Public Engagement and the Media

Kirstie Hewlett is a PhD student at the University of Southampton. Her doctoral research focusses on Heinrich Schenker and the radio. An article she has written on this subject is to be published in a future issue of Music Analysis. In this post, Kirstie writes about her experience of putting together a radio documentary based on her research, and offers advice to others who’d like to disseminate their research in a similar way.


As Alexandra Wilson recently wrote on this very blog, for those of us wishing to pursue a career in academia, we’re now ultimately aiming for a hat-trick before we hit the job market. Not only is it advantageous to have publications and experience of teaching in Higher Education under our belts, evidence of public engagement is also becoming an increasingly desirable addition to our CVs.

I was invited to write this blog post as I’ve recently embarked on my first public engagement project, reworking the opening chapter of my PhD thesis into a documentary for BBC Radio 4. The resulting programme, ‘Learning to Listen’, draws on Heinrich Schenker’s exhaustive record of what he listened to on the radio (the focus of my doctoral project) as a means to explore how listening to music evolved into a more flexible act after the advent of broadcasting. I was in the fortunate position of developing the documentary with a friend who works at BBC Radio 2, with whom I later co-produced the programme. But by no means do you need a contact on the inside to get a foot in the door. Pitching your research to Radio 4 is a fairly straight-forward process. The network solicits programme ideas once a year, the deadline for which tends to fall in late March or early April. The process has just two stages. The first entails submitting a 200 word synopsis. If the commissioning editor likes your idea, you’ll be invited to submit a two-page breakdown of how the programme will be put together, after which, if you’re successful, you have the green light to start production.

We submitted Learning to Listen through an independent production company, TBI Media, who acted as an intermediary between us and the BBC, and oversaw the production of the programme after it was commissioned. If you’re thinking about radio as an output for your research, the Radio Independents Group is a good place to find a production company to put forward your idea; however, I cannot stress enough how important it is to be discriminating about this. There’s a whole spectrum of production companies out there, many of which are highly specialised in their output. If not just to spare yourself the embarrassment of being laughed out the door, make sure that you are approaching a company whose expertise and portfolio are a good match for the programme that you are proposing.

Even before you approach a production company, you’ll need a solid idea of the programme that you want to pitch, as well as a sense of the role that you see for yourself in the project. It’s also a good idea to familiarise yourself with what’s being broadcast. Try to find interviews with the producers of shows that catch your interest; follow them on twitter, follow their production companies. If they endorse another show, listen to it. Go prepared with an idea of how your programme would complement the output of the production company that you’re approaching, as well as a sense of where it would fit into the scheduling of the network as a whole.

Beyond the nuts and bolts of how to approach the BBC with your ideas, perhaps the most valuable piece of advice that I can offer is to not feel pressured into exploring outputs that aren’t suitable for you. Public engagement can take on many forms, be it producing programmes for TV and radio, writing articles for newspapers and magazines, staging public performances, talks, and so on. That being so, it’s important to first consider whether the media is the really the right place for your research, taking the time to mull over the following questions:

  1. Does my work suit this output?

Convincing the commissioning editor that they should choose your idea over the mound of other submissions that they receive is not easy. By the second round it’s not enough to have a great idea. You also need to convey how it will sound, how different clips of voices, archive, sound effects and music will weave together to narrate your story. This may mean significantly reworking your material from how it’s presented in your thesis. You might decide to illustrate your argument differently to make better use of archive sources that you’ve located. You might want to incorporate recordings of public performances or interviews that you’ve made little use of in your thesis, or you may even decide to create new audio through dramatic re-enactments or readings. If you’re reading this and are at a loss to see how your research could translate to this auditory format, it may be worth reconsidering whether the media – or more specifically radio – is really the most suitable outlet for your research.

As with any form of public engagement, finding an angle to your research that has universal appeal is also crucial to getting commissioned. Whereas in my thesis I explore this material in relation to how Schenker’s relationship with radio gradually shifted from a professional interest to a recreational activity, in the documentary this trajectory is presented in a broader framework as a paradigm shift in how we listen to music. If your research doesn’t currently have a universal hook such as this, it may just be a matter of reframing your argument to make it relevant to a non-specialist audience.

  1. Do my interests suit this output?

Writing a radio documentary does not require the same skills as a thesis. To write well for radio, you ultimately need to listen to it – or better still, be passionate about it. Developing my research into a radio documentary was a logical progression for me. Prior to starting my doctorate I worked in the media (specifically in sound for film), and I love listening to the radio and to podcasts. So when I sat down to write the pitch for Learning to Listen, the idea that this would be lucrative in terms of the REF couldn’t have been further from my mind. The potential to develop documentaries and podcasts is something that I would now be looking for in any research project that I’m involved with, REF or no REF, because it’s something that I love doing.

Avoid forcing your research into a media output simply because it looks good in a job application. Developing a documentary alongside your thesis is stressful, adding deadlines that will inevitably pull you away from writing-up your dissertation, so it needs to be something that you enjoy. The media is not the only outlet for public engagement out there. Choose a platform that complements your interests.

  1. Am I open to collaborating with others?

Your idea is likely to be shaped by all of the people who come into contact with it, be it those who you work closely with for the duration of the project, such as your producer, or others with a more specific, one-off role such as the commissioning editor or your contributors. In so doing, your research will no longer just be associated with your name and your name alone. Indeed, in the majority of programme formats, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be the person who delivers the beautifully crafted script that you’ve spent endless hours labouring over. And for good reason. The presenter needs to deliver a performance that immediately engages the listener, providing transitions between each of the segments rather than acting as an expert on the topic; in many cases you’ll be better placed as a contributor.

For me this collaborative process has been a hugely rewarding experience, enriching the way that I frame and support my argument in my dissertation, as well as enabling me to reconnect with scholars and archives that I encountered in the earlier stages of my doctoral research. If you’re open to collaborating in this way, translating your work to the media can not only be enjoyable, but it can also filter back into your work in a productive and satisfying way.

Leaning to Listen is still available on iPlayer and can be accessed at the following URL:



Alexandra Wilson, ‘Public Engagement: Making an Impact’:

BBC Commissioning Guidelines:

College of Production Podcasts

Radio Independents Group:

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