Science Writing Radio: How to Create a Podcast That Actually Delivers Useful Information

Only three percent of marketers say they use podcasts as a content marketing tactic, according to the Content Marketing Institute’s Sarah Mitchell.

Among life sciences marketers, the number of podcasts aimed at patients or physicians could probably be counted on both hands. Industry publications such as FierceBiotech, Pharmaceutical Executive and PharmaIQ have embraced the medium as a way of communicating with life sciences professionals but so far no pharmaceutical company that I know of is podcasting.

To learn more about the challenges associated with creating a successful life science-focused podcast, I interviewed David Shifrin, Ph.D., a Nashville-based science communications consultant and host of Science Writing Radio. David started his podcast in 2015 with the mission of helping young scientists improve their  communications, writing and scientific careers. Among others, he’s interviewed Ryan Bethancourt, founder of the biotech accelerator IndieBio, science writers John Fleischmann, Allison McCook, and Bill Snyder, and a number of scientists. I sat down with David to discuss his podcast and lessons learned from nearly 30 episodes.

Why did you start Science Writing Radio?
SHIFRIN: In graduate school, I was lucky enough to work with a principal investigator who was a great communicator. At conferences I attended I saw that many scientists were challenged in their storytelling. This is probably because as scientists, we are trained to focus on facts. But facts tend to be boring if they are not part of a bigger story. I also noticed that scientists weren’t really trained to communicate to the outside world, to a bigger audience, though this seems to be changing.

Academic jobs are scarce so scientists have to be prepared to enter the private sector. You can’t do that if don’t know how to communicate. I started the podcast as a way of giving back to my community.

What was your biggest challenge in starting the podcast? There were two actually. The first was finding the niche and figuring out what listeners would be interested in. The second was pushing through what Seth Godin calls “the dip,” a setback you can usually overcome with persistence. The idea is that things always start off well and everyone is excited. Inevitably, momentum slows and you have to decide whether that’s because your idea is bad or because you’re in “the dip.” It’s often the latter, so the best thing is to ignore the numbers and keep going.

Every podcaster I’ve spoken with has experienced this situation. We see our download numbers drop after the first few weeks, bottom out for anywhere from weeks to months, then – assuming our product isn’t terrible and we’re making something that informs and entertains – it starts to rise and grow way beyond where it started. Even at 30 episodes I’m still probably in the dip, but it’s worth it when I see that the podcast has been heard in 77 countries to date.

What has been your biggest lesson so far?
SHIFRIN: Focus and simplicity. The rule of one. The fact that you can only focus on one thing, and that every piece of content can only have one focus. So as much as possible, I try to keep each interview focused on one topic, keep each podcast focused on one subject that my audience is interested in.

I’ve also learned – and here I’m breaking the rule of one by giving two lessons – it’s important to experiment, especially with the format. I’ve created a number of episodes that were monologues – for example at the end of 2015 when I spoke about books that influenced me or my recent podcast on elevator pitches. The feedback from my listeners has been positive, so I’ll continue experimenting with formats.

As you near your 30th episode, what has been your biggest surprise?
SHIFRIN: The importance of having something outside of your day job. Most people feel guilty about this but again, going back to grad school, I was lucky to have a PI that not only had outside interests but he encouraged us to have those. So, the podcast is one of the interests I have outside my job. I am also a serious runner and cyclist.

Life sciences companies haven’t embraced podcasting, do you think they should?
SHIFRIN: Podcasting has been around for almost a decade but still is really in its infancy as a medium. It’s powerful because it’s one of the few forms of content where a person is in your head. Podcasting has experienced huge growth in the past few years but there will continue to be great opportunities for companies to use the medium creatively — especially when it comes to business-generated content. Very few companies are doing any sort of content marketing that includes audio, so it’s a massive opportunity.

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