Academic podcasting, or how to boost research seminar attendance by 3,400%

In the three research groups that I have been a member of in the course of my academic career (the Sussex Centre for Intellectual History, UCL’s Bentham Project, and now the St Andrews Institute of Intellectual History) I have often recorded (with permission) the various lectures and research seminars held under their auspices and published them online. I’ve done this for over six years now, with my first recording being Quentin Skinner’s lecture on ‘Word and Image in the Philosophy of Thomas Hobbes’ at Sussex back in 2009. The lecture itself was great, everything else was a disaster. I couldn’t even get the projector working until about 2 minutes before the start, the speaker’s microphone fed back constantly, and I used a cheap dictaphone to record from where I was sitting, with predictably terrible results.

Over time I’ve (thankfully) refined how I record and produce the events. I bought new equipment, gathered the recordings into discrete podcasts and had them listed on iTunes, and, at the start of this year, began paying a dedicated hosting company to serve downloads. It’s this last development that’s spurned the writing of this post, because one of the great things about Libsyn (‘Liberated Syndication’), that now host the recordings, is the detailed statistics they give of how many people are listening in (known in the parlance as ‘subscribers’). Before this year I was ambivalent about such figures. But in a world where academic impact is increasingly important, these stats have become a revelation. From January 2015 until now, there have been 26,774 downloads of the podcast Lectures in Intellectual History. That’s an average of a little over 3,000 downloads per month.

Libsyn download stats by month
Monthly download stats for ‘Lectures in Intellectual History’

Since I’ve been at St Andrews, my institute has been running a successful seminar programme which invites a range of speakers (and not just intellectual historians) to discuss their research. As each seminar starts I normally do a quick headcount of attendees. In 2015, the average attendance has been 21, which I think, for a (typically) Tuesday evening in Fife, is a very decent return. I’ve recorded eight of these seminars for the podcast, and measured how many downloads each recording got in the calendar month following its publication (usually the day after the event). The average number of downloads for these eight seminars is 738, but most add about 100 downloads each in the subsequent months following publication. That is to say, there’s a big spike in downloads as soon as the new recording is posted, and then downloads level off to about 100 per month after that. Our most popular recording, which was only published in May of this year, currently has over 1,700 downloads.

There’s a marked difference between the numbers that actually attended the event and the ‘virtual’ attendance, in the form of downloads in the month following the event. In fact, this virtual audience is over 3,400% larger than the actual audience! But there’s more than a few caveats to supply when thinking about these numbers. For one, attendance is obviously not the same: the virtual audience cannot participate in the post-paper discussion (in fact I don’t even record the question and answer session). I’ve also no idea whether someone gets to the end of the particular recording they downloaded (nor, even, if they actually start listening). It’s entirely plausible that some downloads are by content-aggregators rather than real-life people. And my headcounting skills are not infallible. But even so, I still had no idea posting the recordings of events online was amplifying their reach to such a vast extent. Indeed, this 3,400% figure has now become my main argument both for convincing speakers to allow me to publish the recording of their paper online (naturally, some are not keen, and some understandably reserve the right when their research is very new or still a work-in-progress), and advocating that other research institutes, universities, etc. record their own events and publish them in a similar vein.

How might one go about this? There’s actually only three major things that need to be considered.

First, the equipment necessary to record the event. At Sussex, most of the time I was able to make use of the lecture theatre’s own sound recording facilities, which allowed me to retrieve an MP3 of the event a few hours after it took place. Your mileage may vary at your own institution, but the quality of the audio I could achieve at Sussex was usually very high. At St Andrews, such facilities are not yet available in the room where most of my institute’s events take place. Here, I have used a modestly priced Olympus dictaphone (a VN-8500-PC, now discontinued, but a similar model is available on Amazon) and a cheap lapel mic (also from Amazon) and have been pretty pleased with the quality. Very recently, however, I have bought the rather futuristic looking Zoom H4nSP. The quality from this device is just fantastic, it delivers really clear audio of the speaker’s voice, and is much less intrusive than the lapel mic.

Second, a place to host these recordings online. Libsyn, who I currently use, offer a decent package that includes download statistics and costs the equivalent of about £10 per month. Soundcloud seem to offer a very similar service and price, although I’ve no experience of it. Prior to using Libsyn I hosted recordings on various university servers. This is a perfectly acceptable solution, but I found it much harder to get decent statistics on downloads from this approach (hence my switch to Libsyn at the start of the year).

Libsyn graph
Libsyn graph depicting downloads over several months

Third, a strategy for promoting the recordings. This can be as simple as posting links to the recordings to your website (as I do at my institute’s website, as the Bentham Project does here, and as Sussex do here), to promotion via social media (I often tweet a link from my institute’s account to each recording as it is released), to getting the recordings listed in various podcast directories. The latter requires writing and maintaining (i.e. hosting somewhere) a simple RSS feed. I followed Apple’s instructions for this and, after submitting it to the iTunes Store, my podcast was listed in the History category in under a week. Libsyn can also automatically generate your RSS feed for your podcast, although I still maintain mine manually (feel free to use it as a template).

We’ve just announced the events programme for intellectual history at St Andrews for the forthcoming term and it is as busy as ever. I’m therefore looking forward to adding a good chunk of new content to the podcast, and hope that the subscribers, whoever and wherever they may be, stick around to download it!