Paul Drury-Bradey is the inaugural Entrepreneur in Residence at Durham University’s Arts & Humanities Faculty, working with academics, students, and Professional Services staff to kick-start entrepreneurial thinking about research impact and engagement. In just under 18 months he delivered a wide-ranging programme of activities, including the ‘Possible Podcast’ series, which was entirely produced during the UK lockdown. He and Rachael Barnwell, Senior Impact and Engagement Manager for the Arts & Humanities at Durham University, reflect on what it was like to engage people with research through podcasting in the early part of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The ‘Possible Podcast’ Series
The ‘Possible Podcast’ series was created as a response to the growth of podcasts as a way for entrepreneurs and people with big ideas to tell their own stories in an engaging and accessible way. Ofcom’s Media Nations 2019 report found that about one in eight people in the UK now listen to podcasts each week and that audiences had increased by 24% from 2018 to 2019 alone. The podcast was also a way for us to bring together people from different backgrounds, who may not have otherwise connected. Each episode is anchored in Durham University’s research but makes links to wider perspectives, from local creative practitioners to leading international businesses, and reaching from Jamaica to Detroit and right back to the university’s home in Durham City.
At the start of 2020, Paul’s focus was on engaging with academic colleagues and their research, and making thought-provoking links with networks outside of higher education. However, as the Covid-19 pandemic escalated it became clear that Paul would also have to take on the unexpected challenge of creating an engaging podcast within the restrictions of a global pandemic.
Podcasting in the Pandemic
Fortunately, the basic idea behind the ‘Possible Podcast’ series didn’t have to change. After all, podcasts are designed to be accessible to anyone, anywhere, as long as they have an internet connection so we didn’t have to worry about people being suddenly unable to access our content the way we did with our in-person events. However, we did have to change the way we approached potential participants and how we produced each show.
In-person recordings were out, so Paul was reliant on remote recording. That left the project at the mercy of capricious broadband connections, and dependent on the recording equipment people already had in their homes. People’s work situations were fluid and changeable and home lives were transformed overnight, so scheduling became a fresh challenge. Some people became unwell or were caring for people who were sick – their health and wellbeing came first, which meant revising and rethinking content continuously.
Despite all of these issues, we were pleasantly surprised to find that most people were still enthusiastic about taking part in the ‘Possible Podcast’ series. It offered academic colleagues an opportunity to engage people with their research at a time when the public were actively seeking new connections, and it was seen as an optimistic project taking place at a difficult time: a sentiment that was echoed by participants from outside of higher education.
- Be adaptable, brave, and curious. Flexibility in thinking about ways to create research engagement and impact is important, particularly in fast-changing and uncertain times. Be willing to try new ways of solving a problem, learn to do something outside of your usual wheelhouse, and let your thoughts take unexpected turns.
- Be ambitious. In scoping the podcasts, we looked at some of the most unusual, newsworthy and innovative academic research, and were ambitious about the people we approached to join the conversation. That led to connections we might not otherwise have thought about that have long-lasting value beyond the podcast itself.
- Co-create. Co-creation was central to Paul’s methodology. It has innovation at its core, allows new and challenging approaches to research, and enables us to see big ideas from a different perspective.
- People want to take part. We were concerned that the pandemic would put a damper on people’s enthusiasm and interest for a project like this. We were wrong. Covid-19 created many challenges for the project – people wanted to engage and connect in spite of them.
Successes So Far
The first series has been listened to over 400 times, by people in the UK, US, Europe and the Philippines. It was featured in NARC, the independent guide to alternative art and culture in the north; and on The People’s Powerhouse website. Academic colleagues have reported that connections made through the podcast are generating new ideas and approaches in their research, and interactions with non-university participants are opening up new university partnership options for the future.
Following the success of the first series, a second series was produced and released in July 2020 using the same approach. Focussing on the ways arts and humanities research is helping us understand and respond to the Covid-19 crisis, it includes perspectives from Dr Clare Mac Cumhaill and Dr Emily Thomas from the university’s Department of Philosophy, whose AHRC-funded research projects are informing thinking about how Covid-19 is changing our world.
Re-thinking the Future
The short-term effects of Covid-19 on university budgets and resources are becoming clearer, but the long-term implications are a lot less easy to discern. We’ve had to go back to the drawing board with our plans for the future of the wider Arts & Humanities Entrepreneur in Residence programme.
We still have an ambition to extend and enhance the ‘Possible Podcast’ series too – we’re building on a strong base, but are rethinking how best to develop it for the future. Critically, lessons learned through the Entrepreneur in Residence programme are themselves fuelling new ways of thinking about how we might provision our future activities and that gives us optimism.
All episodes of the ‘Possible Podcast’ are available online via Spotify, Soundcloud, and Apple Podcasts. Series one and two are both available to listen to via Anchor.
About the Authors
Paul Drury-Bradey is a freelance consultant with expertise in PR and communications, partnership building, and creative production with social and cultural impact. You can follow Paul on Twitter at @pauldrurybradey or reach him by email at email@example.com
Rachael Barnwell is the Senior Impact & Engagement Manager for Arts & Humanities at Durham University, and helped create the university’s Arts & Humanities Entrepreneur in Residence programme. You can reach Rachael by email at firstname.lastname@example.org