Podcasts have grown rapidly in popularity in recent years, and they give everyone the opportunity to turn their research into a show, whatever their career stage or discipline. In this guide I will explain how you can create your own podcast with no training, experience or money, and use it to generate research impact.
In the accompanying podcast episode, I interview Prof James Daybell, who thought initially that it would be hard to achieve impact for his archival research on Renaissance letters and letter-writing. Based at University of Plymouth’s School of Humanities and Performing Arts, James co-founded the Histories of the Unexpected podcast with TV presenter and historian, Dr Sam Willis. They have had more than 1.5 million downloads in their first two years, and the podcast has turned into a touring live show and book series, reaching people who would otherwise never have engaged with history. I hope this guide and James' story will inspire you to think seriously about whether you might be able to generate impact from your research with your own podcast.
In contrast to James’ impressive numbers, the Fast Track Impact podcast gets around 25,000 downloads a year, but it is still an important pathway to impact for my research, leading to invitations to talk and train around the world. Most importantly for me, it provides an opportunity to mentor colleagues at a scale I could never achieve in person, helping people become more resilient to the challenges of academic life as much as helping them learn about research impact.
Whether you set your sights on the thousands or the millions, podcasting can enable you to reach into the daily lives of people you would otherwise struggle to reach, and provide insights based on your research that can open minds, nourish and change people. Podcasts build connection between you and your audience, making you and your research more approachable and understandable. Best of all, anyone can start a podcast immediately, without having to go on or course or get the interest of a commissioning editor (and with a bit of time, you can still build a following that can rival mainstream media).
I met James last week when I was training his colleagues in Plymouth, and I think you’ll find his story both fascinating and inspiring. Scroll down to read the interview or listen to it on the Fast Track Impact podcast. But first, here's the guide - it really is as easy at is sounds.
How to make your own podcast in 10 easy steps (with no cost)
1. Plan: Create an impact plan for your research, so you know the impacts you want to achieve and for whom. Decide if a podcast is the most effective and efficient way of reaching the people who will benefit most from your work. If there is a better approach, then use it rather than just jumping on the podcasting bandwagon. If you think a podcast will work for you, then...
2. Concept and format: Come up with a concept for your podcast that specifically meets the needs and interests of the people you think will benefit most from your research. Consider the format too - rather than just recording your lectures, try and do something that will work well as a podcast (typically between 20 mins and an hour per episode). Will you have different segments (e.g. a weekly tip, quote or idea), will you incorporate music or will you base it around interviews? Record a pilot episode, put it on BandCamp or similar, and get feedback, or get feedback on your concept in another way, adapting it as necessary
3. Frequency: Decide on the frequency you want to put our episodes. Try and make it regular so people keep coming back for more. Most podcasters recommend once a week, but if that's too frequent, once a month can still be very successful
4. Register your podcast with Apple iTunes (you only need to do this once) - see their guide here
5. Record your first few episodes (it is useful to have a few in the bag in case you get really busy and can't record new content for a few weeks). Find a quiet place that doesn't have too much echo, and if possible get yourself a decent microphone with a stand and a pop shield. I use the Rode podcaster mic in my office feeding into my computer, and two Sennheisser lapel mics feeding into a splitter plug with my iPhone for interviews when I'm out and about. But I know many people who simply record their podcast straight into their phone, so you can do this step for free if you want
6. Edit your work using free software such as GarageBand (for Mac) or Audacity (for PC). If you're not confident about editing sound, or don't have time for this step, just restart your recording when you make a major blunder, and record it in one sitting. I used to do this and would sometimes have four or five goes at an episode until I was happy I had got it right, and although it takes longer to record, it means you can just upload the recording with no extra processing. If you are editing, then you can add music, but if you fade it to the background, make sure you keep the levels low enough so you can still hear your voice clearly over the music
7. Publish: I use Castbox as a free publishing platform but there are many other options (the paid platforms don't offer anything you can't get for free on Castbox). Come up with a title, considering what is likely to make people want to listen to the episode (to help with this, I often try and phrase the title as though it were a tweet). Write a short summary, then upload the file and hit "publish". It will be sent to iTunes, which then sends the episode to everyone's devices (well everyone who subscribes to your podcast), whatever software or app they are using to listen to podcasts. The Fast Track Impact website is built using Wix, and they have an app that pulls in your latest podcast episode, so whenever you publish a new episode your website will update automatically (see what our podcast page looks like here)
8. Promote your podcast via all means possible. Social media is an important method for most podcasts, but if you don't have a strong social media following yourself (or are not on social media) then find social media influencers in your network and ask them to promote episodes for you (if you do this, you'll need to have a range of people interested in different things so they promote the most relevant episodes for their audience and don't get annoyed by too frequent requests). To do this effectively, consider developing a social media strategy. Another way to build a following is to interview other podcasters whose shows are doing well, so they can promote your show to their audiences and vice versa.
9. Analyse your performance via your podcast platform (e.g. Castbox) or directly via Apple, to learn which episodes do best, and which don't seem to get much traction. Consider what you can do to improve your content, titles and summaries to increase the value of your podcast to your audience based on this feedback. Make sure you also monitor the impacts you targeted in your impact plan (step 1), for example using my impact tracking template
10. Know when to stop: If you run out of ideas or time, you can stop podcasting at any point and call the episodes you created "season 1". Then you can give yourself a few months to come up with new ideas or record enough episodes so that you can return with a new series next year without the stress of having to come with a new idea every week. Better to stop while you've got high quality content than continue with increasingly weak ideas and lose your audience.
An unexpected history of a scholar turned podcaster: interview with Prof James Daybell
As Mark quite right says, new technologies in the form of podcasts have in recent years enabled researchers of all stripes to reach diverse audiences, well beyond the ivory towers of academe. Since the advent of the smart phone with its embedded recording functions, podcasting is a genuinely democratic form accessible to anyone. Podcasting on a personal level is something that I have embraced over the past couple of years in a project entitled Histories of the Unexpected. It was designed as a way of engaging in public history (used here in the UK understanding of the term as broadly ‘all the means, deliberate and otherwise, through which those who are not professional historians acquire their sense of the past’, Ludamilla Jordanova, Jordanova, ‘Public History’, History Today, 50/5 (2000), 20-21), translating my archival scholarship on letters, early modern women, politics, archives, materiality, and even historical gloves into a form that appealed to a broader general audience.
While podcasting lectures and seminar papers is useful for those unable to attend academic conferences and events, such efforts are little more than recording scholarly work for archival purposes. In aspiring to engage with audiences beyond academe, I began working with the TV presenter and historian Sam Willis to develop the Histories of the Unexpected brand (historiesoftheunexpected.com). This started out as a podcast that aimed to make history accessible, interesting and fun for as broad an audience as possible, and spawned a book, a book series and most recently a live stage show.
The research and concept
The research base underpinning Histories of the Unexpected is characterised in three main ways – thematic, methodological and conceptual – deriving from my long-term research and published outputs over the last decade or more. Strategically Histories of the Unexpected has been the way in which the published research and findings from my British Academy, Leverhulme and AHRC-funded research projects have been shared with non-academic audiences in a manner that utilises new technologies to popularise history. This research provides the raw materials for dedicated episodes on letters, ink, paper, handwriting, love, the family, secret codes, oranges, and gloves for example.
Methodologically it is the experience of working as a practising professional historian that informs everything about the podcast. It is the experience and excitement of archival research, the methods of working as well as the discoveries and fundamentally how to be a historian that is one of the most infectious by products of Histories of the Unexpected. People love the sense of wonder of archival discovery and bringing that to life in an episode or dramatised on stage (as in the case of describing the discovery of a lock of the Duke of Wellington’s hair in a family memory box on a research trip to the Bodleian or John Donne’s placement of his signature in groveling letters to his father-in-law).
The idea behind the concept is deceptively very simple: it demonstrates that everything has a history, even the most unexpected of subjects, and that these subjects link together in unexpected ways. The past to many is still often presented as the study of great men and women, events, wars and revolutions, cultural movements or epochs that move us from the ancient and medieval to the modern world. Some historians privilege different aspects of the past such as religion, society, economics, gender, politics, military affairs or ideas. All of this is useful; it brings different perspectives and insights to our study of the past. However, history as we know and understand it today is exceptionally complex and interconnected, and no one perspective on the past is really adequate in order to unpack it in its entirety.
What we aimed to achieve with Histories of the Unexpected was to bridge this gap between the well-established scholarly embrace of complexity and the public appetite for digestible but meaningful and thought-provoking history. Our thinking borrows from a range of theoretical and methodological innovations in the way in which history has been studied over the last century. It is a combination of cultural history and object biography with comparative and global history.
My own research has worked at the level of micro-studies meeting a macro world and this is something that infuses Histories of the Unexpected, which is interested in the ways that the everyday and mundane can be recovered, and their stories told and interpreted, as well and how they relate not only to broader historical forces and shifts, but also how they connect to well-known events and episodes in the past. Theoretically underpinned and drawing on archival research, Histories of the Unexpected is a vehicle for communicating history to a wide audience.
This flexible approach allows one to see the historical significance in everything, and extends to all manner of subjects, topics, themes, objects and emotions, and it helps you see how it all links together. It is these connections between different aspects of our past that breathe new life into our understanding of both the past and the present. In practice this worked by taking a particular subject, like boxes, or hair, letters, gloves or the scar, and rather than doing a standard potted history of that subject in any kind of chronological, linear sense, we were interested in showing how the subject could prompt different directions of inquiry; a taxonomy of the subject was followed by a series of case studies, stories and different approaches in an engaging and lively manner.
The unexpected history of the box, for example, started with memory boxes connected to work I’d been doing on the family, as well as a collection of WWII letters in a beautiful velvet box that a student of mine had found in a skip, and from there we moved to archive boxes, safety coffins, sailors’ chests and plastic boxes. The history of the orange was stimulated by discussions stemming from John Gerard’s Latin autobiography and the multiple uses of the orange while imprisoned, connected to bribery, Catholic practice and invisible ink, which prompted further connections to Elizabethan spies and concepts of secrecy.
The format of the delivery was key to making the material accessible and appealing, and we wanted to be different from the nervous shuffling of papers and awkward delivery that is the default of academics giving public lectures. While we are both professional historians with serious scholarly interests – Sam with expertise in maritime history and archaeology, myself with interests in Tudor and Stuart history – we nonetheless wanted to convey a relaxed sense of fun and enthusiasm for history, to present complex ideas and state of the art research in a way that wore our learning very lightly.
This presentational side of things was something we worked very hard to develop, and is something that reviews of the podcast have highlighted. Listeners like the sense that there is a depth of knowledge, and they are learning all sorts of new things, in an engaging manner. The manner of delivery was thus key to breaking down the barriers that often exist between academic history and people outside of universities.
The benefit of the concept is that there are endless possibilities for subjects, and so far we have recorded over 110 weekly episodes, which was hosted and produced professionally for us as part of Dan Snow’s History Hit network, alongside his own History Hit podcast, Art Historian Nina Ramirez’s Art Detective, Jim Holland’s Chalke Valley History Festival podcast and archaeologist Darius Arya’s Darius Digs podcast.
As a digital network that commissioned, wrote and produced its own content, the aim was to provide an accessible alternative to the monopoly that mainstream TV media channels had on producing history programmes. In its first year the Podcast had over a million downloads, was supported by ACAST (with the benefit of advertising revenue to support production costs), when it launched it was one of iTunes new and notable podcasts in the UK and US, and was recorded live at the London podcast festival. It also spawned a limited company.
Over the past couple of years the podcast has reached diverse audiences around the world, who engage with it in very different ways, including school teachers around the world who use episodes as prompts for their lessons, to stimulate kids who struggle with learning or to recruit pupils to study history at a time when such emphasis is placed on STEM subjects. It is also listened to by heritage and museum professionals and curators who have been stimulated to rethink about their collections in new ways, and special episodes on podcast the Vasa Ship museum in Stockholm, the V&A’s collections, the British Library’s recent exhibition on writing, as well as Powderham Castle have connected to particular research projects, including the AHRC-funded ‘Gendered Interpretations of Museums’. Finally, some people the podcast has become a weekly ritual, as they download it to drive across Exmoor, to alleviate household chores, a source of well-being during periods of personal crisis or illness, or even simply to enliven the school run in Dubai.
We have worked with individual practitioners and SMEs within the creative industries from producers and sound engineers through animators and graphic designers to playwrights and filmmakers and as part of the History Hit Network have sought to transform the media and technologies employed for the communicating of history. Through social media – via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Patreon – we are able to interact and engage with listeners, whose comments and responses can be recorded and mapped for impact purposes both quantitively and qualitatively.
The success of the podcast led to the publication of large trade press book, Histories of the Unexpected: How Everything Has a History (2018), which demonstrated the concept of the podcast in book form. In it we took 30 different topics each of which was treated in a separate chapter, and each chapter led into the next, with the last coming back full circle to the beginning chapter. As well as this large book, we have also written a series of slightly shorter books applying the idea to well-known periods and topics: The Tudors, The Vikings, Romans and WWII.
In each volume the idea was to get away from standard narratives, and to attempt something a little more creative. Standard studies of the Tudors, for example, offer a staple diet of monarchs, wives, wars and the Reformation, but instead we approached the period from a series of topics, such as eyes, the chair, faces, accidents, shrinking, and fruit-eating for example, which gave a more novel entry point for discussing the sixteenth century. Thus, through eyes readers were introduced to the idea of surveillance and the watchers; the chapter on chairs was about social control via the ducking stool, the witch’s interrogation stool and the throne.
In addition to the podcasts and books, the concept has also been translated to the stage in the form of a one-hour live show through collaboration with the award-winning UK-based playwright Daniel Jamieson, who has adapted the works of Charles Dickens, Graham Greene and Michael Morpurgo. Working from the manuscript of the main book, we worked together to develop a fast-paced format that worked not only as a script, but also visually, staged with props and scenery, working with creatives to produce graphic animations, film clips and audio-visual material.
The upshot was a new form of public history vehicle – which Dan Jamieson has termed a performance lecture – which is entirely innovative for the field. It is now touring theatres, literary, history festivals and schools in the UK with over forty dates in the academic year 2018-19. The experience of Histories of the Unexpected alongside the production of monographs, peer-reviewed articles and edited collections has been invaluable in many ways, not least in championing history as a fascinating and worthwhile subject integral to modern society. It is only by engaging broader publics that history and the humanities more broadly will stave off the attacks from those who seek to diminish its intrinsic importance.