I’m out on a limb, but happy to be there…


29 May, 2011 by ehauke

I’ve always admired people who work within a particular field, but have that little something extra. It might be a particular politic or set of ideals, it might be an aspect of that field where they are forging ahead against opposition. But it becomes synonymous with their work, their image and their value within that field.

I’ve been working away now for several years in health promotion, health and science reporting and science communication. I have a favourite medium – I love radio and podcasting. I also work online most of the time, and have different web ventures in various stages of development. But nothing to really hang my hat on. I sell my services based on my experience, and I’m starting to build a reputation based on my portfolio. But I don’t have that edge. That thing that gives value to what I do. I’ve never had an angle, or experience that sets me apart. Or so I thought.

Last week I had the privilege of presenting at a big conference. I had been asked to speak about ‘DIY Podcasting’ – I guess because I’m known for having started my own podcast. I should probably clarify at this point that by saying ‘I’m known for having started my own podcast’ actually means there are maybe five or six people in the world that have heard of me. But anyway. I was invited and that was great. I was speaking as part of a panel session on podcasting, and the other podcasters on the panel work on successful, large-scale, funded podcasts, and perhaps believe that podcasting is a specialist skill. Something that should be left to the experts. I, on the other hand, believe that podcasting is the great equalising medium. Anyone can podcast. If you’ve got a computer and a microphone, you can give it a go. So I knew that I would be in the minority holding that view.

Now speaking on stage doesn’t really bother me. But I had taken the time to consider what could go wrong – I could fall off the stage, I could forget how to speak, I could speak for too long or not long enough. But somehow, I didn’t anticipate that the chair of our session (who I’d never met before, but had a great reputation) would take an instant dislike to me and express that, on stage, in front of 128 people.

It started off as an innocent mistake – she introduced me with the incorrect name for my podcast, which she then ridiculed. I took this as light-hearted banter, designed to win over the audience, and smiled it off. But after I had given my presentation and the floor was opened to questions, she proceeded to contradict everything I said, actually tell the audience that I was wrong – as in “Elizabeth is actually wrong about that…” and so on. In fact, I was never given the opportunity to respond to any of her comments, and she proceeded to interrupt me every time an audience member asked me a question.

Now of course, I thought that maybe I was taking this too personally. Maybe I just felt scrutinised, disparaged and disrespected because of my own insecurity and the presence of a large and important audience. But countless people from the audience approached me afterwards to offer their support and opinions about how badly they felt I had been treated on stage.

So what was I “wrong” about? What had I said that could possibly have been so controversial? Well it turns out that my opinions about citizen podcasters, and podcasting for all had been like a red rag to a bull. Especially when it came to my views on podcasting on a budget.

Apparently, non-specialists cannot make podcasts of value. And apparently, low-budget podcasting means poor audio quality (which is unacceptable).  

Now, I really think that when it comes to science communication, you can’t just produce countless podcasts where scientists, or experienced broadcasters and podcasters talk science to the listener. The best way to engage people with science or any other subject is to encourage them to learn about it, discuss it and tell it on to more people. As a medical student I didn’t learn medicine and become fascinated by the human body by having some dry old professor tell it to me in a lecture. I learnt and grew as a doctor by finding out about the body for myself and then talking about it, and formulating ideas about it with others.

I’m of the opinion that ANYONE can make a podcast. As long as they have the means to record themselves and other people, and get that file up to the internet, they have as much right as anyone else to have a go. And you really can’t fail with a podcast. Success or failure can only be judged by the aspirations of the podcaster. If you want to give it a go, and you get a podcast made and shared, then you have succeeded. As such, it is perfectly possible to podcast for free. In fact, when I first started my podcast, I spent £16 over two years, whilst producing over 100 40 minute episodes.

And as to how podcasting for free might adversely impact on quality – I defy anyone to criticise the quality of the recording on my podcast. It may not sound ‘BBC studio’ produced, but it’s not supposed to. So based on my experience it is perfectly possible to get great quality sound for free. Not that sound quality should ever prevent anyone from podcasting. If you can’t get great sound, then get the best sound that you can. You’ve only got to consult the download charts on iTunes and have a listen to some of the audio quality that features in the most popular podcasts to realise that this isn’t the defining factor for success.

Mass appeal is another false marker of success. If what you want to talk about is only interesting to five other people in the world, that does not make your podcast of lesser value than one that appeals to hundreds of thousands. Especially if you get three or four of the those five people listening to you.

Anyway. I go on. But the point is, that this experience has shown me that I do have my own politic. My own take on the field in which I choose to work. And this has value to other people. My enthusiasm for promoting podcasting to beginners, for advocating podcasting for any budget – and even for free, is appreciated by a lot of people. Of course it is nonsensical and incorrect to others, and perhaps even threatening. But that is what gives my opinion and my ideals in this field value. If everyone shared my opinion, there would be nothing to fight for.

5 thoughts on “I’m out on a limb, but happy to be there…

  1. Chris Hauke says:

    What a pithy, accurate and firm statement. From the beginning this writer sounds fair and square. As she tells it, it took this unexpected confrontation with the ‘opposition’ to let her find out the true value of what she has been skilfully advocating and supporting for everyone with her Short Science podcast over the last two years.

  2. Pippa says:

    I agree completely – science as a whole needs to come down off its pedestal, so why should science communication be on one?

    I enjoy writing my blog and I genuinely don’t care how many people read it – I’m doing it for me and readers are a really gratifying bonus, but a bonus nonetheless.

    Podcasting for all! 🙂

  3. Good post. It sounded a bit like the journalist/blogger situation was a while ago – though it’s become much more accepted for people to just give a go to writing. I really like the concept of information being spread in a very literal ‘word of mouth’ way through society: we have such an array of media at our fingertips, and we’re more likely to listen to or look at what people we know are doing. So the more people who write or talk about science, the bigger the eventual audience. That, and it’s fun, and actually makes you think about what you’re saying!

  4. George says:

    Lovely post – couldn’t agree more.

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