Podcasts: Edutainment or Sensationalist?

Although I’ve explored the podcast universe, I haven’t branched out much beyond my favorite, Stuff You Missed in History Class. The episodes are just about the right length for my work commute and the vast array of historical moments are presented in a very casual (sometimes too casual for my tastes), but educational manner. The biggest benefit for me of podcasts is the ability to learn while doing something not conducive to reading, like for instance driving or trying to fall asleep at night (reading makes me focus too much to settle my mind).

I really enjoyed the selection of podcasts this week, with the diversity of subject matter and even presentation styles. Some did stand out to me as exceptional, not just because of the podcasts themselves but because of their supplemental presentations. Not only does text provide reference material, which adds validity to any statements made, but it also contributes to the overall tone of a podcast. Sometimes—maybe even rarely—when dealing with a moment from the past, hosts can come across as too flippant for a particular subject matter, interjecting a sort of casual awe over murder or tragedies. This especially happens the further away we are in time from the action, as if time erases the awfulness. I’ve often wondered if this is a result of trying to captivate and entertain listeners at the cost of reverence. In some cases, if a podcast comes across to me as a bit heavier on the entertainment than the education, I like to be able to see sources or complementary text to help determine accuracy of statements. In other words, is it more entertainment than edutainment?

“The Alibi” and “Fountain Drinks” were, in my opinion, wonderful examples of thorough, responsible edutainment. “The Alibi,” dealing in a grave matter, kept an appropriately serious tone throughout. Details were presented without much personal conjecture and the supplemental material on the website showed a respect for the subject and provided further reading for audience members to explore.

“Fountain Drinks,” was much more lighthearted in tone, perhaps a little more than I felt comfortable with at times, but that’s just my own weird personal reaction. In fact, with the constant handing off of presenters to each other and the playfulness with which they sometimes spoke, at certain moments it felt more like a morning radio show than an educational podcast. But of course, education does not need to be serious all the time and I appreciated the breadth of subject matter they were able to cover in such a short time. I’m also a bit biased as a Victorian historian, and loved the coverage of Victorian sanitation, including the episode of London’s history known as the Great Stink, which doesn’t get as much attention as it should for as big of an event as it was. What impressed me the most, however, was the supplemental material. From a full blog companion page, including text and images, to the exploration of the song at the end, I was able to both listen to and read about the topic. And I loved that they were able to interweave the historic subject matter with modern times, especially through an introduction to such provocative and progressive music.

I was less personally moved by “Fu-Go” and “Playboy Covers Up,” not because of the subject matter—the former which I found very interesting and the latter more trying to be edgy, but coming across as out of touch—but because of the lack of supplemental material. While “Fu-Go” introduced its “authorities” within the podcast, it provided little supplemental text and a bare minimum of sourcing, and “Playboy” offered even less. Podcasts are great if you have time or the ability to listen, and can even be a helpful way to learn in a multitasking world. But to be edutainment and not just entertainment, some folks like me need a bit of educational backup. “Fu-Go” deals in a rather serious subject matter but, if relying just on the supplemental short text alone, one can only assume that the entire episode is based on two sources, a book and a documentary. Is that enough, especially when making such large claims about something so little known by our culture? It makes the sensational claim that there may still be live explosives scattered around our country–doesn’t that warrant more extensive sourcing or further information?

“Playboy,” on the other hand, probably didn’t need to list any sources, having as guests an editor who regularly deals in the subject matter of sexuality in magazines and Hugh Hefner himself. Also, the piece felt much more entertainment than education, but that’s probably because of the lack of real depth or exploration into anything not generally common knowledge. There didn’t seem much academic to be discussed and, as someone who has studied pornography for decades, I didn’t personally find it very revealing or thoughtful. In fact, the website text felt a bit misleading. The introduction draws us in with the potential of a meaningful discussion with, “Does sex no longer sell?”[1] But the speakers don’t seem to really significantly address this and spend very little, if any, time discussing the booming video porn industry, sexualized advertising, or the increasing number of women empowering themselves through the sex industry as opposed to just being the passive subject of the male gaze. Of course sex sells—and arguably more now than ever—but this podcast isn’t as much about selling sex as it is about one magazine’s historic contribution of selling the idea of the sexually sophisticated—thus powerful—man. While some could argue that this at least touches on the subject of selling sex in that Hugh Hefner was very influential in sexualizing popular culture, it hardly explores the potential we are teased with in dealing with a subject much greater than this one magazine or its creator. To sum it up, this podcast felt like pure and biased entertainment, complete with click bait.

Finally, on to the topic of Twitter’s use by historians. I admit that up until this course, I had little interest in Twitter. Mostly, it’s because I can’t condense my thoughts into 140 characters (obviously), but also I didn’t see what it offered that I couldn’t get from Facebook. After actively using my Twitter account for a couple of months now and following history-based accounts, I do see a valuably unique format. Twitter is a great way to simply share newsworthy items and to make connections with other historians. I like that I can casually associate with professors, digital professionals, and people leading the charge of history and the digital humanities, without the overly personalized clutter of Facebook. Also, it’s a great way to offer your own contributions directly to peers and leaders. Twitter has already kept me more abreast of trends and progress in the fields I’m interested in than I have previously been exposed to. Should historians use Twitter? Only if you care to engage–at least in some way–with some of the most innovative and progressive members of the field…

Laurel Wilson

[1] “Playboy Covers Up,” On the Media podcast, October 16, 2015.

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