Anthrocasts: some things I learned starting an anthropology podcast

On November 20, 2017, we first brought The Familiar Strange podcast to air. One year and 25 episodes later, I’m stepping back as executive producer, making room for some new Familiar Strangers, who will hopefully build on what we’ve achieved so far, and reinvigorate the project with fresh voices and ideas. As I’ve handed off various tasks, I’ve also reflected on some of the lessons I learned as a leader on the podcast team. Some of those lessons are worth sharing with the larger TFS and anthro community, in the interest of helping anthropology communicators present and future.

First, I want to explain a bit about the TFS podcast.

Making “The Familiar Strange”

TFS was designed with listener enjoyment in mind. That led us to emphasize certain things, like sound quality, a rapid-fire style that respected the listener’s time, and a personal approach, that would allow listeners to feel like they knew the presenters, identified with us, and would choose to spend some time with us. We chose to release fortnightly, rather than weekly, so that listeners wouldn’t feel that sinking sensation of receiving a new episode when they hadn’t listened to the last one yet. We didn’t want to snow anyone under. Instead, we hoped that people would be happy to see TFS pop up in their podcast feed–an emotional quality of only the very best shows.

Our big innovation–at least in the anthrocast space–was our panel podcast format. To be honest, I didn’t want to do panels at all, but the rest of the team was afraid we wouldn’t book enough interview subjects to fill the schedule. We experimented with four or five different formats before settling on what we use now: four separate topics in about 20 minutes.

We tried to build our presentation style from the lessons of the new field of science communication. This wasn’t a clean fit for anthropology: scientists can report their “findings,” but the insights of anthropology are always situational, and never indisputable. In the end, we decided that what anthropology does well isn’t providing answers, but asking new questions, or framing old questions in new ways. And so, the format: the prompt, “what are you thinking about this week?”, answered with a headline and a question for the group. The five-minute cutoff allows us to acknowledge that these questions don’t have pat answers, and no one can claim to have the last word. We usually take about an hour to record these discussions, and cut the raw audio down until we hit that perfect drive-time length of 22 minutes.

Lessons for anthropology communicators

Just make it. We’re academics, right? And what academics do best is theorize. We could have sat around forever, thinking about exactly what the podcast should be, and never making anything. Instead, we launched right in. We also made 17 mock episodes before launching: seventeen! But once we had those episodes–amateurish, undeveloped, but real, existing episodes–we could critique them, reshape them, and make another, better version. We didn’t just think it to death; we actually made something.

Skill up. Don’t let a lack of experience prevent you from starting your project. Instead, think of your project as providing you with the opportunity to gain the skills you need. There were plenty of things we didn’t know how to do, so we used the project as a platform to learn. We taught ourselves to use Audacity and WordPress, using YouTube and trial and error. We got mentorship from experts at ANU’s Centre for the Public Awareness of Science. Most of all, we’ve learned valuable lessons on team-building and leadership, just by figuring out how to manage this project together. We’re still building our skills every day we work on TFS.

Develop systems. Again, we’re academics, and if there’s anything academics don’t like, it’s being managed. We don’t have an editor-in-chief at TFS; our structure is more horizontal and consensus-driven. But big projects like ours have a lot of moving parts: in our case, managing and editing blog submissions, doing podcast production, web development, social media management, and the ongoing creation of new modules, like the Single Shot visual anthropology series, or non-English language podcast episodes. We couldn’t have done it without some sort of project management system, and a good project manager. We were lucky to have the indispensable Jodie-Lee Trembath on our team, who is both an anthropologist and an organizational specialist. You’ll need to find your own Jodie, too.  

Think through the politics. Anthropologists are exacting, critical listeners, and demand a political clarity and energy that aren’t easy to provide, especially if you’re also busy with a dissertation. It’s easier to get political positioning or commentary right in interviews, which usually come out after a long delay, and are meant to be evergreen. But the panels are supposed to be topical. If your project is topical as well, just remember that speaking well on delicate topics is hard (of course). If you have other work — as all of us at TFS do — it’s a lot harder to do the necessary prep to speak to those topics adequately.

Build a strong team. Making TFS has been a team effort, from start to (my) finish, with each member producing their own episodes, and contributing to the development of the format. It would be way, way too much work for anyone to take on by themselves. (Shoutout here to Dr. Carie Little Hersh, who does in fact seem to have made the Anthropologist on the Street podcast all by herself.)

An optimal team also includes a diversity of backgrounds, viewpoints, research interests, and theoretical orientations. Positionality is important in radio; as anthropologists know, who is speaking can be just as important as what they are saying. We have taken some time to ensure we are doing all we can to make our team as diverse as possible. We are currently welcoming new team members and contributors, and building an informal advisory board of academics from around Australia to help us address sensitive topics where our own expertise falls short.

Keep an eye on your future career. For the project to last, it has to meet the overall academic and life goals of its contributors. We’ve used TFS to gain experience, pick up some mini-credentials and build our networks. Podcasting gave us an excuse to reach out to scholars we admire, sit down with them one-on-one, and build a rapport that could extend beyond the interview room.

Anticipate criticism. Don’t be afraid to put your work out there, but be aware that not everyone is going to like what you produce. Do your best to anticipate their complaints. Have a system in place for absorbing constructive criticism, and deflecting words that are simply destructive. Know when and how to defend yourself, and always be prepared to stick up for your team members and contributors.

But also be aware that, in many cases, negative feedback won’t make it back to you. Some people might hear something they don’t like, and simply turn your podcast off. They might remember your name, and disregard you or your work in the future, and you might not know exactly why. That’s a terrible outcome, and a real risk of putting your work and your name into the public sphere. So if you can, cultivate relationships with some people who will give you honest feedback, always make it clear to your listeners that you welcome their point of view, and try to guess, before you publish something, what the worst criticisms of it might be.

Make the project sustainable. There’s no doubt that starting any new project and making it a success takes a huge amount of work. It’s not easy to keep yourself and your team from burning out. Three weeks before the TFS podcast launched, I had a son. It was crazy to think that I could take care of an infant, and manage a serious side-project, while still writing my PhD. A year later, I’m in need of a long holiday and a chance to refocus on my dissertation. (Instead of taking a long holiday, I’m going to the AAA meetings in San Jose, to appear on two panels and record a bunch of podcast episodes. Live and don’t learn, I suppose).

In addition, grad students are a transient bunch. In a sense, the more successful we are as students, the sooner we’ll finish up and be outta here, looking to new opportunities. Our new challenge has been recruiting the next generation of Familiar Strangers, expanding the team beyond ANU, and figuring out how we can manage such a diffuse and dynamic project down the line.

What’s next for anthro communications?

The anthropology communications space is far from full. We’re still waiting, for example, for the show that can immerse a listener in an ethnographic encounter, and address the issues of representation and research ethics that would entail, or recreate the analytical process, and help the listener along to those magical moments of insight. We’re waiting for the show that makes anthropology really relevant for policy discussions. We’re waiting for a great video series (TFS is planning one for 2019), or better yet, a revelatory anthropology VR experience.

Most anthropologists I know want their work to matter, and to have a real impact on the people and causes they care about. That’s the big prize for finding new and better ways to communicate anthropology to new audiences. TFS had a great first year. Here’s hoping the second is even better!

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