Preparing a Science Podcast

Research and report on an area of scientific interest in radio form

Background

Effective science communication requires the ability to understand and relay key components of complex scientific topics to non-experts. Science communication can take on many forms, such as teaching a class, giving a conference talk, science journalism, including writing a blog and discussing science on social media, making a science documentary/film, and making podcasts. Podcasts are a popular venue for science communication as they have a flexible format, can reach an international audience, are relatively easy to disseminate, and can be made free or at a low cost.

The Podcasting Process

The process depends on the type of podcast or radio you work for or what to create, as the timeline and structure will be different for daily radio/podcasts vs monthly release podcasts. For example, at a podcast from Gimlet Media like Science Vs, the preparation for each episode will begin approximately 9-10 weeks before release. For other podcasts, the amount of research, editing and re-tracking will differ depending on the content and style of the podcast, and will therefore take less time to release. Below is the overall framework of creating a podcast:

  1. Research and identify key players in the area of interest; pre-interview speakers
  2. Conduct interviews, produce a rough transcript of the recorded audio (“logging the tape”)
  3. Identify “good tape” (best quotes from the recorded interviews)
  4. Write a script for the narration to create interesting connections and flow of information from start to finish. The amount of scripting will differ from one podcast to another.
  5. The episode script then goes through one or several round of edits. An “edit” involves reading the script out loud to the team, together with the audio clips, to get feedback, followed by a restructuring of the script. This is repeated until the script feels right.
  6. Record the narration and add the music (“score it”).
  7. Obtain more feedback from the team, and re-record the narration where necessary (“re-tracking”). This can happen 3-5 times, when required.
  8. Final fact-checking to make sure errors haven’t been introduced accidentally during audio edits.
  9. Publish the episode.
  10. Create marketing materials for the episode for a website and/or social media.

Note: Another style of podcast that several podcast groups (especially smaller independent ones) have moved to is more free-flowing conversational solo-host or multi-host styles, rather than heavily scripted and structured interviews like in this example.

The exercise:

Lay the foundation for a science podcast by preparing for and conducting a pre-interview, defining jargon from the interview, and (optional) preparing a script.

Your role:
You are a junior science journalist, who works as part of a larger team of senior science journalists and podcast/radio producers.

Task 1 – Identify and research a topic for a pre-interview

Identify a topic of interest and a scientist working in that field (the scientist doesn’t have to be a Principal Investigator; it could be a postdoc or senior graduate student)Preparing for a pre-interview is how science journalists determine what is known in the field and who the experts are. By researching the background information first, journalists are able to roughly plan out the flow of the podcast before they conduct the main interviews, allowing them to direct the interviewer towards certain areas of interest and get useful quotes.

Write a list of ~10 questions to find out background information about this topic, such as:

  • What is currently known about the topic?
  • Who are the experts in the field?
  • Are there any counter theories/controversies in the field?
  • Who would be good representatives of those different theories? (good journalism requires that all sides of a story are well researched to cover all angles)

Task 2 – Conduct a pre-interview

Arrange and conduct a 30-40 min “pre-interview” by phone, Skype, or in-person. Ideally you should record the audio from the interview (using your phone, tablet or laptop). Make sure to notify the interviewee that you are conducting the interview for a podcast job simulation and ask permission to record the audio.It is preferable that the interview is conducted in-person (in a quiet location), but a conference call (e.g. Skype) would also work (ask the interviewee to be in a quiet location).

If you don’t have access to a recording device, or if the interviewee would prefer not to be recorded, write notes during the interview.

Make sure to take note of any jargon used, and to write down at least 2 or 3 quotes during the interview (you can ask the interviewee for specific quotes that you can use).

Task 3: Define jargon for a lay audience

Choose a piece of jargon used during the interview and describe it for a lay audience (in less than 100 words)

  • Give this description to both a non-scientist and a scientist who doesn’t work in that field. Ask them whether they understand the jargon term and have them explain it in their own words (to assess their understanding). Ask them feedback on how you might improve it.
  • Use the feedback to edit your description and give this new version to two other non-scientists and assess whether they understand your description.

This task tackles a common skill in science communication that is critical for science podcasting: the ability to take complex information and distill it down to concepts that will be understood by your target audience. This is a difficult skill to master and requires practice. This sim incorporates a level of feedback integration and editing in this task because this is a major part of science journalism in podcasting. Scripts are often re-written up to 5 times before the team are happy with the result; here you are completing only 1 round of edits.

The Deliverable

Task 1: List of questions for pre-interview

Task 2: Audio/notes from pre-interview

Task 3: Version 1 and 2 of jargon description (<100 words each)

Task 4: Bullet points of your narration interspaced with the most interesting quotes

After completing these tasks, you would normally check in with the senior science journalist leading the episode.

Sample Deliverable 1

Resources:

Skills used to perform this task:

  • Science journalism and editing (verbal and written science communication)
  • Ability to filter through large amounts of information to identify the most interesting content
  • Ability to connect with your target audience
  • Creativity

Skills required to succeed in science communication:

  • Broad understanding and interest in scientific topics (it’s not necessary to have a Ph.D. in science)
  • Verbal and written communication
  • Ability to identify content that is both salient and interesting to your audience
  • Ability to take complex scientific concepts and explain them in a simple yet entertaining way
  • Creativity and resilience
  • Ability to work with mixed media
  • Project Management
  • Marketing

Tips for building your science communication skills:

  • Listen to/observe good science communicators, e.g. podcasters you enjoy listening to, and question why they’re good and what techniques they use. Practice using these techniques and get feedback from friends/colleagues.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Keep making science communication products, as you will improve with each attempt.
  • Try different forms of science communication (see below) and see which media suits your skills and interests
  • Take part in a regular public speaking group/event to practice your communication skills. You don’t need to talk about science, but use the opportunity to build your confidence and help make your narration sound more natural.

Additional responsibilities in science communication:

  • Create a science video; something short like a Science Sketches video
  • Write a post for a science blog
  • Develop a hands-on science activity
  • Attend a science communication meet up group, or create one, to broaden your network and practice your communication skills

You are viewing a job simulation. To get started, set up SMART Goals to perform this simulation in a reasonable timeline. If you have completed the task, fill out the Self-Reflection Sheet.

Simulation author: Linet Mera, PhD
Simulation vetted by professionals in the Bay Area