We’re all familiar with podcasts that have utterly consumed us; they get our brains ticking, leave us in shock and awe and make for incredibly bingeable content. For us, just one of those podcasts is 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter by BBC World Service. In this podcast you’ll find up to 15 minutes of astonishing explanations connecting the behaviours, skills and initiatives that humans have learnt from the animal kingdom. At its helm is Sarah Blunt; a producer of a range of successful BBC radio and podcasts. We talk to Sarah about how 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter was dreamed up, the considerations her team take in production and the future of the podcast.
Can you tell us about how the concept of 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter came about?
I worked for many years in the BBC’s Natural History Unit and I have always been fascinated and curious about the Natural World and how it works. We are always on the look-out for great stories about wildlife and how we, as humans, connect with the natural world. This series is about exactly that. It’s about the remarkable things that animals can do and how we might copy them to solve problems in our own world. If you think about it, Nature is full of problem solvers, after all they have had millions of years to test things out, to learn and adapt from trial and error, so now it’s our turn to take inspiration from them and to emulate their solutions in our own designs. This is called Biomimicry.
What has been the most surprising discovery you’ve unpicked, so far?
“Ha ha! That is an impossible question to answer because I found each and every one absolutely fascinating. I mean take the very first episode in which we look at the design of the Japanese Bullet train. When the train was first designed there was a problem. Just before the trains exited the tunnels there was very loud boom. It turned out that air was building up in front of the trains as they entered and travelled through the tunnels. This compressed air ran ahead of the train and then made a big boom as it came out the other end. It was an engineer with an interest in birds who observed that when kingfishers dived into water, they barely made a sound. He realised this was down to the streamline shape of the bird’s beak. So, after careful study of the beak, he redesigned the front of train to look more like a Kingfisher’s beak. This together with a couple of other bird-inspired designs which you can hear about in the podcast means that the air didn’t build up and the train is faster and quieter. How amazing is that?
As a listener, what hooks you into a podcast?
I enjoy podcasts where there is a story and a revelation. Before we made “30 Animals that made us Smarter” I listened to “50 Things that made the Modern Economy” which is also a BBC World Service podcast. Again it was the stories and the revelation that got me hooked. I love unexpected twists as well! It’s the same with radio programmes that I make. I hope the audience come away with that “Well I never knew that” feeling!
You have 200+ 5-star reviews for 30 Animals – do you incorporate feedback from listeners into development of your episodes?
It’s been fantastic to get feedback from listeners from around the globe. I hope if we do another series we can include their animal-inspired story suggestions. In the meantime, there is a special episode at the end of the series, Episode 31, which is a show recorded in front of an audience and includes an interview with a young teenager who had contacted us about the podcast with a story idea, so it was great to involve him as well as an architectural designer (Tia Kharrat) whose work features in the podcast and the series composer, Dan Pollard.
Packing a huge topic into 15 minutes must be challenging – how do you decide what stays in the podcast and what is edited out?
I think the trick is to restrict ourselves to just one story in each podcast and only include other related stories if we can keep them short. Initially we aimed for the narrations to be about 10minutes long and that always left us a bit of ‘wriggle room’ to expand! It’s a good discipline to keep things short and easily digestible but sometimes that’s easier said than done! We do include links for each episode on the website so listeners can find out more information about each story. There are also some wonderful animations by Jules Bartl on the website to accompany seven of the stories which are both great fun and informative.
30 Animals seems age-agnostic – what do you take into consideration when creating a podcast that is as appealing to young people as it is to adults?
As you say, what has really surprised and delighted us is how the podcast has appealed to such a wide breadth of ages. We have had great response from a much younger audience than certainly I was expecting eg 12 and 13 year olds, as well as much older listeners. I think this is because the stories really do have a ‘wow’ factor; for example, octopuses that can change the colour and texture of their skin to match their background, fish that don’t freeze in sub-zero temperatures, geckos that can walk up walls and along ceilings. This stuff is better than science fiction and it’s REAL! It’s as amazing to young people as well as to much older adults and I think that’s the key to why the series has such a wide appeal. The Natural World is fascinating to us all regardless of our age. I think the narrative style is also important. It’s deliberately conversational which I hope engages listeners and helps them follow what at times is quite complex science ideas.
How is sound design important to your production?
The sound design is really important. The composer, Dan Pollard, created the music. I discussed the series when we first met and played him some demo pieces. Dan was really inspired by the idea that nature transformed human designs like the Japanese Bullet train I mentioned earlier. He was keen to do something similar with the music – using natural sounds which he manipulated as part of the music, morphing recorded sounds into notes and chords. This is often very subtle but I think that’s why the music works. He’s done a brilliant job. I was also really keen because the series is about the Natural World and drawing on animals for its inspiration that we use natural sounds to illustrate the narration and immerse the audience in the landscapes or activities we are describing. Wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson recorded the wonderful sounds you hear. I also use these sounds to add a light touch here and then to the narration; making animals respond to Patrick Aryee’s narration! The sharp-eared amongst you may hear that in some of the introductions.
Do you have any personal examples of ways animals have inspired you or solved personal challenges?
Ha ha! What immediately comes to mind is spiders which build their webs every day! When things go wrong, try, try, try again and don’t give up! Also, in episode 5 of the podcast we tell the story of how bats which use a technique called echolocation to navigate their surroundings could help people with a visual disability. Bats produce pulses of sounds and the listen for the echoes to build up 3D images of their surroundings. By clicking with our tongue we can also produce sounds that can be used in a similar way to navigate our surroundings. (You’ll have to listen to the podcast to hear how to do this). Well, I have tried this and it is amazing! It’s like gaining an extra sense! Try it!
What does the future hold for 30 animals? Will there be another series; is it an ongoing production?
We’d all be keen to make another series. We’re on the look out for more stories we might get into it. So if you know a good story, you can e-mail us at email@example.com They’ve been brilliant so far so please do let us know if you have a story that has just got be in the series.
You can subscribe to 30 Animals That Made Us Smarter on Spotify, BBC Sounds, Apple Podcasts or your preferred podcast platform.