By Stuart Wilks-Heeg, Reader in Politics, University of Liverpool
Just over a year ago, an abrupt and radical transformation began in how universities deliver education. Covid was, of course, the catalyst. Staff and students alike were forced to adapt to online teaching and learning. Some adapted better than others. There was, and still is, a great deal of innovation, but also much desperation.
This is the story of one of the innovations this sudden ‘pivot’ to online learning gave rise to. Unusually, it was a learning innovation entirely conceived, initiated, and developed by three undergraduate students.
Presented by Juliana Christianson, Chris Flavell and Charlie Millward, The Isolation Podcast first aired on 23 March 2020, shortly before Boris Johnson’s initial ‘stay at home’ order that evening. The podcast was a spin-off from my third year undergraduate module in political broadcasting, which produces The Politics Hour.
Earlier that day, I had caught up with all the students on the module via Zoom. It was the first time we’d been able to meet since they had, mostly, headed back to their parents’ homes. I’d said that we could try to continue broadcasting remotely, but it would be challenging without access to the campus radio studio. Besides, most students had already produced enough content for the module through their weekly shows they had broadcast from early October to mid-March.
But, ever the optimist, I floated the idea of maybe attempting a podcast or two. After all, Covid clearly represented an enormous political challenge, meaning that there would be a great deal to unpack. I wasn’t really expecting an enthusiastic response to this idea. But then I hadn’t counted on Juliana, Chris and Charlie. They didn’t want to make a podcast or two. They had other ideas entirely.
From 23 March to 5 June 2020, the trio released 35 episodes of what came to be known as the Isolation Podcast. The vast majority of these episodes were produced daily between late March and late April. The podcasts covered the unfolding politics of Covid and the impact of the pandemic on schools, universities, broadcasting, the local press, live music, premier league football, charities, the hospitality sector and more.
Guests on the podcast included: Alistair Campbell, Downing Street Director of Communications and Strategy under Tony Blair; Claire Hamilton, BBC Political Reporter for Merseyside; Arif Ansari, Head of News at the BBC Asia Network; Liam Thorp, Political Editor of the Liverpool Echo; Tom Heaton, the Aston Villa goalkeeper; Michelle Langan, founder of the Paper Cup Project; Frank Cottrell-Boyce, novelist and screenwriter; and Ian Byrne, Labour MP for Liverpool West Derby.
A year on from the launch of the Isolation Podcast, I brought Juliana, Chris and Charlie back together on Zoom to reflect on the experience. In a special episode of the Politics Hour, they detail the origins of the podcast, their motivations in starting it, how it evolved and what they took from the experience. Highlights from the podcasts underline how ambitious the enterprise was and the quality of the output that was produced.
The value of the podcast in sustaining the three of them through lockdown is apparent. Covid robbed an entire cohort of undergraduates of the usual stress, camaraderie, anxiety, thrill and euphoria of their final three months at university. But Juliana, Chris and Charlie found a way to reproduce that emotional rollercoaster via the internet while dispersed across Liverpool, Chester and North Wales during lockdown.
We also learn how Juliana’s A-level Politics teacher challenging her to get a high-profile political figure to speak at her school resulted in Aston Villa fan, Charlie, receiving a 21st birthday video message during lockdown from Villa goalkeeper, Tom Heaton. In a phrase beloved by football manages, sometimes you make your own luck.
I first created the Politics Hour with a different group of undergraduate students in 2016. The idea was to try to grapple with the unpredictable and volatile nature of political developments in a way that conventional approaches to university teaching and assessment can struggle to deal with.
I had obviously never imagined that, in 2020, it would spawn a student-led podcast responding on a daily basis to the politics of a global pandemic. I’m grateful to Juliana, Chris and Charlie, as well as to all the guests who appeared in the episodes of the Politics Hour Isolation Podcast for reassuring me that I was onto something.