Oral forms of storytelling have existed since the advent of time, but their importance and significance in the digital age are without question.
In the past, historians relied on stories passed on from generation to generation to outline the zeitgeist of the age. Rulers of powerful empires would espouse and disseminate ideas via courtiers to spread their message far and wide. In fact, even seminal texts like the Bible and Quran have been compiled via an oral storytelling tradition — showing how powerful the medium is in captivating the minds of billions around the world.
The digital age is no different. Tech innovations like podcasts have made it far easier to spread ideas, messages, and keep audiences engaged. All someone sitting in rural Alaska needs is rudimentary audio recording equipment and a stable internet connection to record a weekly show about the effects of global warming, for example.
“A good story’s a good story from the brain’s perspective, whether it’s audio or video or text. It’s the same kind of activation in the brain,” says Paul Zak, the director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University.
For universities, podcasting is starting to emerge as a powerful mechanism to establish the institution as a thought leader, profile current research across different departments, highlight campus outreach initiatives, and help students with their learning outcomes.
Both the University of California and Stanford University have recently started publishing podcasts directly on the iTunes hub. Berkeley University has a site where all university courses are available to download in an mp3 format. And Duke University started to hand out iPods to students for educational purposes as far back as 2004.
So why are traditional academic institutions breaking away from the established way of doing things and experimenting with new and emerging tech? The reasons are multifaceted.
Firstly, while global access to the internet has torn down barriers to information and made it easier to spread knowledge, the fact is that there’s a vast amount of unverified and unsubstantiated data on the Web. Universities can — and are — increasingly playing a vital role in separating fact from fiction. Podcasts are an easy and cost-effective way to disseminate the message; they can be consumed on-demand and don’t require hours of editing like video.
Another reason is to help the public at large consume research and discourse about big ideas debated on campus by professors or guest lecturers. Academic texts are often imposing, time-consuming to read and involve jargon and sophisticated language that require an associated level of understanding. They’re not for everyone.
Stanford’s Raw Data podcast is a refreshing new approach to bridging the gap between ordinary citizens and academics dealing with large-scale issues. Some of the matters discussed in the podcasts are things like how fake news helped Donald Trump clinch the US election, the role of social media in our lives, and the history of privacy rules in America. These are compelling both from an academic perspective as well as for the everyday reader and help universities maintain their image as thought leaders.
As the world of podcasts has evolved — 73 million people in America alone listen to one every month — so have the methods of recording, hosting, and tracking them. To effectively leverage podcasts, you need to know whether the audience that’s downloading your podcast is listening to it and for how long. It’s also handy to know what parts they might be repeating, the time of day they prefer to tune in, and their choice of device used.
Why is this important? Podcasts are like any other form of digestible media. If the creators behind them can’t find effective ways of monetization, the incentive to continue producing episodes may fade. Even universities aren’t immune to this trend; why would someone record a podcast on topics audiences aren’t interested in?
A very useful tool for podcast analytics, hosting, and transcription solutions is Backtracks. It drills down audience details precisely and allows hosts to demonstrate the reach of their medium to advertisers. Previously, the only way to figure out whether a podcast was popular or not was via the number of downloads. Backtracks takes this several notches forward.