Cynthia Graber on the Art of Podcasting

Cynthia Graber

Nearly four years ago, Nicola Twilley and I launched Gastropod, a podcast about the science and history of food. We didn’t realize the world of podcasting was about to explode, that a month later Serial would send overall podcast listenership soaring, that we were about to enter what has been called both the “golden age” and the “wild west” of podcasting. We simply knew we had an idea for a show that would meld our shared obsessions with food, science, and history, and we thought we’d work well together. But what if nobody other than our family and friends listened? Our first episode dropped in September 2014, and I spent the entire day anxiously monitoring our numbers. When we quickly reached the thousands, I breathed a sigh of relief.

Today, Gastropod is, in the world of podcasting, a success. We have a fan base around the world, we stage sold-out live shows, we’ve won several awards, we pay ourselves a salary. (It’s not quite the one we’d like to receive based on our experience and the time demanded to make Gastropod, but we’re getting there.) And so while there are no unbreakable rules for creating an attention-commanding science podcast, I can offer tips for creating a show based on both Gastropod and my nearly two decades in audio that should help those interested in creating audio of their own stand out from the chaff.

This may appear intuitive, but I’ve listened to new podcasts that seem oblivious to this rule: sound matters. Creating audio doesn’t mean just dropping a recorder on the table between two people, or assuming the microphone in your iPhone will suffice. In a recent study in the journal Science Communication, participants listening to recordings of scientists judged their research more important when the audio was of a better quality. I’d argue the same is true for hosts; I’ve quickly pressed ‘stop’ on science shows only a minute or two after starting, turned off by the fact that the hosts didn’t bother to record themselves well.

There are plenty of resources for recording equipment, and I find the reviews at Transom particularly useful. For my own set-up, I prefer a recorder with an external microphone plugged in, which I can use at home to tape myself (in my closet), as well as out in the field. But even if you decide to purchase a microphone that funnels the sound directly into your computer, pay attention to the results. If you’re taping yourself in a room full of wooden floors and windows, the sound will bounce around, leaving the end result echoey.

Editing matters, too. While it’s certainly possible to record an interview and upload it to Soundcloud, any podcast will benefit from editing. And certainly for Gastropod, which is a layered production with multiple voices, on-site recordings, and at times old radio ads or other audio mixed in, effective editing is critical. While the public radio industry software standard is Pro Tools, I find the program expensive and overbuilt for most podcasters’ needs. There are free options, but, to my mind, Hindenburg meets the sweet spot for price and usability. It was designed specifically for journalists, and there are plenty of clear instructional videos on their homepage.

These are some of the basics that Nicky and I needed to establish before we launched Gastropod — I already had the necessary radio equipment and editing software, and Nicky bought a recording kit and a copy of Hindenburg.

Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber reporting in the field on honey.

Gastropod is, at its core, a science and history podcast masquerading as a food show. The focus on food isn’t incidental; we love to talk about food. But, on top of that, we both are fascinated by the way in which food touches nearly every aspect of life, and the science we can explore through food. To tell those stories in all their complexity, we craft narrative arcs around the topic itself, rather than one small angle. Instead of recounting solely the story of the man who stole tea from China for the British Empire, we mixed that in with a visit to England’s only commercial tea plantation, as well as research on flavonoids found in tea and the health impacts. Rather than focusing entirely on the evolutionary arms race that created the pungency found in mustard plants, we also visited America’s only mustard museum, spoke to a scientist who discovered the earliest evidence of spicing dishes with garlic mustard, and interviewed a cookbook author about the logic (or lack thereof) behind the American ban on mustard oil in cooking.  

After we’ve decided on a topic, but before we begin scheduling interviews, we do extensive research on what angles we might want to cover and who the experts are. While some interview subjects are dictated by the topic, such as needing to speak to the author of a particular study, frequently there are multiple potential experts. We might try to find examples of experts being interviewed for radio or giving talks available on YouTube to determine how well they speak. We also work to ensure the diversity of Gastropod guests.

Once we conduct the interviews and site visits and transcribe them all, we craft a narrative arc that takes listeners on an aural journey through the story, making a particular effort to include surprises along the way. In one of my favorite comments, a listener wrote that she always listens to the end of every episode, because she knows she’ll be delighted by something new, even in the last ten minutes of the show.

This is critical to Gastropod’s artistic, narrative approach. For some science shows, the “narrative” framework means telling a classic narrative tale: a person did something, and as a result something changed — for example, a scientist came up with a surprising discovery. The audience keeps listening because they want to know what happened next. For us, narrative means developing an arc that wraps around a topic. Listeners stay with us because they want to know what surprising angle we’re going to uncover next.

This approach keeps our listeners intrigued, not only within a particular episode, but throughout the year. They know that each new episode will bring something that makes them laugh, or that they’ll run to share with friends. And it keeps us intrigued as well. Researching and writing a podcast about food offers a lens through which to tell science stories that continually surprise and delight us. We never know what’s coming next.

Cynthia Graber won a AAAS Science Journalism Award in 2004 for a radio piece on “The promise of hydrogen.”

[Associated homepage photo by Kathi Bahr.]