Podcasts : For the Yuppies

Podcasts are one of the easiest ways to present historiography to the general (middle class) public. Formats can vary from 5 minute factoid snippets, like The Memory Palace, to 30 minutes or an hour of a narrative. Serialized podcasts that requires investment in the entire season can leave you on the edge of your seat. Topics may be addressed at random, or target current events, like the podcast outlining the history of dirty magazines – topical at the time of Playboy’s decision to remove the nudes from publication. While typically interesting, it takes a certain amount of personal investment to engage with podcasts in a useful fashion. This level of investment is neither enjoyable nor practical for the majority of potential users.

Podcasts are widely accessible, so long as you have a desk job where you can put your headphones on, or a smartphone that is smart enough to babble at you through your car stereo on your commute to that desk job, or you have the time to listen while making dinner. I’d be willing to wager that the average American doesn’t even take 30-60 minutes to prepare a meal, these days. A great podcast gets sensationalized, and word of great podcasts that you just HAVE to listen to (Ahem, Serial [Season 1]) will spread like wildfire around the office or spin class or when you’re picking your kids up from daycare. Let’s cut to the chase about history podcasts’ demographic, for starters.Wherever yuppies who gather to chit chat about how they are smarter than one another is where you will hear talk of podcasts, particularly those geared toward science and history. Unfortunately, they are not some great universalizing medium. There are some outstanding podcasts being produced, but what can be done to make them appealing enough that they are more than a convenient alternative to music or silence? Podcasts, although widely accessible (typically free and easy to stream), are not widely accessed. Podcasts fill a specific need: they give you something to actively listen to that is – for me, at least – more mentally engaging than music, but doesn’t require your visual attention. They are for those times when you want something to pay attention to, to gather some factoids, but can’t invest completely. They appeal to the half-hearted free choice learner, and the majority of Americans don’t tune in, with even fewer numbers tuning in regularly. According to a survey by Edison Research, as of 2016 only 21% of Americans over the age of 12 reported that they had listened to a podcast in the last month, and only 36% of those surveyed had ever listened to a podcast at all1. There is no data offered on how many people are tuning into history podcasts, but we’d probably cringe anyway.

These numbers do not represent widespread investment in podcasts. Podcasts may be great, but they take time and mental focus. In a culture that is rapidly shifting toward fast paced digestion of smaller and smaller bits of information, podcasts cannot win. Conversely, everyone has a social media account. It may be more prudent, when considering how to encourage widespread consumption of history and historic knowledge, to focus efforts on spreading information through Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and whatever the other social media outlets are the kids are using these days.

Pam Enlow


1. State of the Media 2016 Podcasting: Fact Sheet by Nancy Vogt

One thought on “Podcasts : For the Yuppies

  1. ofvincenzo says:

    Tell me a Story:

    There are many who believe that history should not be about telling a story. They believe that the narrative form of history has as its prose relative the novel or other forms of “fantasy.” To me, history is about telling a story. Whether the story has as its factual foundation numbers or words or the more likely combination, ultimately history is about story telling – what happened, how it happened, where it happened, to whom it happened and why it happened. The podcast can be a way to experience a piece of a larger story through a potentially captivating method.

    It can be used as an introduction to a larger area of study. As an example, the story of the Japanese balloon bombs opens up the question of what was going on in Japan during WWII. It also introduces the Japanese-American woman and her child and the dreadful, mortal danger they were in due to fear and rage based on prejudice. It calls us to try to better understand the secrecy that abounded during the war and the damage that secrecy caused. Would the story of the family killed by the bomb and of the Japanese-American woman and her son have been different if the Japanese balloon bombs had not been kept secret? We will never know, but we should at least have the opportunity to think about those questions as we explore their larger context.

    As we explore different ways to use media in presenting history, these podcasts presented some worthwhile commonalities that made them an interesting method of presentation. While very diverse in subject matter, the podcasts we listened to for this class had some important common features:

     Music played a small but significant role. While the music was not usually particularly complex it helped highlight aspects of the story or created a mood. That was certainly true in the Series podcast about the murder of the young high school girl and her ex-boyfriend convicted of the crime. The mood of the music changed as aspects of the story moved into its darker areas. Even when music was not about mood, it was used to indicate a change of direction from ad to story or from one part of the story to another. In addition, the Water Fountain story finished with an unforgettable song that was on point since the story took us into the era of segregation, showing us through that picture the very nature of the constant attempt at humiliation that was at the center of American apartiad.
     The picture used to illustrate the era of segregation highlighted another useful aspect of our podcasts. The Water Fountain, the Playboy and the Octothorpe podcasts were mutli-media. Because they are online stories, it is possible to have some text and some great pictures. The Playboy podcast had only the cover of the July 1977 issue, which might have been selected because there was a story about “porn” highlighted on the cover. The podcast was about Playboy deciding to stop using nude photos (they have since decided to go back to using them). However, the art used in both of the 99% Invisible pieces added immeasurably to the story. From the drawings of the opening of the first water fountain to the final picture of the Jim Crow era fountains, the art accompanying that podcast helped animate the words for the listener. The old pictures in Octothorpe did the same. The multi-media techniques make a big difference.
     They all had multiple voices telling the story. Using several voices keeps the listeners attention, removing any possibility of lapsing into monotone. The piece on Series about the murder had the additional advantage of being able to use clips from actual people involved in the case. Having multiple presenters is clearly an important advantage to a podcast.

    Should we decide to use podcasts as a method of telling our historical story, it is very useful to know and understand these elements that enliven the material in the podcasts and hold the listeners interest. It is notable that they were all sponsored podcasts, making it possible for their producers to use sophisticated methods of production. Whether it is possible to access that kind of production capability with limited resources is, for me, an open question for which I will be seeking an answer.

    Thanks go out to Dr. Cummings for introducing #twitterstorian. Pulling up that hashtag led to some interesting additions to my list of historical sites, including one that is on point for my thesis – a twitter account for the history of religious women – @H_WRBI.


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