The Ideas Roadshow Story

Howard Burton describes how he started Ideas Roadshow in 2012 with the goal of using modern technology to provide a revealing window on the fascinating world of research that non-specialists typically have no access to.

My first-hand experience as the director of a physics institute convinced me that the standard stereotype of academics as wilfully isolated scholars unable and unwilling to effectively communicate with the broader public is simply untrue. The problem, I was convinced, was simply a lack of opportunity: other than the occasional media request to distill their life’s work into a 15-second sound bite, most had little to no occasion to genuinely communicate their ideas at all, and certainly not in an engaging and genuinely accessible way. 

Moreover, much of this space was filled with “professional communicators”, so that the lion’s share of those who were primarily focused on actually doing research were not, by and large, the ones that the public had the chance to encounter. But it occurred to me that the rapid advances of digital media, enabling a wealth of high-quality audio, video and print products to be created at relatively low cost, was a potential game changer. Armed with a few HD cameras, lav mics and professional editing software, I could spend a few hours with leading scholars and capture their uniquely personal perspectives in a way that simply hadn’t been done before. 

So that’s what I did. After a short time, my initial intuition was amply verified, as I had the good fortune to participate in a wide array of highly illuminating conversations that combined captivating research insights with uniquely revealing aspects of research culture.

The next step was to find a way to package the content appropriately.  We began to create videos of varying lengths and styles: 3–5 minute clips on a specific topic, medium-length, documentary-style “compilation videos” featuring different expert perspectives on a particular theme and long-format videos of the entire conversation.  

We curated all video content in three different video databases for academic, public library and high school audiences, an accomplishment for which we won the International Excellence Award at the 2018 London Book Fair.  That same year we developed a fourth educational database specifically oriented to the International Baccalaureate’s Diploma Programme – Ideas Roadshow’s IBDP Portal – that received the 2021 BETT Highly Commended International Digital Educational Resource Award. Aside from our award-winning databases, many of our videos are also available to academic, high school and public library patrons through Kanopy and Odilo, and to individual consumers through Vimeo On Demand.

Meanwhile, sparked by a strong review in The Economist’s business travel blog, Ideas Roadshow has long been established as a major force of “edutainment” in the world of in-flight entertainment (IFE), with our content featured on British Airways, Emirates, Virgin Australia, Alaska Airlines, Delta, Garuda Indonesia, Cathay Pacific and many more.

Often academics, they seem to enjoy the talks as much as Mr Burton: indeed both sides evince an enthusiasm for the subject under discussion that the watcher can’t help but warm to.

After having received many requests to also offer our core conversational content in book form, we elected to create 120 separate books for each of our first 100 conversations—one for each conversation and 20 collections of five conversations each.  Each book contains an introduction to set up the main issues under discussion and is broken into chapters, with questions for discussion at the end of each chapter. 

Ideas Roadshow continues to evolve. In the summer of 2021, in the midst of the seemingly never-ending coronavirus pandemic, we decided that all conversations would henceforth move to a podcast format in collaboration with the New Books Network.  All previous discussions have been reformatted as freely available podcasts, while a new remotely-recorded discussion is released every Wednesday on the Ideas Roadshow Podcast.

Nowadays, though, most of my efforts are directed towards making feature-length, ideas-driven films that we call “explorations”, building on the experience gained from producing over 1,000 Ideas Roadshow videos. But whatever the size or shape of the final product and whatever the media—video, print, podcast or film—the basic premise of Ideas Roadshow remains the same: harness the benefits of technology to present a wide variety of expert perspectives in uniquely engaging and entertaining ways.