How to create your own podcast, with material scientist and podcaster Dr Anna Ploszajski

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Dr Anna Ploszajski is an award-winning materials scientist, engineer and communicator. In 2017, she was named Young Engineer of the Year by the Royal Academy of Engineering and in 2018, won the Silver Medal from the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining. She regularly performs stand-up comedy about materials and engineering at venues from the local pub to the Edinburgh Fringe, and has her own podcast, ‘rial talk.

Here, Anna discusses material science, ‘rial Talk, and how Scouts can create their own podcasts.

Firstly, what is material science?

I describe material science as the intersection between engineering, physics and chemistry, and as the study of materials and how we process them. We can look at anything in the world around us - metals, plastics, ceramics or natural materials like wood - and zoom in to see what the atoms are doing inside it. What we observe at the atomic level tells us about the behaviour of the material on our level, like why a material is hard, flexible, or soft.

Material science is a very applied science. We’re not just concerned with why materials behave the way they do, but what makes a material suitable for a certain use, and can we atomically alter materials to make them more suitable for those uses? Most qualities come with a compromise, such as strong materials being heavy, and light materials being weak. However, we can engineer materials like carbon fibre, plywood, and so on, where we’ve manipulated materials to give them better qualities.

So why did you decide to start a podcast about materials?

Since I do a lot of public engagement around materials anyway, I felt podcasts provided another avenue to reach people. The point of the podcast is to provide an intersection between the theoretical, scientific aspects of materials, and the more practical and often artistic applications of them. My guests aren’t allowed to be scientists. I don’t even think of it as a science podcast; it’s more about making and doing.

Which has been your favourite episode of ‘rial Talk to record and why?

My favourite episode was speaking with artist and blacksmith, Agnes Jones, about steel. Having heard her speak on Woman’s Hour I decided, embarrassingly, to fan mail her. Fortunately, she responded and despite her being based in Scotland, I managed to snag her in London.

Agnes took me through the process of how you would bend a steel bar to make a gate or something similar in a forge. She described the different colours that it goes and what it looks like, how it feels, the changing hardness of it, and what she has to do to bend it. As she did, I could add how the atomic structure changes at each stage and why that makes the steel more or less hard. Neither of us knew the stuff the other was talking about, so it was a perfect example of art and science filling in each other’s gaps.

What are the aims of the podcast? Do you have any dream guests?

Since the summer, I’ve taken ‘rial Talk more seriously, producing a podcast every two weeks and also our first live recording, which I’d like to do more of.

One of my dream guests is Kassia St Clair, author of The Golden Thread, a book I’m currently reading about the history and culture of textiles. Since so much of that history is wrapped up in language, class and geography, it’s fascinating to use a material to talk about mechanisms of the world and for that reason I would love to have her.

Spending time looking for guests has meant that I now have a network of materials experts who aren’t scientists and who can answer the questions I can’t figure out, which as a bonus is really useful to my work!

What has been your biggest challenge?

The challenges have been doing it alone and finding the time. An hour-long recording will need to be trimmed down to a half hour episode, and the heavy editing process of removing silences, knocks on tables and so on, takes about eight hours. It can also be hard to stay motivated, because there’s no one to hold me to account. That’s why I started my routine of doing episodes every two weeks – to impose a deadline on myself. Making it regular has improved the listenership hugely, which has been an interesting lesson.
 
Rial Blog
 

So how can Scouts create their own podcasts?

1) First, work out what you want your podcast to be like. My advice is to listen to lots of different podcasts, as you’ll know more about what you like then and whether you want to make a chaotic, fun, live game show, an investigative show, a news or politics show, an interview show, etc. I’m lucky because we have a recording studio available at University College London, so I didn’t have to buy anything to get set up, but it can be very cheap to start a podcast. A beginner’s desktop microphone, which you plug straight into a USB port, costs around £20. Some podcasters record on their phone too.

2) To edit the podcast, there’s free software called Audacity, which I use. You can edit the audio, save it as different file types, cut bits out - it’s very intuitive and easy. There are some basic noise reductions and other useful features, so I really recommend Audacity as a starter. I now use Adobe Audition - it takes some getting used to, but it can be worth it if you want to take your audio to the next level.

3) Once you’ve recorded and edited your podcast, you need to choose a website to upload to. I use Soundcloud Pro, which is about £8 a month, but you can use it for free for your first three hours of upload time and if you prefer, there are others which are around £15 a month. These websites generate an RSS feed, which is basically like a URL, which you give to iTunes or Spotify or any of the other places where people tend to download their podcasts, and then your podcast is available to download. This part is completely free and really worthwhile, since it makes you more widely available to people and can even put you on lists if you’re really good. Add an eye-catching, colourful, high quality logo, with very little text. It’s one of the first things people will see, so this can really help grow your listenership.

4) Music can be a difficult issue, as it’s a grey area in UK law whether you’re allowed 30 seconds of music as ‘fair use’ or none at all. I err on the side of caution and don’t use anything without permission. There are a lot of free online audio libraries; the BBC recently released all of their sound effects for free, for instance. If you want to add a doorbell or a car driving past, you can download it free from the BBC’s website. This can be fun to play around with, in any case!

In the beginning I used a cheesy free loop, which got the job done, but since then a friend has made me a lovely theme song, which makes the whole package a lot better. It’s a good, fun opportunity to get your musical friends to band together and create something unique –  just be sure to credit them!

5) Next, you need to consider the variety of ways to market your podcast. Social media is a great start, and I’ve also had merchandise made, which is fun and spreads the word. Interviewing other podcasters is great because it brings their audience to your podcast, and cross advertising is nice as well. A little network of podcasters and myself recorded minute long adverts and swapped them to get the word out about all of our podcasts.

You can also get involved with the podcast community. If you’re on Facebook, there’s a group called Podcasters Support Group, which was started by Helen Zaltzman, a very famous podcaster. It’s a really nice, supportive group with people answering questions, and there are occasional meet-ups too, which makes it easier when you make them alone.

6) My last couple of bits of advice are around money and evaluation. Monetising podcasts is very difficult; 1,000 listeners currently earns you the equivalent of $0.25. Running live events and selling tickets is much more viable once you’ve built up a listenership, so if you want to use your podcast to fundraise, those are your best options. Evaluation is fundamental to science, so decide on some aims or objectives before you start podcasting so you can try to track whether you’re achieving them or not. 

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