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.