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.