Podcasts and public history

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An iPhone with headphones playing the last episode of the NPR “Serial” podcast. Photo credit: Casey Fiesler

The medium of podcasting is two decades old, but this digital form of storytelling still seems full of untapped potential for public history practitioners. Sensing this opportunity, our professional organizations have created spaces for training, critique, and reflection on all things podcast-related. For example, this year’s NCPH conference featured a podcasting workshop run by Your Museum Needs a Podcast author Hannah Hethmon, and an entire section dedicated to podcast reviews was part of the February 2019 issue of The Public Historian. The American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History publication has featured occasional writing about podcasting since 2008, and in 2015, Kate Preissler wrote here on History@Work about what the popularity of Serial might teach us about the podcast as a form of public history. “Thanks to Serial, people are having intelligent, insightful discussions about memory, historical evidence, and interpretational bias,“ she observed. “This is a conversation we should join.” Four years later, we seem to be in the midst of a podcasting boom: a March 2019 headline in New York Magazine declared that “The Great Podcasting Rush Has Only Just Begun.”

“Crimetown” logo. Image credit: Jim McGrath

Podcasts present particular challenges and opportunities for public history practitioners. At Brown’s Center for Public Humanities, I’ve worked in and around podcasts in a few different ways: as co-creator and co-producer (with Amelia Golcheski) of the Public Work podcast, as an instructor encouraging students to create location-based audio storytelling, as a consultant on podcasting in pedagogical contexts elsewhere on campus, and as a collaborator with community partners who are looking for new forms of digital storytelling. A part of recent Providence history was the subject of season one of the popular podcast Crimetown, and while cultural practitioners here in the area have had decidedly mixed reactions to the show’s depiction of the city through the lens of true crime, the story’s popularity has led many of us to think about where podcasts might intersect with our interests in engaging particular audiences.

This post is a reflection on my ongoing experiences with podcasts as a listener, creator, and collaborator. It focuses less on the technical dimensions of podcasting (that will be covered in more detail in a later post reflecting on Public Work) and more on the potential I see in podcasting as a particular form of digital storytelling, a form that is legible and engaging to many of the audiences with which we hope to connect in our ongoing work.

Podcasts and Primary Sources: One of the more interesting dimensions of Crimetown‘s first season was its collaboration with the Providence Journal and its use of the newspaper’s archive. Anecdotally, we’ve found that podcast listeners have searched the web for further historical readings about Providence. One of the more heavily-trafficked web pages on Rhode Tour, a collaborative digital project on state histories that the Center for Public Humanities supports, is a page on the Coin-o-Matic, a hub for organized crime activity discussed in Crimetown. Podcasts present new opportunities for public historians to tell stories about cultural objects and their value, and in some contexts these audio narratives can be invitations for listeners to visit physical archives or exhibitions. While some of us may value podcasts that are conversational or even improvisational, there are citational possibilities here as well: opportunities to call attention to particular language and developing perspectives, occasions to bring multiple objects and documents into conversation with one another, and space to reimagine research recorded in metadata and exhibit labels as new audio narratives.

“Transit and Place.” Image credit: Jim McGrath

Podcasts and Place: I try to encourage students and community partners to think about podcasts as a form of augmented reality. Many of us listen to podcasts as we commute to work or run errands. What if more of us in public history saw these listening habits as an opportunity to tell stories about space as it changes over time, to call attention to landmarks or objects we might otherwise quickly pass by, and to invite listeners to think about how our uses of space and ideas of place have been and continue to be mediated by a range of historical and cultural forces? In my most recent “Digital Storytelling” course, a team of undergraduate and graduate students (Chandra Dickey, Nina Goetzen, Aly Myers, and Meera White) created a podcast called Transit and Place: Providence in Motion. Timed to run as long as an average Providence bus ride (and framed by the sounds of a commuter getting on and off the bus!), Transit and Place invites the listener to hear the history of Rhode Island public transportation, the sounds of the Kennedy Plaza bus terminal, and the poets behind a recent “Poetry in Motion” arts initiative.

Podcasts and Polyvocality: Not all podcasts need to be monologues or one-on-one interviews! Public history’s investments in collaboration, dialogue, and diversity (among other areas) can and should inform the work of making podcasts. This can be difficult and time-consuming work. It can take a while to become comfortable having conversations in public, to create a comfortable structure and rhythm, to stay on topic, and to edit with an ear attuned to amplifying key talking points. There’s also the work of scheduling, and of researching technology needs that might encourage voices to join your podcast from remote locations. When relevant, public historians should draw on experiences from conference panels, classroom discussions, and other moments when we’ve had to perform for audiences and balance listening and conversational skills. We should also listen to podcasts that might serve as models: for example, Johanna Obenda, a graduate student in “Digital Storytelling” last semester, introduced me to Code Switch, a race and culture podcast that deftly balances the voices of hosts, reporters, and interview subjects in a mixture of conversational and scripted content. Code Switch also calls attention to the polyvocality of its audience: in an episode on the “Explanatory Comma,” Shereen Marisol Muraji and Gene Demby talked with comedian Hari Kondabolu about how they introduce and contextualize cultural references and the ways that white listeners have asserted their presence at times by requesting that the hosts provide additional information.

Podcasts as Prototypes: If you decide to delve into podcasting, you’re not signing your life away to years of recording and editing. In fact, I’d strongly recommend that public historians new to podcasts think about a limited series approach for their first project. Consider developing a short-form set of episodes around a particular topic that you’d like to dig deeper into, or a subject that you’ve already done work on elsewhere that might lend itself to new possibilities via audio storytelling. Set up some metrics for success and further evaluation, and give yourself time at various points before, during, and after the process to discuss these goals and concerns with your collaborators. Don’t be afraid to revise and refocus; you might find, for instance, that some elements sound better scripted, or that your first episode is twice as long as you expected it to be, or that you haven’t quite figured out what a podcasting approach can do that’s different compared to your other chosen forms of storytelling in public history, or that the technical needs of this project require time you don’t have right now. Cultivating an attentiveness to what is and is not working is a key part of the podcasting process. If you view this project as a prototype (albeit a public-facing one, depending on whether you like what you hear), you can create conditions that encourage creativity, acknowledge your newness to this particular form of storytelling, and make room for mistakes.

~ Jim McGrath is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Public Humanities at Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage. He is the co-creator (with Amelia Golcheski) of Public Worka public humanities podcast. In addition to podcasting and digital public humanities, Jim is interested in digital pedagogy, speculative and creative uses of digital archival materials, data literacy, and digital storytelling. Jim is on Twitter @JimMc_Grath.

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