‘All the better to hear you with’ – What makes a great science podcast?

The Internet is a buffet.

It boasts a huge spread of information to be read, watched, moved, changed, stored, downloaded, and uploaded. And then there is information to be heard – those soundbites known as “podcasts”. With so much variety, how would you choose what to pile onto your plate?

Usually, we browse. If anything catches our eye – we try it. If we like it, we go back for more, or for similar items. If we don’t, we may not even finish the piece we took to try! With the Internet buffet,

“…consumers can easily find anything they want and will readily flip from one show to the next if they become bored.” (Gay, Bemrose-Fetter, Bracey & Cain, 2007, p. 24)

With this in mind, how would a podcast “chef” ensure his/her customers don’t end up looking like this?

Or like this?

Astronomer Dr. Pamela L. Gay and her associates evaluated a popular online podcast series, Astronomy Cast, and gave this important piece of advice:

“Catching and keeping an audience…requires knowing what your audience wants and providing it.” (Gay et al., 2007, p. 24)

You’ve got to know your audience.

Dr. Gay and her colleagues concluded that the “perfect” Astronomy Cast podcast, based on feedback from their listeners, would

  • Be less than one hour,
  • Have two hosts,
  • Interview scientists,
  • Give short news updates,
  • Provide information about relevant celestial events,
  • Be available in multiple file formats for downloading, and
  • Be accompanied by transcripts, links, and lots of images and videos.

I listened to a couple of Astronomy Cast episodes (Orion and Exotic Life). This was my first time listening to a science podcast. I was disappointed. They were too lengthy and a tad boring – despite ticking all the boxes for the abovementioned requirements for “perfection”. The podcasts failed to further excite my interest in Astronomy. To be fair, Dr. Gay’s team found that most Astronomy Cast listeners have been inspired to learn more.

Another podcast popular with Astronomy Cast fans was 60 second science. Call me a member of the Instant Generation, but the idea of one-minute microwave-ready science podcasts appealed to me. (Hey, I’m likely to be their target audience after all!) So I checked out two episodes (Juno Mission Gets Goes for Launch and Buckyball Traps Single Water Molecule).

 60 second science podcasts were pitched at a more general audience, were newsworthy (I would want to tell people about what I just learnt), and used exciting and relevant sound effects and music (including real-life sounds from the Juno Mission launch). They had no advertisements, and – as the name suggests – were short and sweet. Each episode had only one host, but each was engaging and enthusiastic. In short, I enjoyed  60 second science a lot more than Astronomy Cast.

What I experienced with these two podcast providers shows how the audience plays a big role in determining the style, content, and actual effectiveness of a podcast. Even in our Science and the Media tutorial class today, there were differing opinions on which podcasts we listened to were better. So, Get to know your audience.

Over to you now: What are the most important things that make a podcast worth listening to till the end, and makes you come back for more?


Gay, P. L., Bemrose-Fetter, R., Bracey, G., & Cain, F. (2007). Astronomy Cast: Evaluation of a podcast audience’s content needs and listening habits. CAP, 1(1), 24-29.

By yveee

8 comments on “‘All the better to hear you with’ – What makes a great science podcast?

  1. I’m a little new to this podcast business, so I was surprised by just how much information was elegantly packed into those 60 Second Science episodes. I think discussing the importance of audience (espcially in reference to podcasts, our first assignment) was a great way to start off this blog!

    One thing I might add is how important the *title* of a piece becomes in this info-saturated age. We as producers of science media may be targeting a very specific audience, but the audience probably won’t find our work among all the other billions of articles or podcasts unless it has a good title. When I looked for more 60 Second Science (you’ve got me hooked), I mostly scanned the list for topics I already like. But I also was caught by titles that told a story, such as “Student Researchers Find Secret Tea Ingredients.” I thought, “I drink tea, what secret ingredients?!” I think a relevant and catchy title can go a long way towards helping the targeted audience find and connect with an article or podcast, especially those on science topics.

  2. Nice picture Yve!
    Well, I had been using Podcast without knowing anything about Podcast such as; why people listen to it, what makes people to make Podcast, or even the meaning of it untill we were asked about it in a class.

    For the last question you mentioned, “Make Audiences Currious about the Topic till the end” is the key of popular Podcast.
    I started reading your topic because I had to but once I started reading, I found your topic is really interesting and that made me read whole the sentences.
    I reckon it happens in Podcast market as well.
    As most of people in the world are using Computers and searching about their hobby(especially music) on Internet, once they find something interest them, they start listening to it and if they like it they continue listening to it.
    However, as you mentioned above, if the topic get bord, people wouldn’t listen to it till the end.
    So, Podcast makers have to make sure that it entertain audience till the end.
    For example, one of the most popular Voice Actress in Japan “Mizuki Nana” has huge amount of audiences for her Podcast since she has wonderful voice and her voice fascinate them. She also adds the information of free presents for the audiences at the end of her Podcast and this also makes them to listen till the end.
    Hope my Podcast won’t make you sleep in a class!!

  3. I like the way you are critical of the paper, which you read for the blog. You illustrated where theory and practice clashed in your own experience. I wonder whether there is magic bullet for a (science) podcast?

    A successful podcast may well be a short and sweet one, which comes close to a 1-minute news flash in any other type of media.
    To draw attention to it, as Milea said, you need a good title.
    To make sure you do not loose your listener, you have to make it exciting throughout the time you chose to fill with science talk.
    In the end, to make sure the listener looks back at a worthwhile spent 1 minute of his or her time, you probably have to think carefully about the aspect of a science topic your audience would like to hear. To try to be comprehensive, -all encompassing- as scientist tend to want to be, just may not work.
    I have a feeling that a driver of simplification of a concept can be selectivity. At least that is what I intend to try when I have to make my podcast soon.


  4. Thanks for your comments!

    Miela – YES! – a good title is definitely important to grab attention. They are like headlines of news articles.

    Keiko, you have identified something to KEEP attention – entertaining your audience’s curiosity and providing incentives for listening till the end (although this might be considered a little sneaky! Haha.)

    Anke, yes – keeping things specific and not covering every single thing is probably a good thing. Like I learnt in class the other day – “Know when to stop talking!” Dr. Gay and team’s evaluation also support this idea of specificity in that they found most of their listeners preferred podcasts about individual, specific topics.

    What other things could we do to make science podcasts more appealing and memorable?

  5. I agree that I prefer shorter podcasts. Personally I find that I have the least amount of patience for podcast hosts, compared to television or print authors. The shorter the podcast is the least likely I am to get frustrated before it ends.

    I don’t know how helpful I can be, since I am an atypical podcast listener. What I mean is that people choose to listen to podcasts, so probably they interact well with that type of media. I would probably never choose to listen to a podcast because it takes so much more extra effort for me to engage in it. If a transcript of the show is available I would definitely read that instead. Since I find the medium itself is so difficult to interact with, I really cannot focus on the content. So content wise I have no idea what makes a good podcast because although I heard the information, and was trying very hard to listen, it never really registers in my brain.

    I feel bad because I cannot even suggest methods to hold my attention. Like Keiko said a unique voice might work but then I’m probably just listening to the tonality of the voice and not the actual words. I find background noise (like indiscriminate conversation to simulate a busy coffee shop) way too distracting; however, others might find this intimate. For me a podcast must be like a ninja attack—silent, accurate, and over before I realize that I am a terrible listener.

  6. As stated in the article, knowing your target audience is important. I for one have grown used to Podcasts that sit in the vicinty of an hour and a half, though probably would have preferred them shorter. This allows them to really replicate the feel of radio while still having the same audience specificity you can get with podcast.

    One thought I had on Yvette’s question with respect to short podcasts (Since most of the discussion is on them) is something I haven’t seen said here: Very short podcasts (<2 minutes in length) need not worry about maintaining audience interest for the duration of the episode, short of avoiding being outright painful to listen to.

    With such a short space of time involved, the simple decision (And as Miela said, the title is often the key to this) to investigate the podcast should be enough to carry the audience through AN episode (Making title yet more important).

    However, this still can't be seen much as an argument for relaxed standards, as in order to gain popularity such podcasts still need to maintain audience interest throughout the series. I see this as an argument for good conclusions over good openings in a sufficiently short podcast, since the experience they leave with is more important. It does certainly run counter, at least in my opinion, to the ideal method for middle length and long podcasts.

  7. I have to confess that I have found it quite difficult to listen to some of Robyn Williams podcasts of the ABC’s Science Show. I think you definitely have to already have an interest in the topic of discussion which is probably why Astronomy Cast listeners enjoy it so much and why I can’t get through ‘the laws of thermodynamics’ or ‘heart recovery after a bypass’.
    Definitely all about targetting your audience!

  8. I confess too I am not a science podcast fan, but I do like talk-back science programs such as Dr. Carl on Triple J. I think this could be partly because I know that because It’s on triple J, that the program is going to be targeted towards someone my age, as the station specifically targets 15-35 year olds.

    So the platform that the podcast is showcased on can make a difference- not specifically to how good it is, but to whether it is viewed by the right audience, that is the audience the audience who are most likely to deem it as a good podcast.

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