How Do Listeners Discover Academic Podcasts?

Yelena Kalinsky's picture

This is the first in a series of posts about podcasting in and out of the academy. Readers should feel free to jump into the discussion by subscribing to the H-Podcast network and using the Reply box at the bottom of the post.

Last month, H-Podcast put out a call asking subscribers for recommendations. We wanted to compile a list of podcasts that would showcase the ways academics are using the medium to reach out to audiences beyond the classroom, monograph, or academic journal. And given the relative accessibility of the medium, we wanted to see how non-academics are engaging disciplines like history, cultural studies, and science. The response on H-Podcast and social media has been strong. Just four weeks later, the list has grown to over 60 titles begging to be organized into categories and analyzed.

But aside from the sheer number of scholarly podcasts out there, what's been most surprising to me is how few of them this avowed podcast junkie had heard of. A good number, like Past Present or Restless Device, though relatively new, are well-researched and masterfully produced. Many, like The Ancient World or The History of Rome, have been around for years. How had I missed them?

This got me thinking about how I discover podcasts. I can think of three ways immediately:

  • I hear about them from friends or a podcast that I already listen to, like when Ira Glass suggested that This American Life listeners might want to listen to Serial. I and the millions of others who swarmed over to check it out made podcast history.
  • I learn that a person or institution that I’m interested in produces one. (How about those New Yorker podcasts?) I dare readers to check with their department, university, affiliate society, or favorite library or museum. Chance are, one of them has a podcast and another is working on one.
  • And finally—and most commonly for me—suggestions from my podcatcher of choice (iTunes, Stitcher, etc.). Hence the pleas to subscribe and review at the end of many episodes.

Without a doubt, listener subscriptions and iTunes reviews drive traffic and help listeners discover shows. The problem for academic podcasts, I suspect, is that their audiences are narrow compared with popular programs like Serial or This American Life. It’s unlikely that many of the gems on the H-Podcast list will make it up to New & Noteworthy or even Top Education Podcasts. (Though having said that, I immediately discovered two counter-examples to this narrative: Revolutions and the American Planning Association—of all places!—podcast are the #2 and #3 Top Education Shows on Stitcher, while The Objectivism Seminar is #7 on the Education section of my phone’s podcast app with only  one iTunes review, so algorithms continue to prove mysterious.)

As the list grows, I’m discovering beautiful series, like the Library of Congress’s eight tiny episodes on Alan Lomax’s 1935 folk-song expedition to the Great Lakes region, and completely new (to me) disciplines and approaches, like the soundscape readings of Disneyland and my own grad school hometown of New Brunswick, NJ on Sounding Out! After researching, recording, mixing, and editing all this glorious content, it turns out that the last and most important step is probably promoting them, and I suspect that for many academics, it can feel like too much.

The most common advice that I’ve found, as I mentioned, is to urge listeners to subscribe and review, with the concomitant caveat that this may not be effective for podcasts with narrower audiences. Some producers are skeptical about the illusory snowball effect of trying to raise ratings and rustle up reviews, and advise podcasters to stick to connecting with listeners to build a dedicated audience instead. Though this doesn’t solve the problem of discovering the content in the first place.

A couple of other ideas:

  • Add keywords to title, description, and author fields to get into the search results.
  • Get the word out: Mention new episodes on social media, talk about them with colleagues, and try to get retweeted by a professional organization with a wide net of followers/subscribers.
  • Diversify distribution: People may come to podcasts via different avenues. Use iTunes and Stitcher and give listeners the option to download or stream on a blog or site.
  • Make it easy to find and listen: If the podcast is part of a blog, hosted by an institution, or part of a larger research project, don’t bury the feed inside the site. Feature a link to a dedicated page (not iTunes) on the blog's/institution's/project's home page and make it easy to find all the episodes. (I can't say how many of the podcasts on the roundup were buried inside their institutions' websites and made finding a link that had all the basic information and episodes more work than I would have otherwise spent.)

I'm curious, what have been your favorite ways to discover new podcasts and what successes have you had in getting your podcast out into the world?

Bonus: A not entirely unrelated story by producer Jonathan Menjivar about an author trying to self-promote his book, produced for