Podcasting at Oxford: A unique fit

Oxford is not known for academic laxity – with the relentless flow of tutorials, lectures, problem sheets, and essays, we are not left with a great deal of time to engage with the news. And when students do manage to escape from their degrees, there is an almost inexhaustible range of extracurricular activities waiting for them; from subject-specific societies to the arts, and historic forums to novel niches, university students always seem to have something going on. Consequently, sitting down and physically reading newspapers – to my sadness as an editor of The Oxford Student – isn’t necessarily the most popular or accessible option for catching up on news. Especially since the lockdown years, student journalism, and indeed journalism as a whole, has taken on a more multi-media approach, diversifying into short-form videos, interviews, and, notoriously, podcasts.

Since the mobile age of the early 2000s, “podcasts”, or something similar, have been on the periphery. Adam Curry’s Daily Source Code in 2004 was a very early form of podcasting – a document of his daily life, routines, and activities. Now, less than 20 years later, podcasts are everywhere. A self-proclaimed history buff might tune in to The Rest is History on their way to work or while cooking in an attempt to passively consume information, while others may consume more conversational, relaxed podcasts as an alternative to binging television or movies. Regardless, while listening to audiobooks may have been the norm a few years ago (and this is not to say it isn’t anymore), listening to podcasts is certainly a much more prevalent phenomenon now.

Honing in on Oxford, particularly student journalism as an extracurricular activity, we constantly face the question of access and inclusivity – it is never rare to see Oxford students accused of being posh or finding that a lot of societies, including student journalism, can seem restrictively inaccessible or intimidating. Even if one does take the leap to write for one of the student papers, it remains unequivocally difficult to secure a professional career in journalism without connections fostered during your student days that indubitably come from a variety of opportunities, and certainly not just merit. In this context, podcasting is taken by many to represent a new, more accessible, and more relaxed channel through which those interested in media and journalism can dive in without the pressures of traditional writing.

“Podcasting is a much easier method of consumption, and it makes journalism a lot more personal, as traditional written form…where you become hyper-fixated on writing long, eloquent sentences, can seem quite detached.”

Currently among Oxford students, there are already at least a handful of podcasts being run: LOAF, OxPods, and the podcasts by The Oxford Student and the Oxford University Media Society among several others. And observing from a distance, Oxford’s burgeoning student podcasting industry does seem more receptive to newcomers in the journalism scene.

Niall Hall, one of the hosts of The Oxford Student’s podcast, was confident in the approachability of podcasting, saying that for both producers and consumers, “podcasting is a much easier method of consumption, and it makes journalism a lot more personal, as traditional written form…where you become hyper-fixated on writing long, eloquent sentences, can seem quite detached.”

I asked him whether he had any prior experience in podcasting before diving into the role of hosting, to which he conceded that he had only, as part of a micro-internship, been a guest on one. But suitably, this kind of inexperience points distinctly to the accessibility of podcasting.

Zooming out of Oxford and looking at the proliferation of podcasts as a medium, I daresay a great number who now listen to podcasts semi-religiously were likely much less familiar with this form of media. Indeed, while some, including myself sometimes, may doubt the efficacy of learning from listening to podcasts or audiobooks, a study published in the Antimicrobial Stewardship & Healthcare Epidemiology shows that podcast listening was preferred to reading in self-reported satisfaction ratings and produced a higher level of learning gain, and though narrative podcasts do share some resemblance with lectures, they are much preferred to the drier MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course) that swim around on YouTube.

Particularly at Oxford, we’re constantly barraged with information – lectures run on for hours on end, readings and problem sheets seem to never stop, and rarely do you come out of a tutorial feeling invigorated. Yes, we are meant to work around 40 hours a week, but if you’re anything like me, by the time I reach the tail-end of those hours, words on the page are recognised, read, but only occasionally understood. Admittedly, tutorials, whether you like it or not, are engaging – it’s difficult to sit there blankly when a tutor is expecting an answer, and, as such, they are equally intimidating and stressful. Furthermore, it’s difficult for students in the tutorials to steer its direction, for they are usually based on work done over the week, and questions posed regarding those works by the tutor. Yet, even before we applied, we have been constantly reminded that tutorials are a conversation – an intellectual exchange between tutor and student. So, how do we remedy that kind of imbalance?

One solution that you may not have considered is student-led podcasting. Many have probably heard of OxPods – a student-led podcasting initiative that looks to reverse that relationship between student and tutor by interviewing academics on “the niche, weird and wonderful from their subjects.” I spoke to Alice Hazell, the current President of OxPods, who, like Niall, similarly commented on the quickness in consumption and readiness in access that podcasting enjoys. But more particularly, she spoke of the concept of a “reverse tutorial” where “we [the student hosts] are asking the questions instead of them asking us the questions.”  She notes that in those situations, these seasoned academics will, like the students in their normal tutorials, begin to struggle and be pushed to think on their feet in responding to unexpected questions.

Fundamentally, podcasting is a conversation, and though the question of whether tutorials at Oxford truly are dynamic exchanges between the student and the tutor is certainly debatable, our centuries-long use of such a format puts students and staff alike in a unique position of strange familiarity with podcasting where, like a tutorial, conversations are being held. So, while podcasting may still be on the rise in Oxford, and there is certainly room for improvement across the sector, we are in a distinctly advantageous position to manipulate tutorial experience into podcasting experience. Who knows – maybe a few years from now, the race between the student newspaper publications will be joined by another race, between a few podcast outlets.

Image credit: Flipsnack via Unsplash

Image description: A podcast host and guest having a discussion