Podcasts, the digital audio content that listeners subscribe to and download, are experiencing a huge surge in popularity as of late. Most of this buzz can be attributed to the phenomenon that is Serial 1, a podcast series based on a real-life criminal investigation. Through a variety of interviews and inquiries Serial explores the 1999 case of a man charged with the murder of his high school girlfriend. The storytelling involved is spectacular and, as the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads in iTunes history2, it has resulted in what might be referred to as a radio renaissance.
I truly recognized this explosion in podcast popularity when I overheard a group of friends discussing their own theories on the case and admitting they were ‘binge listening’ to radio. I was also ‘binge listening’ to radio – something I thought I would never say.
Although there has been a recent swell in popularity, podcasts have been around for over a decade3 and are not solely in murder mystery format. They have also been adopted to communicate science and health information. In fact, this is where my love for podcasts truly began with a show from NPR called Radiolab 4. Since 2002, Radiolab, in its own words, ‘weaves stories and science into sound and music rich documentaries’5. Each podcast is comprised of a number of short stories based on one science-related topic. Their topics have ranged from how we assign worth to pharmaceutical drugs5, to contagious tumors in Tasmanian devils6, to the economy of giving blood7 and how we perceive colours8.
What emerges from this storytelling is a wonderfully accessible and memorable way to communicate science. It is not, by any means, a podcast restricted to scientists’ ears. It is a podcast for the curious. And others are taking note, as new podcasts with scientific content come out of the woodwork.
Science Faction, a new podcast based out of Montreal, QC consists of interviews with scientists about current research and the hosts summarizing these discussions in the 1,000 most common words in the English language9. It premiered in January with an episode about ‘the physics of fire ants.’
If a ‘harder science’ is what you seek, the journal Nature also has a podcast, on their most interesting weekly published discoveries.10 Or, for a quick hit of science, Scientific American brings you ‘60 seconds of science11 or ‘60 seconds of health12. The latter two are perhaps better suited for those who prefer to listen to their podcast over coffee as opposed to during a commute. A sampling of topics includes how tweets are helping us manage outbreaks, how worms can inform us about aging and how poverty impacts diabetic outcomes12.
Notably, renowned scientific institutions are also following suit. Johns Hopkins has begun to distribute medical news through their PodMed13 podcast which presents a digestible mix of health education, medical research and patient stories.
What all these podcasts have in common is that they translate and communicate scientific concepts in remarkably interesting ways. Those of us immersed in the world of medical communications ought to take note.
What other science podcasts should we be listening to? Let us know.