For  This Headliner Highlight we hear from Cameron Spencer, Joshua Conrad Jackson, and Steve Mow of the Useful Science podcast

Tell us about your podcast…

Cameron: Hello, my name is Cameron Spencer, I am one of the original people for the Useful Science Podcast. It was actually my idea – back, 4 years ago or something like that when we started doing it – to take this team of science experts that this guy, Jan, had assembled and see if we could do a podcast with them. 

Josh, you have kind of taken on the role of managing it and kind of keeping the ship going. You wanna talk about that a little bit? 

Josh: Sure! I think I’ve been with the podcast since the first episode- 

Cameron: Oh wow. 

Josh: -Either the first or the second I was on. I was a contributor for a couple of years and more recently I’ve been taking on the role of manager, and it has meant a lot more involvement in the podcast and I’ve really enjoyed it. 

Cameron: And Steve, when did you join us? 

Steve: I think I joined at the tail end of 2019, maybe in November. I was brought on because we needed a little more bandwidth to edit the podcast and I had some audio engineering experience from before, and I’ve loved it ever since! 

Cameron: We have so many different people who have been able to contribute to our podcast over the years because of the Useful Science community, and then we’ve also had – more recently – the Morehead Science Center – which is helping us produce the podcast and providing editing support. 

Because of their help and guidance we’ve not only been able to better market the podcast, we’ve also been able to make more episodes because it’s a big burden on practicing scientists – which most of us are – to edit these episodes. 

Why did you start podcasting? 

Cameron: So the idea with Useful Science was that – I listen to plenty of science podcasts, and they tend to kind of focus on news and current events – and we thought it would be interesting to do a show that was a little bit more about how the research actually gets done. Picking out particular stories that might be recent, they might be old, articles from scientific journals, and actually talking about the methodology, talking about the results, taking a closer look at how the actual day to day work gets done. 

How do you share and promote? 

Josh: Since the beginning of recording the podcast we’ve relied mostly on social media to share and promote what we do, so we’ll post all of our episodes on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We rely on word of mouth. At the very beginning, we really relied on iTunes ratings, so if you listen to the Useful Science it’s never too late to give us a five-star review on iTunes. Those really help and they make our podcast more likely to appear on someone’s search or someone’s front page.

Sometimes we’ll reach out to the authors or the people who we talk about on the podcast, and we’re covering those peoples’ research. As a scientist myself it’s really exciting when people have thought deeply about what I’ve done and thought of ways to apply it, so we try to let people know that we find what they are doing interesting. I think all of those mediums have helped us get viewers and have helped get the message out. 

What has been most effective? 

Cameron: What really helped, in the beginning, is that we did a pretty good push at the very first episode or two to spread the word a lot; like we had a big kind of “promotion blitz”.

Josh: I think that academic – or scientific – Twitter has been pretty helpful recently. I mean, that’s a way that a lot of people can see the episodes. 

Why do you make Headliners? 

Steve: They’re little sharable videos, they’re square with our logo and they have a little audio waveform and a progress bar. I think they’re really helpful in conveying to people what our podcast is about and attracting people to listen to what we have to say. I’ve used them personally for word of mouth, giving people an idea of what an episode might sound like, and it really helps because it’s usually some of the most interesting bits that come from the podcast. It’s really nice to be able to share that. 

Josh: It’s tough to dive into podcasts because they’re so long. It’s difficult to know where to jump in to get a good sense of what they do because usually you kind of have to warm up and then you get into the meat of the episode, but it’s difficult to just jump into the middle of an episode, so Headliners are great because they highlight our “best of reel”, but you have enough context to know what the person is saying in the Headliner video. 

Current podcasting setup? 

Cameron: It has gone through a bunch of evolutions. Originally we were doing what they would call a “multi-headed recording” where each person would record their own audio on their own computer, and then we would have a Skype call together. We would also record the Skype call but the idea was that we wouldn’t use the Skype recording because that has already been compressed to go over the Internet, so we would use people’s local recordings…which worked fine, it’s just a lot of points of failure. 

And then, I actually built this ridiculous rig where I was running four virtual computers, each running a separate instance of Skype, and I would have people call into each instance of Skype separately so I could record each Skype call separately to get separate channels of audio. I could get the recording straight from Skype that way and have people on separate channels which made the editing easier. I only used that for a couple weeks, it was just not reliable. 

And then we switched to this service called Simplecast, which is kind of a similar idea, where you are doing an online call recording each track separately, and then its also recording people’s audio locally at the best possible quality. So we used Simplecast for a year or two, and then we’re just now trying Zencastr which is the same concept but seems to be a little bit more robust, a little bit more reliable. 

That, I think, is really the way to go; it’s really easy for the individual contributors to do, they just have to click a link, go to the website. You don’t have to have them have this complicated setup on their computer. So far its been reliable enough for us. 

Something underrated in podcasting…

Josh: I would say one thing that I’ve liked about podcasting is it sort of democratizes the science-communication world. Before, you really needed to be working with big news outlets, and often the people that communicated science were journalists, because those are the people that had training in mass communication. 

The reason I like podcasting is because it makes folks like us – who are scientists, or in the case of Steve, in medicine – it makes people whose professions aren’t mass communication able to actually communicate what they know, and that’s really cool. So many more people have been able to contribute their expertise to things, and I think that’s one reason I like science podcasting especially. 

What episode of Useful Science would you recommend? 

Josh: What’s the “vocal fry” episode? It’s way back. 

Cameron: Yeah, that was a good one. Is that the one where Jamie starts talking about Ryan Gosling? 

Josh: I think it is. It’s a good one. If you want to start Useful Science, then – I’m gonna get it right now…listen to Episode 1! The first episode! If you want to start, the first episode is a good one: Gift Giving, Vocal Fry, and Love.

Do you have a favorite podcast? 

Josh: I got a favorite! It’s not science-related, unfortunately, but my favorite is probably The Adventure Zone, the DnD podcast. 

Cameron: Ah, The Adventure Zone. I’m actually behind. I actually host a DnD game with my friends, partly as a result of that. I think that The Adventure Zone is a part of the incredible resurgence Dungeons and Dragons has had in the past couple of years. 

Probably my favorite podcast right now is Hey Riddle Riddle, which is just three comedians and improvisers in Chicago. They have this ridiculous riddle podcast – they’re really fun, they’re really funny, and I just enjoy it. It’s hard to describe but it’s just a delight. 

Josh: Steve, what’s yours? 

Steve: Right now I’d have to say Hello Internet, which is by CGP Grey and Brady Haran who are both educational YouTubers. It’s a really difficult podcast to explain to people so I rarely ever talk about it or recommend it to people. It’s just two guys talking about whatever’s happening in their lives or in the world and it’s just relaxing and you get to know them and their certain opinions on things. [Some] of the things they talk about a lot are plane crashes or their hate of paper drinking straws, cuz I guess that’s a lot more common in Europe where they both are. 

Cameron: It’s common in San Francisco. 

Steve: Oh is it really?

Cameron: Yeah. I’m currently drinking Pete’s Coffee out of a paper straw. I hate them as well. Hello Internet is another example of a show that I really love but haven’t listened to in a couple of years. That’s a great show.