24 August 2016

South Africa: Podcasts Can Drive Debate and Break Down Academia's Ivory Towers


Not all of South Africa's student protests in the past 18 months have happened in the streets or on campuses.

A generation of "digital natives" has masterfully used hashtags - #feesmustfall; #Rhodesmustfall; #asinamali; #RUReferenceList - tweets and blogs alongside various forms of direct action like marches and protests. This has helped to bring important debates about universities into the public eye.

But what happens after the headlines fade and hashtags change? How can conversations and debates about what will happen to higher education be sustained?

Independent media platforms are an important component of both the media and higher education sectors. A free and diverse media sector is an essential component of any democratic society. And podcasts are emerging as an arguably easy-to-access, affordable mode of creating new spaces for discussion and debate.

A promising new medium for debate

There are 44,000 radio stations broadcasting all around the world. The single biggest problem facing broadcasters is that the FM band, on which most broadcasts are transmitted, is overloaded.

It is difficult for new radio stations to be awarded a frequency and license, which are necessary steps in establishing a station. It is also expensive and requires huge infrastructural investment to start a radio station. Commercial radio stations have to rely on advertising to survive.

The podcast has emerged as a promising medium for facilitating ongoing, detailed discussion and debate about issues that are so important they need more time than mainstream, profit-oriented media or the changing tides of hashtags might allow.

Podcasting allows anyone with a microphone, an internet connection and an opinion to instantly share it with the world. A "podcast" is a digital audio file created easily on affordable software and distributed via the internet. Listeners can download podcasts, or episodes, to a computer or portable media player. Listeners can also subscribe to their favourite shows and choose whether to listen to individual episodes or entire series.

In this way, podcasts have decentralised information-sharing.

In the US, where Apple celebrated 10 years of podcasts in 2015, podcasts were mostly being listened to via computer in 2014. Today, 64% of podcasts in the US are accessed via a smartphone or tablet computer.

In Africa, radio remains a hugely popular medium. This suggests that the future of podcasts is promising. Podcasting in Africa has become a veritable trend despite concerns about connectivity issues, costly data and access. Popular topics include technology, entrepreneurship and arts and culture.

Smartphones are becoming ubiquitous in emerging markets. The increased penetration of smartphones and the internet, along with a rising middle class who have more disposable income - particularly in emerging markets like Africa and Asia - has contributed significantly to the creation of podcasts.

Conversations abound in these same markets about increasing investments in the science, technology, engineering and maths fields. There's also a lot of talk about how improving access to quality higher education shapes and contributes to the growth and development of the overall economy. The more we talk and listen to one another, the more society and the economy will ultimately benefit.

Podcasts and higher education

A number of universities already use podcasts for teaching. Students can listen to pre-recorded lectures or hear their lecturers sharing hints and tips for essay-writing. Podcasts are also now emerging as a way to talk about issues linked to academia.

It's the platform podcasts provide for engagement, talking and listening that prompted us to establish a weekly podcast called The Academic Citizen. It is funded by the Academic Staff Association of Wits University and is based at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand. It features a weekly in-depth conversation with a guest about topics important to higher education. This facilitates the exchange of ideas and debate far beyond brick and mortar university buildings.

Since its launch in April 2016, The Academic Citizen has featured nearly 20 guests being interviewed on a range of topics: protest action on campuses; whether fee-free higher education is possible and how it could be achieved; language and transformation and the importance of academic staff unions. Every episode features two or three "student voices", which allows students to share their perspectives on each topic.

The Academic Citizen has tapped into social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter to share updates and news, which helps us capture more of an audience.

A plurality of voices

One of the podcast's consistent goals is to present a variety of opinions about higher education in South Africa and beyond. It provides a platform for those involved in universities to confront the existing problems, listen to one another's views and communicate about how higher education can be improved. We believe this will help drive a move towards improving the sector for the benefit of all its stakeholders.

Podcasting helps to promote dialogue so that more voices can "join in" conveniently with difficult conversations. After all, plurality of thought is the key to progress.

Disclosure statement

Mehita Iqani is an elected member of the Executive Committee for the Academic Staff Association of Wits University (ASAWU), the union for academic staff, which covers the production costs of The Academic Citizen podcast. All the work she does for the Union and podcast are voluntary and unpaid as part of her academic service to her institution.

Balungile Mbenyane is employed by the Academic Staff Association of Wits University (ASAWU). Part of her responsibility is to plan and produce The Academic Citizen podcast on a weekly basis.

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