Call Me a Curio

On ‘The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry’

It seems quite obvious that these days podcasts and podcasting have become very popular. There are more and more podcasts and larger and larger networks and companies producing them. Not to mention all the individuals who are motivated to start their own.

I’ve never not been a spoken-word radio fan, which is fortunate having grown up around it. It’s no surprise, then, that I started listening to podcasts as soon as they really came to be in the mid-2000s. I didn’t listen to many but that changed even more in 2007 with Rogue Amoeba’s fantastic RadioShift app which let you record live radio automatically based on a schedule. I still had plenty of live radio to listen to but, most especially, there were Saturday evenings when I needed an escape hatch. I digress.

There’s something completely magical about a box of voices that I can take with me anywhere. Spoken word draws you in and makes you feel like you’ve sat down at a table where the conversation is happening. What’s curious is how personal it feels despite you, as the listener, only being a passive participant in the discussion. This personal connection has led to listeners building fan communities around the programmes they enjoy.

For most independent podcasts, the presenters and producers embrace this community by incorporating their feedback and encouraging interaction. As a listener this is enjoyable and rewarding, completing the presenter to listener conversation loop, even if asynchronous (not considering IRC chat rooms). The presenters also seem to appreciate this connection they can develop with the listeners. Radio, on the other hand, whilst it certainly has an unorganised community, rarely has organised communities built up around it. Even more rarely is there much meaningful direct interaction between the community and the programme’s staff.

More recently one BBC podcast in particular has changed this trend. The Curious Cases of Rutherford and Fry* is a programme based on answering science-related questions posed by listeners. By default it’s an interactive programme and the podcast version has long offered additional material which couldn’t be fit into the short 12-minute broadcast programme, like other BBC podcasts. What’s changed is that in the past two years or so is that extended content has grown to be longer than the original, and it’s not just material that couldn’t fit. In addition to some japing about, they also read comments, feedback and follow-up from listeners, very much like an independent podcast.

Doctors Rutherford and Fry as well as their producer Michelle have embraced their listeners completely. So much so that they held a vote to decide what to call the podcasts listeners (a ‘Curio’, it was decided). Since then they’ve started a tradition of naming a Curio of the Week based on who provided the best or most interesting feedback. Most recently, perhaps influenced by Dr Fry’s work with (Dr) Brady Haran, they’ve started rewarding listeners with Curio of the Week badges. All this leads to me, as a listener, feeling even more intensely involved, appreciated and valued. This, even if I never write in with even a question for answering.

I should be careful to say that I don’t expect this from every radio programme. In fact it could become tiring and inevitably some presenters won’t actually enjoy this interactivity. That’s fine. In this case, however, I applaud Adam Rutherford, Hannah Fry and Michelle Martin for their dedication to us listeners.

23 December 2018