – goes as an extra on the app, and on the blog.

Me: Transition between starting off, and being very successful?

Nigel: Bit more like fishing. Do podcast. Got column i Prospect, they asked for podcast based on column, doesn’t have a lot. Philsopsphy Bites, actively emailing – not with one episode, would be absurd. Need a whole range, had recorded 3 or 4 and put them up together, have sense of a series, emailed loads of people, put on blogs he had going. Printed load of acrds, have T-shirt with URL of blog. Started looking at blogs – one that’s most popular for philosophy, sent them a link, got momentum, got picked up all over the place. Not a lot of time. Time is not the problem – it’s energy, and this is all really energising and stimulating. Come back with more eneergy and enthusiasm than you go in with. I want to do this, it’s not a chore. Maybe in 3 or 4 years at Oxford will have 20 tutorials – he’s had 200 with really great people. Not onerous, I love it. Read a few blogs about SEO. Great book, The Yahoo Style Guide, really great – about writing for blogs and search engine optimisation. How to promote your writing. It’s an email with a link in, can copy and send it to 20 people easy. If you know your audience. Book by Seth Godin on making things viral. Think of viruses, they spread when people sneeze. So find sneezers – people who[ll pass on your virus by sneezing in public. They’re not in a financial relationship with you. In wine, Parker, has massive following because not tied in to particular winery, people believe him. You want credible sneezers who’ll value what you’re doing because of its quality. Most publishers aren’t particularly good on the Internet. Find people who have respect of people in the field and will enthuse about what you’re doing to other people. If you send an email or blog, has to be in a format where it can be copy-and-pasted or forwarded easily. So don’t include idiosyncratic stuff.

Someone 3: Know you’re frustrated with academic colleagues. Bar is set very high.Thought about change in career for yourself?

Nigel: If anyone wants to make me a good offer? I love the OU, but I do think it has to change very quickly.  More at the academic level, what people think are important. The OU has employed too many people who are good at research but not good at reaching a mass audience. The first people at the OU wanted to speak to the world, political value of education, whether or not it brings in lots of money. First of all, be incredibly popular, then worry about whether you’ll get paid for it. If you get enough momentum going, people will queue up to give you things. We worry to much about whether we’ll get paid. The investment is not great, the academic payoff is huge. If you get sufficient momentum and become a world player, everything else will follow. None can work by charging a lot for stuff you can get free. So e.g. yesterday got list of 100 philosophy lectures, from online US school. About 25 people retweeted it on Flickr. They could find 100 easily on the internet free, some from top lecturers. We’re not going to survive if we think we’ll be selling that content. Those people are, on the whole, better than OU people – top Princeton, Yale, etc, also top communicators. What we can do is create interesting online stuff, make a difference for autodidacts as well as people signed up to do degrees. What I’m doing is consistent with the aims of the OU – and has side effect of people coming to the OU because they’ve heard of it. The Philosophy Bites thing had to be outside the OU, was told it was too expensive, so bought equipment and did it himself – is a sad bit. Hope that wouldn’t happen today.

Someone 2 (Catherine Chambers): Creating a brand for yourself, part of the wider OU brand, we’re here to help you do that. I can help, give advice, has open door, drop me an email. I’m Catherine Chambers, producer sound & vision.

Andy Lane: Arts website has links to free content, open learn.

Nigel: When George Bush talked about waterboarding and torture, I put up a link to episode about it, got lots of hits. Relevance to current events. OU has back catalogue, but not fully joined up together. So e.g. we have great content on Machiavelli, but not linked to from Google. But I can get to top of front page of Google with just my laptop.

Someone 3: What is ‘the OU’?

Nigel: A juggernaut heading in a particular direction. Expensive, hard-to-change systems in place. But the OU is also a group of people some of whom are passionate about education. What do you think?

Someone 3: We are the OU!

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Author: dougclow

Data scientist, tutxor, project leader, researcher, analyst, teacher, developer, educational technologist, online learning expert, and manager. I particularly enjoy rapidly appraising new-to-me contexts, and mediating between highly technical specialisms and others, from ordinary users to senior management. After 20 years at the OU as an academic, I am now a self-employed consultant, building on my skills and experience in working with people, technology, data science, and artificial intelligence, in a wide range of contexts and industries.

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