How Mozilla’s IRL Podcast Transforms Complex Research Into Engaging Stories

By Annalise Nielsen, Head of Strategy and Development, Pacific Content

I first learned that AI is being used to build autonomous weapons while folding my bed sheets. I was driving when I discovered the concept of Indigenous data sovereignty. I was doing the dishes when I heard the moving story of a man collecting data on skin cancer among Black patients. All this information came to me through the podcast IRL: Online Life is Real Life which serves a dual purpose: its sixth season doubles as Mozilla’s 2022 Internet Health Report. How did Mozilla transform this pivotal research and analysis into a podcast?

https://irlpodcast.org/

A Primed Audience

IRL: Online Life is Real Life first launched in 2017. Over five seasons, from 2017 to 2019, the show covered topics from net neutrality to 5G to emoticons and built a large base of subscribers. When Mozilla decided to revive the podcast in 2022 with a season dedicated to the Internet Health Report, they had a built-in audience already waiting for new episodes. But it’s not just listeners of IRL who were keen on this content – podcast audiences in general are hungry for the credible research and insights Mozilla puts out. Podcast listeners report one of the main reasons they seek out podcasts is to learn something new. This thirst for knowledge makes podcasting the perfect medium to showcase Mozilla’s research.

Increasing Access

Research can’t have an impact if no one knows about it. Mozilla saw the potential to reach a broad audience that might not engage with traditional written research: “[I]t was 2020 and we kept hearing from our community that they wanted a podcast, that their reading bandwidth had taken a hit from pandemic stress,” said Eeva Moore, Engagement Manager, Insights at Mozilla. Just as I was able to listen to IRL while doing chores or driving, most podcast consumers take advantage of the hands-free nature of podcasts and listen while performing other tasks. While a research paper or an interactive web-format may demand dedicated time and focus, podcasts accommodate multitasking, making it easier for people to integrate learning into their daily lives.

Humanizing Research

Unlike other forms of media, most people engage with podcasts through headphones while alone. This creates a deep intimacy, and a unique opportunity for Mozilla to humanize their research. As Eeva puts it, “[W]e love the intimacy of audio: hearing someone’s voice is so different from reading their words.” For example, in episode five, “The AI Medicine Cabinet,” we hear the touching story of Avery Smith, Founder of Melalogic. Through this episode, we learn that most medical textbooks do not include images of a variety of skin tones, creating difficulties in diagnosing potentially life-threatening conditions. We learn that Avery is working to create a repository of images of skin conditions on Black skin to allow for automated diagnosis for Black patients. We also learn why Avery is so interested in this research — his wife was diagnosed with a serious form of skin cancer. We hear Avery’s story in his own words: “At the time, the general understanding was that, oh, Black people really don’t get melanoma. So that was an untruth. And then going through that process, it was very challenging because a lot of the statistics and protocols and services available and doctors that you interact with and everything made it seem like it was a very novel case, which it was. After the diagnosis, my wife, she passed away 18 months later.” Podcasts are a powerful medium not just for disseminating research, but also for fostering understanding, empathy and meaningful conversation around nuanced subjects. The intimacy of the podcast format and this humanizing of the research allows Mozilla to impress upon the audience the gravity of the research being shared.

Helping Audiences Relate to Research

Mozilla abides by a manifesto of principles that dictate their work and research. “We are committed to an internet that includes all the peoples of the earth — where a person’s demographic characteristics do not determine their online access, opportunities, or quality of experience.” This manifesto acted as a driving force through the production of IRL, influencing decisions about which stories were told and who was being interviewed — creating a pastiche of accents and languages from all over the world. This worldwide perspective would be easy to miss in a written report; but hearing from voices all over the world emphasizes the global nature of Mozilla’s research. This allows listeners from all over the world to see themselves in the research Mozilla does, said Eeva: “We want listeners to recognize something of their own lives and communities in every season.”

Results

With millions of downloads, IRL has certainly reached a large audience. The compelling storytelling, world-class production, and thoughtful guest selection led Season 6 to win five awards. The latest season — Season 7 — has already won three awards, and has recently been announced as an official selection at Tribeca X. And while reaching mass audiences is a huge part of the Mozilla mandate, success also means resonating with people who can turn that research into tangible action. “For us, success means demonstrating alternative ways of building, ways that center people over profit,” said Eeva, “But we also love how much IRL has resonated with policy folks and people who are interested in tech and society in general.” IRL serves as a compelling example of how podcasts can be used to distribute research to broad audiences and drive positive change.

Listen to IRL: Online Life is Real Live Season 7 on all major listening platforms and stay tuned for Season 8 of IRL, coming this Fall.

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