Podcasts as Public History

This week’s blog assignment included listening to at least one podcast from BackStory Radio, and one episode from either Journal of American History Podcast, BBC’s In Our Time Podcast, Exploring Environmental History Podcast, or Nature’s Past Podcast. After listening to these, we were instructed to reflect on how history is presented differently through these podcasts versus other forms of media we have explored throughout the semester.

Personally, I love a good podcast. Growing up we always had the small radio in the kitchen tuned to NPR, listened to Car Talk on Saturday morning drives, and, once podcasts came around, I listened to the Leaky Cauldron’s PotterCast at my first job at the public library. As an adult, my car radio rarely leaves NPR and I still love a good podcast binge.

As it happens, in the past few weeks I’ve been on a weekend road trip back to my hometown and have been doing some deep winter cleaning; both perfect opportunities for enjoying a podcast or five.


You might say these podcasts are nearly purrfect. *ducks*


While on the road, I listened to episodes from the JAH podcast, BBC’s Our Time, Exploring Environmental History, and caught up on the latest Digital Campus episodes. Throughout the week I also listened to quite a few different BackStory episodes. These podcasts represent a wide variety of topics, reflective of just as much diversity as any one history department’s list of courses on offer.

Indeed, many have argued that the digital realm provides a better platform for distributing information on subjects, like many of our favorite sub-fields of history, that fall on the long tail. This is an idea we have seen reflected in the readings we’ve done and the projects we have examined over the semester.


An adorable graphic for visualizing the "long tail" potential as it applies to  keyword searches.

An adorable graphic for visualizing the long tail potential as it applies to keyword searches.


The wide reach of the internet makes it possible to engage multiple audiences and share good, trustworthy, informative history on a large variety of topics.

For instance, when considering the podcasts we listened to, it seems there are a number of different target audiences for the different programs.

First, of course there are the likely differences in audience that the topics of each podcast might attract. For example, the few episodes I listened to featured guests and stories that cover American, Egyptian, ancient, modern, environmental, Native American,  economic, and educational histories.

Looking a bit deeper though, there seems to be differences between the podcasts produced primarily for an academic audience or for a wider public audience. Podcasts from the Journal of American History and Exploring Environmental History did feel like they had a more academic bent. These programs were longer form with one topic and one guest. They expect that the listener will remain engaged by a deeper understanding of one particular topic or work.


I will find the time, Sweet Brown. Still, an hour’s worth of information on one topic, with one speaker, can seem more like a lecture or a keynote speech than a podcast.


In contrast, podcasts like BackStory and Our Time follow a more conventional public radio format. Of all the podcasts, BackStory was far and away my favorite, partially because it follows such a familiar structure. This structure consists of several different stories based around a broader topic; reminiscent of popular shows like This American Life, Snap Judgement, and Radio Lab. If the goal is to engage and inform a wider public audience, this format seems to fit the ticket better, in my opinion. The shorter stories allow for a listener to engage for smaller bursts of time; if they don’t find one story as interesting they can simply wait for the next; and, if the show appears on the radio as BackStory does, listeners just tuning can easily enter the program without being lost.

When compared to other forms of digital media we have examined, it seems that the podcasts across these categories are most akin to broad topical blogs. Unlike a digital archive with a wealth of primary materials to dig deeply into or a digital project with an explorable narrative, podcasts offer bite-size jumping off points into history. We’ve also read about the decreased willingness or capability to read long form written narrative; podcasts offer a way to connect with audiences who would be less likely to read long-ish form writing in blogs, articles, or books.

Overall, I think podcasts are yet another great tool in the digital toolbox as it relates to engaging new audiences with historical information. This is especially true with programs like BackStory that appear not only online, as a podcast, but also on the radio.







Reviewing, Digital Style

This week we were given a selection of sites to choose from and instructed to write a review of the one we chose. Our review was supposed to be 500-700 words long and needed to follow the Journal of American History and History Matters guidelines. My submission is below.

The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Daily entries from the 17th century London diary
Phil Gyford 19 September 2014


The content of this site revolves around a decades worth of daily writings from Samuel Pepys, a 17th century civil servant living in London. By presenting each day separately, the user is given a new dynamic way of interacting with a primary source. Over the first decade of the site, users were able to follow Pepys life in the same way they would a popular blogger or friend. Today, the decade long cycle of Pepys writings are once again in rotation, attracting new and old readers alike.

It is important to note that the site was created not by a historian, but rather a technologist. Phil Gyford has created a variety of web projects and has been involved with many organizations throughout his career. He has a Masters degree in the fascinating sounding “Studies of the Future” from the University of Houston. Perhaps Gyford’s basis outside of a traditional historic focus is what allowed him to create a site that is much more than just a digital version of a 17th century man’s diary.


The form of the site is simplistically modern at the moment. Using the Wayback Machine, one can see that over the past eleven years the site has gone through several iterations in form. Throughout the changes, however, simplicity seems to have reigned. The focus is always on the text; other than the addition of a header featuring Pepys’ portrait, the site doesn’t prominently feature any images, either then or now. The main page is composed of the diary entries. Through the menu and through hyperlink-ed text within the diary entries the user can access a variety of other areas of the site that each add a layer of further information.


The intended audience seems to be quite broad. The use seems to be primarily entertainment with a side of education. The primary diary entries remain almost entirely true to the 19th century transcription of Pepys diary, which is available through Project Gutenberg, and could certainly be used for scholarly research.

New Media Aspects

What makes The Diary of Samuel Pepys stand out among digital projects of an historical nature is the level of involvement from users. The simple, yet deep, level of audience engagement is possible through an adept use of new media technology.

First, annotations can be added for each daily diary entry. This allows the readers to discuss the day’s content and create connections between previous entries. New annotations continue to be added daily. Debates over the use of certain words, their historical meanings, and Pepys intentions of use are one example of the rich discussion created in these areas of the site.

The site also features an “Encyclopedia” section that gives relevant information about people, places, and events mentioned in the diary. The Encyclopedia is similarly composed of annotations by users of the site. Each entry has a “References” tab that guides users to the pertinent diary entries. Some of these entries also make use of other digital tools, like maps locating relevant places with historic maps overlaid for a fuller understanding of the surrounding area.

Finally, in terms of audience involvement in the site, longer essays and articles on Pepys and other germane topics. These articles provide a fuller narrative aspect to the site than the diary entries alone. One of these articles, “The Next Chapter of Samuel Pepys” by Jeannine Kerwin indicates the real level of engagement created by the site in its brief description: “Dedicated to Phil Gyford and the community he created: to friends made along the way and to those who have left us.”

Certain days also incorporate information from other sites; for example, weather information, local goings on in a nearby town with a loose connection to Pepys life, or other newsworthy items. These additional snippets of information are included to the right of the pertinent entry. The user can click on each day’s entry, rather than viewing them from the home page, to find this additional information. (Edit: I initially thought this feature was gone. After a comment from the site’s creator, Phil, I realized however that I had simply not clicked through to the specific days, only looked at the post aggregation on the front page or jumped right to the annotations section on each entry. Happily, I stand corrected and this neat feature is still available.)

An early adopter of Twitter, Pepys entered the realm of social media in 2008. Tweeting from @samuelpepys, snippets of Pepys day are shared throughout the day. Undoubtedly the continued maintenance of the site and of Pepys’ social media presence helps the site continue to draw in interested users over a decade after its start.