Having powered past 350 episodes, the Up Close podcast from the University of Melbourne is one of Australia’s earliest content marketing successes.
Eric van Bemmel admits there was no grand plan behind Up Close, the University of Melbourne’s long-running podcast that recently brought up its 350th episode. It was 2006 when co-founders van Bemmel and Kelvin Param noted that Radio National was repurposing its content in podcast form. “We figured, ‘Let’s give it a go’.”
After starting out as the “Up Close Research Talk Show”, it’s now recognised as the grand-daddy of tertiary education podcasts, and one of the earliest examples of this form of content marketing in Australia. The half-hour podcast, which ran weekly for six years before reverting to fortnightly in 2015, features interviews with local and international experts by university academics.
Every Up Close episode delves into one aspect of university research and analysis. The range of topics covered is staggering – recent podcasts have dealt with innovation, science, business, postmodernism, neuroplasticity and cannibis use. It claims an average of 25,000 downloads per episode and an audience in 100 countries.
The National Library says the Up Close episodes have “lasting cultural value” and are of “national significance”. But no-one saw this in 2006. Van Bemmel, who is still senior producer, says many didn’t even know what a podcast was, and that included his university bosses. “When it came time for funding we had to explain ourselves every time,” he says. “That’s less common these days. It came to be seen slowly, particularly by the academics in the sciences, as a way they could communicate their research.
“It’s less personality-focused and about content itself. We deliberately didn’t want to over-push University of Melbourne – it’s there obviously in the top and tail [of the podcast]. It’s clearly branded as a university product but it wasn’t about selling the university. It was about saying, ‘This is what we do’. Only later did we realise ‘Oh, yeah, it’s content marketing’ as well because that’s obviously what it is. It’s got our name on it.
“People find it useful. If it just happens to come from this university, then they make that association with the brand.”
Van Bemmel says one of the great advantages of Up Close is its timelessness. “We’re still getting lots of downloads off old content,” he says. “We try to build a long tail to the content. The stats from last month showed the top-streaming episode was episode 12, which came out in early 2007. It’s a very obscure episode about a couple of prominent scientists on the eradication of certain kinds of pests in India.”
So how are the topics chosen? Van Bemmel says the university has never imposed any boundaries or a rota system. “We’ve always had the freedom to make those choices. We tend to look at stories that we think will be interesting.”
He admits, however, that the breadth of topics covered by Up Close is a weakness and a strength. It is difficult to build a community for the podcast when it features completely different material every fortnight. “Consistently 75 to 80 per cent of people listening to the podcast are new rather than people who come back regularly. We have a newsletter and iTunes subscribers but that’s not the main thing – most of it comes from new listeners.
“Whether [the listener] is in Toronto or Shanghai, there should be something there for them.”Eric van Bemmel
“The positive content marketing thing is that it’s the consumer’s own content search that brings them to the University of Melbourne. It’s ‘discovery marketing’, if you like.”
Van Bemmel admits each podcast is always likely to have a narrow audience, even if it’s one that’s highly engaged. “It’s fairly high-brow – it’s not for everyone,” he says. “Half an hour on a particular topic is a lot for most people. You have to be interested in the topic to actually want to sit through it. It’s not something you can hear in the background; you either listen to it and get something out of it or you don’t.”
Still, some episodes can turn out to be unexpected hits. Van Bemmel says one very early episode featuring a University of Melbourne physicist who is pro-nuclear power was a solid performer for five years, and would regularly have up to 5000 downloads a month. Another episode, featuring Johns Hopkins academic Deborah Brautigam, who specialises in Chinese activities in Africa, ended up on the front page of US Google for three weeks for those seeking information on “China and Africa”.
Perhaps surprisingly, most Up Close downloads in a typical month are in the US, followed by China and Australia. Why is it so big in China? “We don’t exactly know why, but we suspect there’s some English language learning component because they can see the transcripts and they can hear the audio. They’re hearing real English, different accents, different topics.”
One of the reasons Up Close has been successful is the depth of research that goes into every episode. Van Bemmel says that he likes to give each presenter and guest up to three weeks’ notice of the recording day to prepare. “The presenter will read some of the papers of that guest and familiarise themselves with the topic. They’ll have a pre-recording chat with the guest on things I’d like to talk about. We don’t like people saying, ‘Oh, we’ve got someone coming in tomorrow; can you do it?’ We really can’t do it that way.” He says individual Up Close episodes keep their shelf life because they aren’t “headline based, overly topical”.
“Whether [the listener] is in Toronto or Shanghai, there should be something there for them. It shouldn’t be parochially Melbourne or Australia. Even in the studio we have to sometimes stop proceedings if they’re being too parochial.”
While podcasting is seen by some as a niche platform in Australia, US growth has been phenomenal. According to the Pew Research Center, podcasts have increased in reach and consumption “in every available measure – the percentage of Americans who are listening to podcasts, the level of public awareness, and how many podcasts are being hosted and downloaded”. It found, for instance, that a third of all Americans aged 12 and over have listened to at least one podcast.
“We always seem to be a couple of years behind the States when it comes to trends – some are good and some are bad,” van Bemmel says. “One of the good ones is the growth of podcasts as a form of communication. I think Australians haven’t quite picked up on that to the extent of some Americans but I think it’s definitely coming. For me, it’s actually a really convenient way of consuming content.
“We actually didn’t use the word ‘podcast’ for many years. Since the new wave for podcasts completely coming out of America, there’s been a new respectability. We’re happy to use that term again, but for a while there was a bit of a dirty word.”