Podcasts: for the People

While listening to the podcasts for this week, I realized that I would never be able to truly fathom why podcasts, especially the ones devoted to recounting historical narratives, are so popular with people outside of the academic field of history. This is because I am a huge nerd. Of course the history of Japanese balloon bombs is interesting! Of course I would like to learn more about the history of the water fountain! Unfortunately not everyone experiences the same exuberance when reading an article cited in Turabian format. So why are podcasts that incorporate historical narratives so popular among non-historically minded-people?

In order to truly understand how accessible podcasts are, I contacted the one person I know who listens to podcasts regularly and has virtually no background in historical scholarship: my younger brother.

I asked him how many podcasts he listened to that discuss historical content, to which he replied that he did not listen to any. This may seem like a bad start, but I knew that he had previously shared with me podcasts that presented a historical narrative of some sort, so I gave him an example of a podcast we listened to together about the history of the credit card. To this he replied “So anything in the past is history?” At that point, I realized that this very intelligent young man who is currently earning degrees in mathematics and computer science at the University of Georgia did not really understand what constitutes a historical narrative.

I have found that this is a fairly common issue outside of the historical field. As the first episode of Doomed to Repeat suggested, many people’s ideas of history come from their own experience in history classrooms, either at the high school level or college and beyond. When individuals who are not interested explicitly in history complete their formal learning, the historiographical process becomes hidden from view. Through this process, intelligent people who have only been exposed to lower level history classes which utilize very positivist pedagogy, can listen to podcasts with historical content without realizing that they are listening to a historical narrative.

Podcasts, and other forms of digital history, have the unique capability of bringing laymen into the world of historical research in a very informal way. Some podcasts, like 99 Percent Invisible, go into detail on how they select the narratives with which they create episodes. As my brother put it, podcasts also tend to allow “the sources [to] talk too.” By explaining their sources, and sometimes incorporating interviews with sources, podcasts appeal to the constructivist experiences that adults who participate in this type of free choice learning desire. This format incorporates more constructivist pedagogy than traditional history classrooms, which typically incorporate positivist methods in order to establish a base of knowledge.

Podcasts also create a more compelling narrative by including interviews. In RadioLab’s episode “Fu-go,” Cora Conner, born and raised in Bly, Oregon, gave an account of her experiences during and after a Japanese bomb detonated and killed five people. Conner’s job working at the switchboard that day gave her a greater understanding of the events. She related how military officials ordered her to remain silent, she remembered how angry the townspeople were with her for withholding information. The greatest wave of emotion was evident when Conner described the arrival of a Japanese woman and her child, on their way to a nearby internment camp. She recounted the heat of the day, their simple pleas for water, and the violent reactions of the townspeople. Typically, historical scholarship does not include such intentionally emotional material. This portion of the podcast also included an auditory tour of the bombsite, wherein the hosts walked around the area of Bly where the Sunday school class discovered and detonated the bomb. This format, emotion and all, makes the stories podcasts recount more compelling.

The last revelation that came from my conversation with my younger brother was that he enjoyed listening to historical podcasts because “It’s just history that I am more interested in.” As I mentioned earlier, my brother is most interested in mathematics and computer sciences. Much of the history of technology is not included in historical classrooms, specifically because the focus of historical teaching is to provide students with a government approved overview of history. Electronic technologies constitute only a small part of that history, and, as demonstrated by the differences between me and my brother, people who study history are not typically interested in studying technology, and vice versa.

Podcasts can bridge this gap, and provide the history of an object as seemingly mundane as a credit card. Podcasts interest people like my brother, who have little to no interest in studying traditional historical narratives. By appealing to people who do not actively engage in traditional historical scholarship, podcasts, blogs, and other forms of more accessible digital history create a space where laymen can interact with and hopefully understand the historiographical process.


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