Way beyond iTunesU: using podcasts to jump into the cultural conversation

I was jogging through the ravine one night, listening to an episode of the Freakonomics podcast. The sun had set, and I was cold, but I ran around the park one more time so I could listen through to the end, as the show delightfully connected economics—something I normally couldn’t care less about—with questions of everyday life. It gave me an idea.

I’d arrived in my role as a reporter with the University of Toronto after years in public radio. Most of the time, I write stories for U of T News. But why not apply the Freakonomics model to storytelling at my university?

We’d recently been working to focus our energies on storytelling around a few specific areas of research at the University of Toronto. “Cities” was one of them. So my editor and I decided to use the local municipal election as a hook—to pilot a miniseries and see if highly produced podcasts (i.e., sounding more like NPR programming than simply recorded lectures you’d find on iTunesU) would successfully connect stories about our work in on cities with audiences we wanted to reach: alumni and influencers in urban issues.

Episodes spring-boarded off election flashpoints (traffic, transit, sustainable cities, the future of cities) to show how research, teaching and entrepreneurship at the university is working towards the future of these topics. So, I interviewed a researcher building artificially intelligent traffic lights, an entrepreneur developing a hybrid car-bike vehicle based in his university research, etc. We uploaded the podcasts to SoundCloud, exposing the episodes to audiences already interested in podcasts on that social platform, and then embedded the SoundCloud widget into feature stories on our site. Click to listen to the miniseries below.

It’s also available on iTunes.

The podcast format allows our experts—often quoted in tiny sound bites—to really explain why they do what they do and how they hope it will transform cities. It communicates stories about our cities work with more personality, depth, passion and versatility than our traditional written story format. And they were fun to make! (And to listen to, I hope?)

We continue to learn about what works best in this format. The episode on traffic—a very general topic—has had the most downloads and listens by far. Meanwhile, the episode on the more niche issue of sustainable cities didn’t reach as many listeners, but we can see from Twitter mentions and interaction that it did leave a great impression on key urban issues columnists and other thought leaders in city thinking. So, a different kind of success!

We’d be grateful for any ideas or suggestions about further developing a series like this as it’s been a risky but rewarding new project for us at U of T. I’m hopeful that one day we may have a few joggers running one more loop around the park, curious to learn about how our university’s research might one day change their lives.

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