Science, Podcasting (And a Little Nudity Doesn’t Hurt) – The Naked Scientists

Kylie Sturgess

The recent boom in podcasts and podcasting may seem a little bemusing to those who have been in the practice for some time. But there’s one thing that established podcasters seem to share with newcomers to the practice—a supportive and encouraging attitude, especially when it comes to the disseminating of science, reason, and plain awesome news about discoveries.

The Naked Scientist podcast is no exception. They’re a media-savvy group of physicians and researchers from Cambridge University who use radio, live lectures, and the Internet to strip science down to its bare essentials and promote it to the general public. They’ve been around since the early 2000s—making them one of the very first podcasts.

The Naked Scientist podcast

I interviewed one of the long-running hosts, Cambridge University consultant virologist Dr. Chris Smith, during Australia’s National Science week—in a small study room in the West Australian State Library, where they were banned for making just one too many explosions during a live show a few years back.

Dr. Chris Smith: We come every year now to Australia and spend between three and four weeks doing events relevant to National Science Week, and relevant to local people, and the idea is to try to increase the emphasis of science in local communities, so they can understand why it’s interesting, why it’s fun, and then hopefully apply to study science.

When we first came to do National Science Week with Murdoch University, the first event we ever did in Perth was here in the WA State Library, and we told them what we had in mind. They said they’d never seen the lecture theatre here so full, because it was. There were people literally standing in the aisles.

They were slightly disenchanted with some of my experiments, and they said that it was great to see so many people, but please don’t come and do that here again! It’s not often I get banned from a library—and as a Cambridge University academic, which I am in my other life, it’s quite an unusual accolade to be banned from a State Library!

Kylie Sturgess: I was very impressed and I remember attending the show! How did the podcast get started? It’s not usual for an academic to start getting into a field such as podcasting. In fact, the notion of being an academic and a science outreach broadcaster, and so forth, it sometimes seems like it’s a bit of a contradiction.

The Naked Scientist podcast logo

Smith: Actually, we were one of the first podcasts to ever exist. In fact, we were podcasting before podcasting existed, so we helped invent that whole thing.

How that came about was that I was a medical student, and in the middle of my medical degree I did a PhD, and in the middle of my medical degree PhD I then thought, “Well, why don’t I start a radio show?” —as you do! There wasn’t much on the radio about science at the time, but we ended up on a small scale commercial, but rather a community-focused radio station. It didn’t have a huge audience, and it was a live show each week.

We thought, “It’s a bit of a shame to put so much effort into a one hour program that then if you don’t actually live in the area where you can hear the program, or you don’t happen to be listening to the radio at the time it’s on you’re going to miss it.” The Internet was just beginning to get powerful enough at that time. It was the year 2000, and so it was at a time when the internet was sufficiently powerful to carry a reasonable amount of data, and so we started streaming these programs, because we had got some technology together at the University of Cambridge where it would be possible to do that.

Then we thought—“Well, if people aren’t able to access the Internet to stream a live program, why don’t we just make it available for people to download it? To take away.” We did that, and also made it subscribable, and this is really what became, more broadly, podcasting.

Overnight the audience went up by orders of magnitude all over the world, and so that told me all I needed to know about the importance of the new technology, which was going to be the Internet.

Sturgess: What’s behind the name?

Smith: That was really shameless self-promotion!

The thing is that I realized early on that you got to do this in a collaborative way because the whole world of science communication is largely structured around individual freelancers, and it’s very difficult for people to work collaboratively as a group, share their experiences, share their expertise, and grow as a group, because it’s all done on a sort of an individual’s named brand, if you like. I thought, “Well, if we have an umbrella term we can all work under, which also does what it says on the tin.”

It makes people laugh and then think a bit. Clearly this is a science program, but it’s a science program where there are no barriers and it’s about having fun. It makes people chuckle but there’s a serious message in there. I thought that would work, and more importantly the domain names were available on the Internet, so we bought all those and got it started. Initially, about eighty percent of the web visitors were for the word naked, but luckily that has now changed!

Sturgess: What are some of the factors that make the show a success? When I talk about science shows, it always seems to be up there in iTunes, even after all of these years—and you’ve even done research into your audience and what impact the show has had. What have you discovered about it?

Smith: The success is because we’ve got a great team of people. If it was just me it wouldn’t be anywhere!

You have to have a fantastic team of people, because out of a fantastic team of people comes all the ideas, all the expertise, and the diversity. Because having a range of content means that you can satisfy a range of different interests, because people don’t want a monotonous diet served up in one particular way or cooked a particular way. They want a varied diet with cuisine from all over the world. It’s the same with science, and that’s what we try and deliver: a range of topics representative of the full scientific spectrum.

I think part of the success is that it’s got a really good team of people on it who bring all their individual skills to it. Secondly, it’s a bloody good program. There’s no two ways about it. I enjoy listening to it. We set very high standards, and we’re striving to be the best science program that the world has, and we’re one of them.

Sturgess: Are there unsinkable rubber ducks that just keep on cropping up that you think, “Oh, dear Lord. Can I just say it once, get it out there, and that’s done with it”?

Smith: The audience churns, of course, and we’ve done a lot of research on our audience. More than two and a half thousand people have filled in surveys and told us about themselves, and we know where they live, where they work, what their interests are. We also know what fraction of them stick with the program and what fraction don’t, and because there’s such a diversity of offerings on the Internet and it’s costing people nothing to subscribe and unsubscribe—so you do get a churn, and that may be up to half your audience in a year may turn over. This means that, actually, it’s a good thing and a bad thing.

On the one hand you have to ask yourself, “Well, why is half the audience who were subscribing now not subscribing? Why have they been replaced with new people?” On the other hand it’s quite good, because that means that if you do keep the same content going around in circles, or you revisit something you’ve got a chance to revisit it better for the people who had it before, but for the first time for the people that never had it before.

Sturgess: We’re currently in the middle of Australia’s National Science Festival, and it seems as if it’s an increasingly popular phenomenon—science festivals, science tours like Professor Brian Cox, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and the like. What do you think are the pros and the cons of this?

Smith: To get lots of people together in one place is a geographical problem, and when the event finishes the education and the engagement finishes. One has to always have in mind you’ve got to have a legacy here, and the benefit of what we do on The Naked Scientists is that when the program finishes being live the content lives on as a legacy content, which people can continue to subscribe to and derive benefit from.

I think you’ve always got to be careful with events like this one that galvanize interest while they’re happening, but as soon as they stop happening there’s got to be back up there to keep the interest you’ve drummed up alive, because if you don’t do that then you’ve just got to keep doing this year, after year, after year, and while that’s good at the time, it doesn’t then get people motivated and active, and create momentum.

It’s all very good while it’s happening but the aim of doing this is to nurture talent, isn’t it? We want to attract young people. We want to stimulate young minds, and we want to make people into the scientists of tomorrow. If we don’t offer them the capacity to become the scientists of tomorrow, having galvanized their interest with this, we may as well not bother. It’s really important to have your mind on, “Well, what am I trying to achieve with an event like this?” Get people interested. Get them fired up. Get them stimulated, but then offer them something to follow it on with.

Sturgess: What’s the future of The Naked Scientists?

Smith: It’s going pretty well at the moment, because we’re now the only example of a science show originating from a university, which is network level radio in multiple countries. We’re making about five or six shows or radio contributions a week now, and the audience of the podcast has gone beyond fifty million downloads worldwide.

On that trajectory there’s a lot of unconquered territory still to go, so we’ll carry on in that regard, and the other thing is that we want to invent a business model for ourselves that is more sustainable, because at the moment we’re largely surviving, running, operating on grants and other sorts of soft money, and that’s been very successful so far.

We’ve built a very powerful brand, and we’ve built a very big audience, but at the end of the day you’re always worrying about, “Well, where do I raise the next heap of cash from to keep the staff employed?” What I would like to achieve in the next four or five years is solid cash flow by doing things like, perhaps, inserting advertising into our website, advertising into our podcasts, and so on—so that we then know where our next meal is coming from.

Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is the host of the Token Skeptic podcast and regularly writes editorial for numerous publications and the Token Skeptic blog. She was the co-host for the Global Atheist Convention in 2010 and 2012. An award-winning Philosophy teacher, Kylie has lectured on teaching critical thinking and anomalistic beliefs worldwide. In 2011 she was presented with the Secular Student Alliance Best Individual Activist Award and presented at the World Skeptics Congress 2012.