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Podcasts and History: A modern love story

Ah, podcasts. One of my favorite pastimes. I’m excited to bring my love of podcasts to you all today and perhaps I can convince you to listen to a few of my personal favorites…

To begin, I think one of the most important takeaways from our readings stems from Kelly’s Teaching History in the Digital Age, “Conclusion,” in which he explains the importance of audience and the natural audience that history has. People (not just academics and history majors) are fascinated with the subject, most individuals are naturally intrigued by some sort of history, whether it’s the local history of the place we live, our genealogies, military history, the history of women, etc. There seems to be a niche history, a place in the long tail, for everyone. By understanding this natural audience, historians can utilize this to create podcasts as a way to expand their audience outside both the classroom and the discipline, and bring these amazing stories that we work so hard to tell to life.

Kelly also highlights a point that I think is critical for understanding why podcasts can be a terrific tool to bring history to the masses. He talks about how the “tools for maintaining online content have gotten easier and easier to use.” Creating podcasts can be done by virtually anyone with access to a microphone, digital recorder, mixer, and platform for publishing. While quality equipment can become pricey, for an individual just dipping their toes in the podcast pool, podcasts are a relatively easy and cheap way to get started producing information. According to Entrepreneur, the top ten items a new “podcaster “will need include a microphone, headphone, pop filter, a boom, a Skype account, recording and editing software, ID3 editor, hosting account, design software and a vanity URL. Some of these items are not necessary for beginning the podcast, but will help you grow it if you are serious about the podcast. As the digital world continues to blaze forward, I can imagine that equipment for podcasts and the tools for podcast success will continue to become easier to use and cheaper to purchase. For anyone interested in how to start a podcast, a good online tutorial step-by-step guide is linked here.

Through a better understanding of the natural audience, decreasing equipment costs/increasing digital information about podcasting, and the freedom of creativity, we can now compare some of the key differences (and similarities!) between how podcasts communicate historical information compared to other media (videos, websites, online books, etc.):

  1. Genres and communities: Audience, audience, audience. Audience is a KEY term in the historical discipline. Everything we do, we do with an audience in mind. Write a book? Who is the audience? Submit to an academic journal? You better be writing for that specific audience. Teaching a lecture? You have a clear audience (although they may not be paying attention). Historians love an audience, no matter how big or small, how popular or niche. So while the audience is a key factor for the production of historical information in podcasts, the audience differs in the podcasting world. In the world of podcasts, the genre becomes one of the most important parts of the construction of the project. Podcasts have to be relatable enough that they can capture a wide audience, but niche enough so that they are competitive in their “podcast market.” For example, the creators of Backstory market their podcast as a “contemporary” podcast about events that people are talking about, but then spin it to analyze the event through a historical lens, thus blending their historical and modern day audiences. I feel as if podcast creators have more of a challenge creating and engaging their initial audience, because they want to be broad enough to draw in listeners from all backgrounds, but stay true to their roots of the stories they want to tell.
  2. Familiarity: Podcasts are intimate. When I listen to podcasts, I feel as if I’m with friends. One of my favorite morning rituals is my commute to work/school, in which I have a cup of hot coffee and I plug in my phone to my car stereo, pick my podcast for the morning (I have corresponding podcasts for each day, so Monday = my home improvement, DIY day) and head off to work. And it feels as if I’ve just sat down for coffee with my friends, especially with the podcasts that I have been following for years. This kind of familial, chatting over coffee feeling is eons different than how I felt sitting through undergraduate lectures. Podcasts are intimate, friendly, and good podcasts make you feel welcome into the conversation, even if you’re just listening. The only other historical medium that may be able to achieve this level of familiarity could be a weekly blog or discussion forum, or perhaps a YouTube channel. While historians may garner a following for their books or publications, podcasts provide a weekly engagement between the producer and consumer.
  3. Production and management: Unlike a traditional book or academic journal, podcasts can be produced quickly and efficiently. There’s no waiting for a double blind peer review and or a production backlog, instead, every Monday at 10:00 am your podcasts can appear in your listeners queue, ready to rumble. Podcasts are also easier for the listener to manage. A listener can start and stop a podcast at any time, listen almost anywhere at any time, and take them with them comfortably in their pockets. Podcasts live in the listener’s phone, so rather than lug around a hardback book or slim electronic reading device, podcasts become just another function on the phone, as easy to access as opening a text message or calling your mom. Another important difference to note between other mediums (specifically books or articles) and podcasts is the idea of competition. Historians are trained to respond to an existing argument, either expanding on that idea or rejecting it, and then present their findings in response to the argument in some written form (a master’s thesis, manuscript, journal article, blog response, and for the most *~hip~* a twitter thread). Podcasts typically don’t engage with the discipline in that way, rather, they tell the stories they want to tell and highlight history that the masses enjoy, in quick and efficient 30 minute to 1 hour recordings. And the producers worry less about who is going to listen to that podcast and argue against them, and worry more about next week’s upcoming episode. Podcasts provide an avenue (dare I say it) of fun for historians. On this medium, we can present our work the way we want to present it, and tell the story that captivated us in the first place.
  4. How you listen: Podcasts differ from how traditional historians communicate information because they bring history outside the academic institutions and they “are available for free, online, and on demand.” The person interested in learning about, let’s say women in history, doesn’t need to buy 50 different historical biographies on women they are interested in learning about. Instead, they can go visit “The History Chicks” podcast and learn about the history of women’s lives, including Jackie Kennedy, Coco Chanel, Pocahontas, Sojourner Truth, Emily Post, Annie Oakley, and a 100 more. At the same time, the History Chicks provide historical facts on life happening at the same time as these women. In just two hours, the listener has now heard the entire life story of Georgia O’Keeffe, and in the meantime maybe they drove to work and back, went for a run at the gym, or listened while cleaning their home. Podcasts give the individual the freedom to learn while also doing other tasks, and this freedom makes them different from books, websites or lectures on history. Personally, I love to listen to podcasts during car trips or while at the gym.
  5. Storytelling: Podcasts work because they tell stories, and they tell really good ones. It typically doesn’t matter the genre, all podcasts begin with a storyteller and a captivated audience. And perhaps some of the best podcasts are produced by historians, because we are trained to be really good storytellers, and that is something we genuinely like doing. Podcasts become the channel for historians to really tell these stories and be solid storytellers, and I think this is a tool that could be utilized by more academic classrooms to learn how to teach storytelling. Delivering a podcast to an engaged audience is much different than writing a masters thesis for your advisory committee. If you think about it, try turning your thesis or dissertation into an engaging conversation (where you may be the only person talking). It changes the way historians interact with their audience and the way they think about delivering history to the masses. It also sharpens our ability to tell stories in a captivating way, a useful tool for any academic historian.

Some of my personal favorite podcasts include:

  1. Household Name by Business Insider
  2. Gladiator by Wondery and the Boston Globe
  3. More Perfect by Radiolab
  4. Serial by This American Life
  5. Bear Brook by New Hampshire Public Radio
  6. Pod Save America by Crooked Media
  7. Young House Love has a Podcast by Sherry and John Petersik
  8. Ear Hustle by Ear Hustle and Radiotopia
  9. Terrible, Thanks for Asking by American Public Media
  10. Slow Burn by Slate
  11. Death in Ice Valley by BBC World Service
  12. Up and Vanished by Tenderfoot TV
  13. Embedded by National Public Radio
  14. S-Town by Serial and This American Life
  15. In the Dark by American Public Media Reports



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