Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Confessions of a Podcast Junkie: Part I

I love podcasts.  Whether I'm biking around campus, pipetting under the hood, or out for a run around Lake Lag, I often have my earbuds in streaming Planet Money, This American Life, Nature Podcast, or some other production of fun and informative sound bytes.  In this first post of a two-part blog entry series for Humans & Viruses, I review This Week in Virology.  If you'd like to listen to the episode I discuss, check it out at http://www.twiv.tv/2014/06/01/twiv-287-a-potentially-pandemic-podcast/.
This Week in Virology (TWiV), a weekly podcast focused on virus biology and its implications for human societies, is produced by a small collection of expert hosts based at the Columbia University Medical Center.  In episode 287, entitled “A Potentially Pandemic Podcast,” four TWiV hosts spend an hour and 40 minutes discussing Middle East Respiratory Coronavirus (MERS-CoV) with coronavirus expert Dr. Matt Freeman, a recurring guest on the show.  Reminiscent of its viral subject matter---viruses were first recognized as a class of infectious agents distinct from bacteria because they easily pass through filters in solution---the audio content of this podcast all seems to have easily passed through the “filter” of editing without significant loss of content.  This ‘unfiltered’ style becomes apparent as soon as the show begins, when host and guest introductions are intermixed with tangential discussions about the weather (it turns out this weather discussion is something of a tradition/running joke in the TWiV community).   The podcast is riddled with “ um”s, pauses, stuttering and participants talking over one another.  It seems almost as if there were no segments cut or reshuffled in order whatsoever.  Episode 287 is also completely devoid of the bells and whistles that often accompany spoken content in other podcasts.   While this relatively unedited approach does make the conversation comfortably informal, some aspects are distracting, such as the heavy breathing of one host audible for a period of about 10 minutes.
In addition to being ‘unfiltered,’ this podcast is also largely unstructured.  The hosts alternate asking questions of the guest expert.  They seem to have an arsenal of questions on hand at the time of the interview but intermix those with more spontaneous questions.  The overall flow of the discussion begins with an overview of the current global context for MERS-CoV (where it appears, how case numbers have changed, how those individuals contracted the virus) and then moves into a discussion what might be done to address unanswered scientific questions or prevent a pandemic of MERS-CoV.  This unstructured flow contributes to the informal ease of listening for the podcast’s audience.  However, it also alienates less-scientifically-literate listeners because this lack of strict structure leads to an absence of timely definitions of virology terms like quasi-species, Dengue, Chikungunya, or 229E.  I was grateful for the arsenal of background virology knowledge I have developed through Humans & Viruses!
If you have a few hours on your hands, at least an amateur virologist's background, and an interest in exploring and critiquing recently published findings or events in virology, TWiV might be the perfect podcast for you.
--Laurie Rumker

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