Tapping Into the Podcast World with Drs. Liz Haswell and Ivan Baxter

It seems like there is a podcast for everything from horror and comedy to economics and science (check out our interview with the host of The Biology of Superheroes). In fact there are approximately 550,000 podcasts, only about a thousand of which are English science podcasts. But what does it take to start and maintain a podcast? We invited Drs. Liz Haswell and Ivan Baxter, creators of the podcast The Taproot to share their experiences with podcasting. The Taproot focuses on explaining plant biology literature, including an interview with the authors of the paper featured in the episode to learn about the story behind the science.


The origin of “podcast:” broadcasting to an iPod


Podcasting is a vastly underused opportunity for science communication. While the hardest part of podcasting is marketing your work, you’ll be able to reach a truly diverse audience: there are very low barriers to access podcasts, making it possible to reach even demographically or ideologically isolated individuals. There is plenty of free or affordable software available which makes the barrier for making a podcast low as well. Another huge advantage of podcasting is decentralized production and distribution, allowing for authenticity and direct communication.

After understanding some of the advantages and disadvantages of starting a podcast, the next step is to decide on a goal, style and audience for your podcast.



Above all, don’t forget the power of narrative! Scientists tend to throw out facts to their audience instead of telling a story, and research shows people learn and retain information better when it is presented as a narrative. For more information on storytelling for science, check out our previous workshop on the topic. 



Technology and Logistics Q&A:

What is the best way to record audio?

The goal is to introduce as little noise as possible. Noise can be introduced by recording without a direct microphone (so just using your computer’s microphone) or by recording to a cloud instead of directly to the computer. The Taproot set up consists of using microphones wired into a computer and recording with Audio Hijack. However, earbuds with a microphone attached and wired into a computer is a good substitution.


How does The Taproot edit their audio?

With Ferrite Recording Studio on an iPad. This software can also record audio. The advantage to this software is multi-track editing. Have more than one person talking at once? Ferrite recognizes the two audio sources and splits them into their own tracks to be edited. The software is also very intuitive to learn. Audacity is a free audio editing software option, although it is less intuitive. 


How do you host a podcast?

Hosting refers to storing the actual audio file for download through platforms like iTunes. The Taproot has used Cast and Zencastr to host their files, although Zoom and Anchor are also available. These softwares also enable recording and editing as well as hosting. 


How long does one 30-minute episode typically take to make from start to finish?

About 9 hours. (Granted this is after having an established pipeline.) Here’s the breakdown of The Taproot’s pipeline: 

  1. Decide on a theme for the season and brainstorm guests to interview and a schedule for recording. 
  2. Prepare about an hour before the recording, reading the featured paper and coming up with questions. There may be a pre-recording phone conversation with the guest as well to get more information. 
  3. The actual recorded conversation takes about an hour and a half, including set up. 
  4. The Taproot has access to Plantae fellows that do a first pass edit to remove obvious sound bites like “um” and “uh.” 
  5. They listen to and take notes on the entire conversation before taking about an hour to edit. 
  6. They send the edited conversation to the guest for final review as well as to the transcriber and blog writer.


Although The Taproot has a paid transcriber, there are free options available online like otter.ai, however the transcript may still require light editing for clarity. (Sydney uses temi.com, but this costs $0.10/minute).


How is episode scheduling handled?

It helps to build momentum by collecting finished episodes. Then, release them on a consistent schedule, like once a week, while polishing the remaining episodes. Because The Taproot has a streamlined pipeline they spread over a week, they can manage editing later episodes as the season progresses. If a listener is subscribed, new episodes are automatically downloaded, which helps retain listeners throughout and between seasons.


Thank you to Drs. Liz Haswell and Ivan Baxter for their time and expertise.

Sydney Wyatt is a PhD student at the University of California in Davis. For more content from the UC Davis science communication group "Science Says", follow us on Twitter @SciSays.

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