Making an award winning podcast: podcasts can be a great way to do science communication and have a lot of fun!

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You hear a lot of advice from people when you are thinking of setting up a podcast. People have all sorts of opinions about how long episodes should be, what you should talk about, how you should talk, how often you should release episodes.  I’m not sure any of them are right. Think about the podcasts you listen to. Are they all the same length as each other? All the same format? All series or all regular? I doubt it.

I’m the host of The Cosmic Shed podcast which was recently named as one of the Guardian’s favourite podcasts of 2018. It’s recorded in the crumbling garden shed at the bottom of my garden, somewhere in suburban Bristol. It really is an awful shed but guests on the podcast include Tim Peake, Alice Roberts, Benedict Cumberbatch, Nichelle Nichols and Chris Hadfield. We discuss science fact, science fiction and everything in between. Occasionally we take the podcast on the road for live events, like our takeover of Bristol’s planetarium with Andy Weir, the author of The Martian.

Podcasts are what the hosts make them to be. If you’re thinking of setting one up, think about what your favourite podcast are and why you like them. The thing that the best all have in common is that the people hosting and presenting them have a huge passion for their topics. That passion is infectious and vital for the listener but it takes many forms. My favourite podcasts are a mixture of scripted, well researched shows like Caliphate and RadioLab and the more relaxed, informal formats like Spooktator and The Adam Buxton podcast.

The idea for The Cosmic Shed came to me while I was studying for the MSc in Science Communication at UWE. I had recently moved to Bristol and bought a house which needed a lot of work. A lot of work. Water came up through the floor and down through the ceiling. The waste pipe from the toilet went out onto the roof. That’s the end of that sentence but I would add that this part of the roof did not leak. In the garden stood a shed. A truly awful, rotting shed with more holes than the house and half the floor missing. “That looks like a great place to record a podcast”, I thought.

Several years later, The Cosmic Shed podcast has over 100 episodes, won awards and, yet, the shed still looks awful from the outside.

There are a cohort of co-hosts for the Cosmic Shed. We have a nanoscientist Dr Maddy Nichols, an aerospace engineer Dr Steve Bullock, a film nerd (understatement) Timon Singh and more regular guest/hosts like Tushna Commisariat (Physics World) and Achintya Rao (CERN). We all have our own expertise and our own loves of science fiction.

Achtinya Rao and Tushna Commissariat in the shed to discuss October Sky.

We get a fair amount of correspondence from people who tell us that we are like friends to them. They look forward to our episodes and feel like they are sitting in the shed with us as they listen. If you think of your favourite podcasts, I suspect you’ll find most of them have regular hosts who you get to know and like. It’s one of the main reasons why people like podcasts. Not that that is deliberate from our point of view. I believe that it’s just a natural consequence of the way we record the podcast.

The Guardian newspaper described us as a “light-hearted, curious and nerdy listen” and I think that’s what you get if you put a group of friends in a terrible shed, watch a bit of science fiction and record the conversation.

Wildlife presenters Sophie Pavelle and Dr Ben Garrod joined us to talk about Planet of the Apes

Your podcast should be as long as you want it to be, as often as you want it to be and about what you want to it be about. That way, you’ll enjoy doing it as much as your listeners love listening to it.

If you are a podcaster or you are thinking of becoming one, do feel free to get in touch. I’d be delighted to have a chat with you but beware. The first question anyone asks me is how we get such brilliant guests. I never answer it.

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