The power of podcasts to communicate research

A PhD student, a Masters student and an academic from the School of Humanities & Languages are making their research more accessible and relevant.
Diane Nazaroff | UNSW Newsroom

When former ABC audio documentary maker Gretchen Miller decided to do a PhD, she searched for a supervisor who would allow her to use podcasts as part of her research methodology.

“I wanted to explore storytelling in an environmental context as my methodology, explore why people enact small acts of rescue in the face of environmental crisis, and look at how those small acts rescue them,” she says.

Ms Miller is now halfway through her PhD in UNSW’s School of Humanities & Languages in the Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences. She is researching the power of podcast to help environmental movements communicate their message. In an example of researchers from the Faculty demonstrating real-world relevance and impact through podcasting, Ms Miller has produced a four-episode series in partnership with Landcare Australia.

The Rescue Project podcasts feature the stories and voices of Australians committed to environmental rescue. Listeners can hear how a kangaroo joey helped heal a family; how some North Queenslanders are rejuvenating a rainforest; and why some people plant seeds. Some episodes have been broadcast on ABC Radio National and Triple J.

“We're heading for a global catastrophe and I'm interested in the reasons why people do the things they do, and how they respond to wicked problems – problems that are just so big we can't figure out a way to solve them,” she says.Ms Miller says The Rescue Project tells unique stories of individuals doing remarkable things “without fanfare and with a fair bit of self-reflection”.

One episode features Port Macquarie animal rescuer June LePla OAM and her story of rehabilitating ‘Dodo’. The southern giant petrel from the Antarctic regions was found starving, dehydrated and exhausted a long way from home on a Port Macquarie beach.

“June’s reflections on why she does this work are just beautiful, and her reflections on her engagement with Dodo, it's just so moving and so intimate. This is what I love about these kinds of stories.”

Ms Miller says storytelling about the environment “is really critical in a time when there's little hope”.“Hearing what other people are doing can encourage others to think, ‘I can actually do something, I can take action. I can take action as an individual and I can take democratic action as well’. I hope this work does encourage and inspire people to keep going.”

Pro-animal podcasting network

Dr Siobhan O’Sullivan, UNSW social policy and animal studies scholar, is another researcher using podcasts to promote her work. She has received a grant from the US-based Culture & Animals Foundation to establish the world’s first pro-animal podcasting network. iROAR members include some of the world’s biggest animal-focused podcasts, including Our Hen House, Paw & Order, Main Street Vegan and Dr O’Sullivan’s own podcast Knowing Animals.

“Helping to establish a progressive, pro-animal podcasting network just made great sense to me,” she says. “We know that people learn about podcasts via other podcasts.”

“Podcasting is the ideal means to provide a voice to a wide variety of animal advocates, vegans, animal studies scholars, and more. We aim for a diverse network – including podcasts by young people, people of colour, and people on low incomes. The only limitation is that they must be strongly in favour of advancing the wellbeing of nonhuman animals.”

Environmental and nature themes

Master of Environmental Management student and first-time podcaster Deniz Yildiz says she created her environment- and nature-themed podcast series, Custodians of the Planet, to bridge the gap between “the experts in the field and knowledge-hungry people”.

“I’m passionate about raising awareness of environmental problems, with the aim of starting helpful conversations and developing potential solutions,” she says. “I feel like we hide our heads in the sand when it comes to talking about the climate crisis and other environmental issues, because no one really likes to be reminded of the seriousness and the scale of this problem. The purpose of my podcast is to spark conversations on environmental issues and sustainability that generate new opportunities to learn and create positive change.”

In the last six months, Ms Yildiz has interviewed 10 “super-inspiring and knowledgeable people” about a range of environmental issues, including biodiversity, climate change, environmental justice, waste management and land use. Listeners can learn how to sprout green roofs and hear about a 13-year-old Australian boy’s vision for a plastic-free future.

“Podcasts are one of the most convenient media of our age,” she says. “Nowadays you can listen to a podcast anywhere: on your morning commute, dropping the kids to school, shopping for groceries. I think this podcast project is a way of pushing my boundaries and getting me out of a comfort zone. Secondly, I’ve been meeting amazing people and it gives me hope.”

Ms Miller says podcasting is a fantastic way to communicate research ideas.“Because it's conversational and tends to be grounded in the real world, as opposed to the more formal written text, it makes research a lot more accessible,” she says.

The Head of the School of Humanities & Languages, Professor Timothy O’Leary, agrees.

“Podcasts give us a way to engage with interested members of the public and to show how the research we do is rich with real-world relevance,” Professor O’Leary says.“A great deal of the work our researchers do takes place in the study, the archive, the library, but we also need to get out and show the public how our work can inform, challenge and change the way people think. Podcasts are a great way to bring that impact into people’s everyday lives.”

Find The Rescue Project and Custodians of the Planet on Apple, Spotify and Google Podcast.

Listen to Knowing Animals on the iROAR website.

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