headshots of siobhan mcmenemy and hannah mcgregor

Be Gay, Do Podcasts, How Amplify Got Its Start

By Amplify Team Date: January 17, 2022 Tags: Podcasting

Amplified is an audio blog series taking us behind the scenes at the Amplify Podcast Network to explore the different ways our team is reimagining the sound of scholarship. This month we go behind the scenes to learn more about the spirit of the project and how it got its start. Amplify project manager Stacey Copeland is joined in conversation by co-directors Hannah McGregor and Siobhan McMenemy to take us deep into Amplify’s peer review roots, and what they hope to see the project contribute to the future of scholarly podcasting.


Stacey Copeland: What you’re hearing right now is a familiar soundtrack in many of our amplified podcast network meetings with co-directors Hannah McGregor and Siobhan McMenemy.

Siobhan McMenemy: Oh dear.

Stacey Copeland: Always inspired by Hannah and Siobhan’s dynamic and collegial working relationship, I was curious to sit down with the two of them and ask more about how Amplify got started in this episode of Amplified. Hannah and Siobhan get candid about the fluid ideas and evolving process that led us all to the Amplify Podcast Network. We talk about the ethos behind the project and what they look forward to seeing and hearing in the future of scholarly podcasting.

Stacey Copeland: So I’m more interested to hear kind of like a project ‘meet-cute’, like a research idea ‘meet-cute’ story of how you two came to this project and its start with Secret Feminist Agenda.

Siobhan McMenemy: So I don’t even know what you’re talking about (all laugh).

Hannah McGregor: It’s, um, it’s a trope in Rom Coms. It’s the moment when the two romantic leads encounter one another, and it’s often sort of a wacky like: ‘They both reach for the same pair of gloves’ or ‘their dog leashes get tangled together’. Yeah,

Siobhan McMenemy: OK. Alright. I can work with that.

Stacey Copeland: You know, take me back to the beginning. So a moment that maybe can come to mind, whoever wants to jump in first. When you first decided to explore the idea of peer review podcasting together, you know, where were you? This is a pre-COVID time when I’m sure these ideas were happening and just kind of jump into it. How did it start?

Hannah McGregor: It was a Congress. Which Congress was it Siobhan? Calgary?

Siobhan McMenemy: I want to say Calgary. Yeah, I think that’s right. Mm hmm.

Hannah McGregor: Yeah. And it was in the um –

Siobhan McMenemy: Exhibit Hall –

Hannah McGregor: The exhibit hall. Yes, that which is the best place of Congress

Siobhan McMenemy: Couldn’t get nerdier than that.

Hannah McGregor: It’s the place I miss the most about conferences like I absolutely do not miss sitting in a cold hotel room, listening to somebody read a 20 minute paper, but I miss exhibit halls. It’s where all the best and many of the worst conversations happen. It was the summer before I started my job at SFU and we had already met. Just in the context of you had come to the UofA to run a workshop, teaching grad students how to turn their dissertations into books. So like, we’d met in a few contexts like that, but we got talking at the ‘wullop'(WLUP) booth in the exhibition about podcasts.

Siobhan McMenemy: That was my first Congress after I moved to WLU Press and and I was not really much of a podcast listener, but I was definitely interested in the form and learning a lot more about it. I knew enough about myself that I knew I wasn’t going to take it up myself. And so I said, “well, I’m keen to figure out a way to to do something with podcasts at a press. Could we keep talking?” Often the way the good ideas begin in a sort of vague and excited way (laughs).

Hannah McGregor: I’ve never really thought of it before, but it was such a perfect moment because we were both starting new jobs and we had both just made moves from perhaps slightly more traditional environments with more traditional understandings of research into these like maybe slightly smaller, slightly scrappier places where there was more of a sense of like the possibility for… Play.

Siobhan McMenemy: Yeah, I think that’s right, and I think as individual professionals, we were suddenly aware that we had a greater latitude for experimenting. And so that worked in the favour of first working on Secret Feminist Agenda and then subsequently over the course of a few years deciding we wanted to go even bigger.

Hannah McGregor: Yeah! And it was very like we had no clear sense of what shape the project would take. Like when we originally wrote the SSHRC proposal, I think I was going to do a podcast about fan studies? We had no specific idea about the podcast itself. We just kind of had this general sense that like “podcasts, huh? That’s a thing.” (all laugh)

Siobhan McMenemy: You know, one of the real pleasures for me in working with you generally over these two projects. But earliest with secret feminist agenda is that you at least understood the freedom that we had to continue to experiment and to in some ways ask more questions than we were going to really concretely answer. And that was very liberating for me because I had never done any sort of research project as such. It was, it was a very exciting conversation and to subsequently then begin doing a little more concrete work to formalize what it was we wanted to do together.

Stacey Copeland: You mentioned Secret Feminist Agenda, and for those who know about the project already, Amplify really started as a smaller project case study with Secret Feminist Agenda. So were you already thinking about Amplify at that point when you started working on the peer review process for Secret Feminist Agenda? Or did that come later in that experience?

Siobhan McMenemy: From my perspective, it was very focussed initially and then once we got into the more experimental stages of peer review as opposed to just sort of figuring out what the podcast would be and then going through the process of arguing with one another as to whether Secret Feminist Agenda was going to be appropriate. The hands on work of determining how to peer review what to ask in peer review, all of those very practical questions that I was supposed to be figuring out and that Hannah was very actively participating in as well, those were the moments where I thought, there’s no way I’m going to get to a concrete answer. Even after what turned into three iterations of experimentation. Realizing that was also helpful. Not only in terms of relieving me of the stress of feeling like I had to have a clear answer at the end of this process. But also in terms of imagining a next bigger step that would allow me to hone the best practices, if you will, of the peer review component.

Hannah McGregor: Yeah, I like that framing. I hadn’t really thought of it explicitly like that. I mean, it was an Insight Development Grant, which is the whole premise of those grants is that you raise a proposition and then see if it works. There were so many points when it was like, “OK, is this a good idea? Well, we have no idea, but we’re experimenting like this is just an experimental process.” So, you know, Siobhan talked me into using Secret Feminist Agenda as our test case, and I think if I had been attached to the idea that like this is going to be the thing that proves that scholarly podcasting works, I would have been like, “Nope!” but it was just like, “Yeah, let’s let’s just play.” That sense of experimentation always had a like, we’ll get to iterate this again. We don’t have to figure out everything now. We’re answering some questions. We will get to do this a few more times and keep figuring stuff out.

Siobhan McMenemy: In fact, what we realized or what I sort of knew from the beginning, as a press person, taking on some responsibility for rationalizing this in a sense and looking beyond the scope of this particular experiment in order to convince a community of academics, administrators, grant agencies and colleagues at university presses that forms of digital scholarship need peer review, can benefit from peer review, and should be published within our imprint like any other form of publishable scholarship. So in thinking about all that, I realised that first set of questions that we used for the first season of Secret Feminist Agenda had to have what I called at the time, ‘inside baseball questions.’ Questions that irritated the heck out of the reviewers and probably, probably you too Hannah. (Hannah laughs)

Hannah McGregor: Nah I love meta questions.

Siobhan McMenemy: Well, I do, too but it was really not just because of that, but because I was imagining taking the responses of the reviewers, because we knew they were also going to be public, and saying, “I defy you to tell me this isn’t rigorous. I defy you to tell me this doesn’t indicate a meaningful engagement with a scholarly work.” To ask certain of those inside baseball questions was important so that on the record, there would be evidence of people in the fields related to this undertaking saying “yes, of course this is vital. Of course, the form requires its own approach, but it’s still scholarship.” That peer review, it began to make me think about all of the work I still needed to do between, you know, the conversations you and I were having Hannah about the limits you wanted to put on that particular podcast. You know, how long will we continue this, this undertaking of peer review for it? And then also just professionally what I felt I needed still to accomplish to sort of figure out a sensible way of peer reviewing scholarly podcasts. I was going to need more opportunities than just this one. And so there are many reasons why we began to then talk about another grant and another research project. But the excitement and the opportunity to keep experimenting with the peer review and to apply to other series some of the lessons I learnt working with Hannah’s podcasts was really really instrumental.

Stacey Copeland: Part of what I think is really wonderful about this project is that as co-directors, you’re both coming at this project from very different perspectives, different backgrounds, certainly with different key questions, big questions in mind, right? Coming from, Hannah, with your research background and thinking about podcasts as scholarship. What is that going to sound like? What kind of research can we put out in this form? And then Siobhan, coming from the press side of things about the potentials of what it means to publish podcasts as scholarship? And what could the future of that industry for university presses look like? And so I was curious to hear from both of you. You know, Siobhan, you’ve talked a bit about this already, but what kind of advice would you give now that you’re a few years into this, this project and this peer review experience, that we continue to do with Amplify, what would your advice be to other academic publishers out there who are interested in experimenting with podcasting or other forms of scholarship publication?

Siobhan McMenemy: (laughs) Well, there are plenty of people and publishers working, whether they’re book publishers or journal publishers or on born digital scholarship, and the task of peer reviewing and production for that matter. And so to answer the question, as best I feel capable of doing in the moment, I would say that all press directors should be encouraged to allow their editors the kind of flexibility and experimentation that I have been permitted. It’s really helped me to better understand what authors and scholars generally want and can benefit from to make peer review really and truly functional and productive. What I’ve come to realize in working on podcasting is that when you are dealing with an unconventional work, being open to experimenting, whether you’re reviewing a podcast or a book manuscript, if you’re not attuned to the unconventional nature and you don’t bring to bear on the peer review some degree of accommodation of that unconventional form, then you’re not really embracing it the way a good editor should. Peer review I firmly believe in when it is done well.

Stacey Copeland: Ooh yes –

Hannah McGregor: I wrote down something I was thinking, Stacey, as you were talking about how we come from really different directions into this work. I was like, Yeah, we do. We have really different professional backgrounds. We have different kinds of training. We have different, really different jobs. But at the heart of it, we are both big gay shit disturbers. (all laugh) And I think that that is like an ethic that is at the heart of this project. Is just a kind of like a political orientation towards the status quo that does not assume that it is fine or good as it is. Like that is a like a basic premise. I think of the way we both do our work is like, Oh, why would I assume that the way things are now is fine? Why would I assume that the way things have been done is the way they ought to be done? Why would I in any way trust that the way the institutions are currently organized is good or fosters the kinds of things I want to create in the world? Just a ‘No’, just a ‘No’, just a kind of general ‘No’ to everything, followed by a.. ‘But what if?’

Siobhan McMenemy: Mm. Yes, yes to all of that.

Hannah McGregor: I’m flailing so much. (laughs in regards to own gestures)

Siobhan McMenemy: That also reminds me of something that I have routinely said to authors of all kinds of work my job. It is to say no, in the sense that Hannah has just outlined. But it’s to say ‘yes, but…’ to authors, if they have something experimental, something out of the ordinary, something unconventional, and then to engage with authors in a series of questions that explode the conventions, but point out that the conventions are still surrounding us. And so we have to then have an answer, essentially for the critics who say, Well, what about this convention over here that you seem to be abandoning? So you have to be able to say, well, we’re not actually, we’re just reforming them.

Stacey Copeland: Hmm. Mm hmm. You know, I think it’s this really thoughtful approach you take with your authors, Siobhan. You know, your openness to experimentation. And as Hannah says, the project’s collective big gay shit disturber’ energy that has me and so many others invested in the future of this work. So bringing it back to being at Congress, Calgary 2016, in the little book expo, you have this casual conversation that turns into now, many years later, this project, the Amplify Podcast Network. Where are you hoping… you know this was 2016, it’s almost six years ago now, which is wild. Honestly, the conversation around podcasting of scholarship has really grown a ton in those six years. Where are you hoping we can take the podcast network in the next few years? Maybe not six years, but maybe two or three years to really grow this conversation and see what happens next for podcasting as scholarship?

Hannah McGregor: I’m really interested in questions of sustainability that is really, really what interests me is that sort of these one off experiments we can figure out how to fund them and how to make them possible because they work within the structure of a grant that you can be like, OK, we’re going to have, you know, two years to do this, three years to do this, we’ll do this little experiment. We’ll do another little experiment. But that question of like, how do we just make it so that podcasts are just a thing that a press can be publishing without having to, you know, always applying for another grant, always coming up with another experiment. Like, how do we make this sustainable without losing the fun weirdness of it? You know, that’s a direction that we’re all still sort of moving in is like, OK, what are different funding models? Ok, what are different ways that we could partner with different presses, with different organizations? How could we talk to SSHRC about shifting how they think about what counts as an output? Like, I feel like talking increasingly about these sort of big picture questions that are part of how to make this work sustainable. And I like that. I like the way that at each step, the project sort of goes, like scopes out and then scopes out a little bit more and then scopes out a little bit more. So like, I hope that we are finding models to make this sustainable and then I also hope that we are continually collaborating with people who break whatever models we come up with.

Siobhan McMenemy: And I think the ‘breaking’ down the road is inevitable.

Hannah McGregor: Mm hmm.

Siobhan McMenemy: Partly because the resistance has been there already from the beginning. One of the earliest public chats, or it was a panel at subsequent Congress, included someone in the audience who directly, not unfriendly, but somewhat aggressively asked, What businesses do I have involving myself in this? Because podcasts inherently are something that aren’t staid and boring and, you know, all the things that people like to accuse scholarly publishing of being. And we saw a certain amount of that same skepticism in the peer review initially. And I think what’s been interesting is that in subsequent years, with more and more people learning about this project and having a look at the peer review and so on and so forth, people have become less skeptical. But I have become much more attuned to the need for that, as you both like to say, the DIY feel of the podcast. I’m not going to let that go. But what I think will happen is that presses will experiment with our methods, will find that they need to break them, rewrite them, rework them, and they may abandon the podcast because it’s not easy to turn into a cookie cutter production process. What we’re working on with Amplify right now with, you know, the tool for creating metadata and preserving, that’s really exciting because that’s where I think the work were putting in now is going to go out into the world and last beyond perhaps any given individual podcaster. I mean, I’m not in disagreement with what Hannah has said about the sort of financial sustainability and the sort of means of keeping going. But at the same time, I’m also thinking it’s going to have a life of its own, as a result of our work.

Stacey Copeland: From questions of DIY experimentation, sustainability and preservation, I can’t wait to see what the future holds for scholarly podcasting. But until then, stay tuned for more episodes of Amplified, behind the scenes chats coming to you soon from our team here at the Amplify Podcast Network.

Guest Bios

Hannah McGregor Amplify Co-Director, Simon Fraser University.

Hannah McGregor is an Assistant Professor of Publishing at Simon Fraser University, where her research focuses on podcasting as scholarly communication, systemic barriers to access in the Canadian publishing industry, and magazines as middlebrow media. She is the co-creator of Witch, Please, a feminist podcast on the Harry Potter world, and the creator of the podcast Secret Feminist Agenda, which is currently undergoing an experimental peer review process with Wilfrid Laurier University Press. She is also the co-editor of the book Refuse: CanLit in Ruins (Book*hug 2018).

Siobhan McMenemy, Amplify Co-Director, WLU Press.

Siobhan McMenemy is Senior Editor at WLU Press. She has worked in scholarly publishing for over twenty years, during which time she has built book lists and edited scholarship in the social sciences and humanities. She is committed to publishing scholarship by and about members of communities who have been pushed to the margins for too long. Her editorial work includes cross- and interdisciplinary research, hybrid genres, and collaborative, born-digital scholarship, of which her work on scholarly podcasting is a part. 

Written and produced by: Stacey Copeland

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