Podcasting for Sociologists: lessons learned from making an international teaching podcast on culture and inequality in pandemic times

By Luuc Brans and Giselinde KuipersCenter for Sociological Research, KU Leuven, Belgium 

As COVID-19 lockdowns swept across university campuses in early 2020, academics around the world shifted their teaching to virtual platforms. As students and their tutors soon found out, online teaching was challenging. Students found online lectures boring, academics found the lectures exhausting to deliver, class discussions were difficult to stimulate, and the long hours behind screens turned out be draining and stressful. But the pandemic also provided opportunities for novel, innovative, and perhaps even better modes of academic teaching. 

In this light, we want to share our experience with a new teaching format developed in the fall semester of 2020. We transformed our new MA course on culture and inequality, which was to be taught for the first time at KULeuven in Belgium, into a collaborative teaching podcast featuring a cast of international colleagues. Instead of sharing this podcast only with our own students, we decided to make this into a full-fledged podcast on Culture and Inequality that could be used by university lecturers around the world. In the spring of 2020, Giselinde therefore sent an email to colleagues potentially teaching similar courses in universities around the world, asking if they wanted to join forces.  

The podcast was more successful than we could have imagined, attracting hundreds of followers beyond our students, and reaching all corners of the globe. Making the podcast was an unexpectedly gratifying experience in these grim times. Our students were enthusiastic, and the quality of the zoom meetings improved greatly. Moreover, the conversation with colleagues provided a lifeline to the international academic community that was as inspiring for the podcast participants as it was for the students. 

What did we learn from producing this sociological podcast course? In this short article, we relay our experiences with academic podcasting for teaching purposes and provide practical tips for those considering using podcasts for a sociology course. We also discuss how audio in general, and podcasts in particular, could benefit the academic community. At the end, we provide some useful links to software, tutorials and other relevant podcasts.

The culture and inequality course: structure and format 

Our weekly podcast course, simply called Culture and Inequality, was a 13-week class on culture and inequality for advanced students in the social sciences. It included a podcast with conversations between scholars about a specific topic and selected readings, as well as a syllabus with readings and group and discussion assignments. All course materials are freely available on the website of the European Centre for the study of Culture and Inequality (eucci.eu/podcast), who also kindly supported our podcast. The podcasts are also available on the main platforms: Soundcloud, Spotify and iTunes.

The course was curated by Giselinde Kuipers, who hosted (ie presented) most of the episodes. However, some of the episodes were hosted by other colleagues: Philippa Chong (McMaster University), Dave O’Brien (U of Edinburgh), Julian Schaap (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Simon Stewart (University of Portsmouth) and Luuc Brans (KU Leuven). The podcast consisted of conversations with one or two cultural sociologists who generally discussed their own work, relevant work by others (often suggested by the interviewees), and classics in the field. For instance, in the episode on “cultural beliefs about inequality” we matched Magne Flemmen (Oslo University) and Jonathan Mijs (Harvard and Erasmus University) – who didn’t know each other — to discuss their respective work as well as a paper by Giselinde on egalitarianism and meritocracy. 

The course consists of three thematic packages or “blocks” and one closing episode.  The first block focuses on theoretical foundations of the study of culture and inequality, the second dives into specific cases and empirical fields, and the final block explores avenues for future research. Each hour-long episode consists of a conversation between one of the regular “hosts” and one or more guests that were suggested by the host. For the first theoretical episodes in which more complex, foundational texts (e.g., Bourdieu, Hall, Lamont) were assigned, one of us took on the role of confused student (“the student voice”) in the conversation, aiming to make the complex discussions more understandable to MA students. 

For the remaining 12 episodes, we assembled a cast of international sociologists, who all happily contributed to the production of the course, assigning literature, and thinking of assignments for students to complete after an episode. This included sociologists from many countries and nationalities, speaking in a wide range of English about themes from omnivores to the role of cultural capital in migration, and from superfood and anorexia to primitive art and Chinese television.  As a nice bonus in pandemic times, this offered us a chance to get back in touch with colleagues and friends in the international sociological community whom we have so dearly missed in a year full of canceled physical conferences and meetings. 

Target audience and possible uses

The podcast is primarily targeted at students. While making the podcasts, however, we quickly discovered the episodes are of interest to other academics and the wider sociological community. 

The podcast can be used for a variety of teaching formats.  We used the podcast specifically for our MA course, and thus combined it with weekly online seminars for students. In our case, the podcast was an alternatively to the “lecture”/literature discussion part of seminars, allowing for shorter, more interactive online seminars. The conversations with colleagues essentially allowed us to have multiple guest lectures that would have otherwise been impossible to organize physically. However, the podcast can also be used as an addition to live meetings; or replace seminar meeting altogether. Moreover, it can be used by PhD candidates to get a “feel” for the field, or by more advanced scholars to catch up quickly on other people’s work. Essentially, scholars provide an informal, accessible summary of their own research, its connection to other recent work (that they chose because they like it), and its relation to larger theoretical debates. This can also be attractive to senior academics who may find (like us) that the standard article format is not the most appealing way to hear about new research or keep up with the field. 

Our students were generally enthusiastic and positive about the podcast. Most importantly, the podcast made it easier for them to engage with the literature and course content. Students noted that they had an easier time remembering the literature and understanding the sometimes-complex arguments in the literature. Hearing the actual voices of authors of assigned literature made the readings come to life. To students’ surprise, sociologists are living and breathing creatures, not just names on papers or book covers! Here, the informal, casual nature of the podcast genre really helped: the guest told anecdotes about their research, explained why they liked other readings so much, sometimes also were quite candid about their dislikes and objections, and sometimes also linked insight to everyday life. For instance, in the episode about eating and cultural capital, one of the guests linked the findings to growing up working class. 

Finally, some students also mentioned that they preferred the audio-format of a podcast over ordinary web lectures as they could combine the podcast with exercise or household chores. There are possible downsides, too. For instance, we suspect that after listening to the podcast, students did not always feel the need to read the assigned readings anymore.  

Lessons learned 1. Technically, making a podcast is less complicated than you think

So, how did we produce this and what are the dos and don’ts of academic podcasting? We will share, first, tips and tricks regarding the technical aspects of podcast production. Below, we also share links to tutorials and software.

Importantly, producing a podcast is cheap and quite easy. It doesn’t require technical skills or specialized equipment (beyond what most people have at home by now).  Podcasts can be made available via platforms that are easily accessible around the world and are (almost) free. 

For setting up a podcast, you need to create a so-called RSS feed and manually add the RSS feed to Apple’s and Spotify’s podcast library (which are the most important podcast libraries). Through this feed, the podcast is freely available to everyone. The easiest way to do this is by setting-up a Soundcloud Pro Unlimited account (about $9.99/month), but you can also host the podcast on your own personal server or university e-learning environment. Both Soundcloud and Spotify provide interesting statistics and data on the general geography of your listenership, as well as age, gender, and in the case of Spotify, what kind of music they usually listen to. For cultural sociologists like us, this kind of data is enticing. We used the music taste of our listeners in our promotion of the podcast to a wider audience (See Figure 1). For these platforms, the podcast will need a catchy name and some cover art. We used a photograph made by former ASA culture section chair Timothy Dowd (see Figure 2). 

Our podcast episodes were recorded remotely. Although using a studio typically provides the best quality, we found we could create good sound quality with remote recording.  It helps if the recordings take place in a small and somewhat cushioned room, such as a bedroom. There are online tools for remote recording, such as Sound trap and Anchor.fm. However, they are mostly not free and alarmingly often owned by Spotify, which raises concerns about privacy, intellectual property and data security. 

We thus chose to keep it simple: We scheduled zoom meetings, and we asked our guests to record their end of the conversation with their smartphone’s voice memo app. Modern smartphones have surprisingly good microphones (much better than most laptops). To avoid feedback echoes and keep audio tracks clean, we asked participants use headphones for their computer. Some colleagues also had proper voice recorders or professional microphones. We also recorded the Zoom-call (with separate voice tracks for each participant) as a back-up. This set-up resulted in good audio quality. 

Figure 1. Artists that the podcast’ listeners listen to.

Lessons learned 2: Podcast need to be edited. This is a lot of work                  

Next, the recordings need to be edited. This means the voice tracks need to be combined into one file. Even for the smoothest conversation “ahs” and “ehms” need to be cut, as do background noises such as barking dogs or the loud noise of passing cars. In our case, conversations had to be shortened (academics are long-winded). Interviewees also could ask for retakes during the recording (“can I say this again?”), or for corrections or cuts afterwards.  Finally, we needed to add our signature music at the beginning and end of each episode: a tune created specifically for our podcast by Tim Dowd. 

For the first episodes, we relied on a professional editor to do this for us. However, for budget reasons we edited most episodes ourselves. For the editing, we used Adobe Audition, and then finished it by using the online service Auphonic to smoothen the audio quality. Adobe Audition is not terribly difficult to learn to use (plenty of YouTube tutorials available, see below) but can be expensive depending on your

university’s licensing agreement. As anyone with experience in audio or video can attest editing is very time-consuming. Using a professional editor might thus seem a more attractive option. However, not all audio editors are trained sociologists and editing the episodes ourselves gave us more control of the content and the general flow of the conversation. Most importantly, however, lengthy editing can be avoided with good preparation and especially a good script. 

Lessons learned 3. A good script makes producing easier and podcasts much better  

The inherent difficulty of editing can be mitigated, or compounded, by the structure of the recorded conversation itself. This leads us to the importance of a detailed format, conversation management and strict formatting. This is the most important lesson.

We soon found out that it is not difficult to just record an hour (or more) of academic conversation. What is more difficult, is to record an hour of academic conversation that is structured and easy to follow for an audience, and not too long. As you are probably aware, academics are often longwinded, so putting them together in a free form conversation without bounds led to terribly long recordings. Students also noted that episodes over an hour may be too much – we now believe that 45 minutes is ideal.

Over the 13 weeks of the course, we developed a clearly structured script for every episode. This script includes questions and timestamps, and clearly marked transitions and signposts that made the conversation easier to record and to follow for participants and students. We shared our script ideally a couple of days before with our participants so they could prepare their answers. This is vital, especially as recording remotely makes it more difficult to signal through body language that a participant should wrap up an answer or talk more quickly. 

We also developed a clear structure, with some fixed “ingredients” for each episode, to structure our conversations in three parts. In the introduction, guest introduce themselves and we ask them some surprise questions to make them more at ease and to get the atmosphere more conversational. We also ask a set question “what surprised you most in the readings”? We very briefly summarize the main arguments and readings of the day and explain why we picked this specific literature and how they relate to each other. The second part is (slightly) more free-form and in-depth: we are going through the different readings one by one, fleshing out the most important themes and arguments and connecting them with each other. More than simply rehashing the literature, guests also explain why and how conducted the research, often in colorful terms. This really helps to convey to students the dynamic nature of research, and the amount of time, work and contingencies involved in academic research. In the final part, we wrap up the conversation, look at avenues for further research and explain that week’s assignments. While this structure generally worked, we are planning on making some improvements for the next series to make the transitions and signposting clearer to listeners. We will also use our “tune” more effectively to separate the sections. 

Figure 2. The podcast’s covert art made by former ASA culture section chair Timothy Dowd.

During the conversation, it is important to remember that the audience mainly consists of interested students and others that are not as well invested in the entire library of sociological literature as ourselves. This does not mean that we ‘dumb down’ the conversations, but it does require guests to explain some academic, social, political references. This also worked quite well because it led sometimes to rather vivid descriptions and mini analyses: for instance, when an American guest tried to convey the cultural significance of The Met to an imagined international audience.  It also means that we sometimes slowdown the conversation a bit or ask clarifying questions that we would ordinarily not ask your colleague. 

One important discovery that we made along the way: Combining guests that do not know each other made for the most stimulating conversations. It helped the flow of conversation and forced guests to explain their ideas again in clearer terms.  With guests that have known each other for some time or know each other well, the conversations get more technical and more in-crowd more quickly, while people who don’t know each other may strike up new conversations and will ask each other questions. For instance, the episode on culture and inequality “beyond the Euro-American cultural bubble” resulted in a a very lively exchange between Predrag Cvetičanin (University of Nis, Serbia), and Yang 

Gao (Furman U, but originally from China). 

An important reason why the three-way conversations worked so well, however, is that these were typically much better prepared, not only by the hosts, but also by the guests. The main lesson we learned, thus, is that the informal, seemingly unstructured and “live” feel of a good podcast is the result of good preparation (especially by the host), careful scripting and gentle, but firm guidance of the conversation. 

Quo vadis? (What’s next?)  

On the basis of our experience, we believe podcasts have a great potential for learning and scholarly communication. it is not only a great teaching tool. As we discussed in the closing episode (which features both authors of this piece and Dave O’Brien), the podcast fostered a sense of academic community in a time of pandemic isolation. We received enthusiastic responses from around the world from people telling us the podcast made them feel in touch with scholars around the world, keeping them updated with new ideas. Finally, podcasts allow us to share research insights more widely in a more accessible way. The standard form of dissemination of academic knowledge, the journal article, is a highly specialized form of expert communication. Although we all use it in teaching, it is not meant for that and students often struggle with the format. Even for advanced scholars, it is not the most stimulating form. Podcasts offers an attractive and relatively easy way to tell the world about our work, and our discipline, and to contribute to fostering and international academic community. Even in the “new normal”, this international community will probably have to rely more on long-distance communication, and podcasts may serve as a “tie” to bind this community.

Useful links

The course

Websitehttps://eucci.eu/podcast/ 

Podcast link: https://soundcloud.com/culture-inequality 

European Center for the study of Culture and Inequality: www.eucci.eu 

Editing software and tutorials

How to get your podcast on Apple Podcasts: https://help.podbean.com/support/solutions/articles/25000004811-submitting-my-podcast-to-apple-podcasts-itunes- 

How to get your podcast on Spotify: https://support.spotifyforpodcasters.com/hc/en-us/articles/360043487932-Getting-your-podcast-on-Spotify 

How to make your own podcast in Adobe Audition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JSWMVmRoHHs 

How to use Auphonic for podcasters: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcXcFhJQRZU 

Podcast platforms 

Apple Podcasts: podcasts.apple.com 

Google podcasts: podcasts.google.com  

Soundcloud: www.soundcloud.com 

Spotify for Podcasters: http://podcasters.spotify.com 

Other sociological podcasts: 

Social Science Bites – Brief but enjoyable episodes hosted by SAGE www.socialsciencebites.com   

New Books in Sociology Podcast – Interviews authors of newly published sociology books https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/new-books-in-sociology/id425683368 

New Books in Critical Theory Podcast – hosted by one of our regular hosts from Culture and Inequality, dr. Dave O’Brien https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/new-books-in-critical-theory/id593872749 

Annex Sociology Podcast from the Queens Podcast Lab https://queenspodcastlab.org/annex/ 

SAGE Sociology Podcasts – https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/sage-sociology/id871126157  

The Sociological Review Podcasts: https://soundcloud.com/thesociologicalreview 

Soziopod – German sociological podcast: https://soziopod.de