Podcasting Local Community Memories: Merits and Limits

By Sean Jacobson

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Hello there! I’m privileged to be a guest contributor to [Re]collection. My name is Sean Jacobson, and I am a second-year PhD student in the Public History and American History joint program at Loyola University Chicago (the home of Sister Jean’s Ramblers for those who followed any March Madness last season). 

My varied research interests include 20th century American history, history of American evangelicalism, public memory, genocide studies, and global humanitarianism. I’ve enjoyed being part of a program that allows me to integrate public history endeavors alongside more conventional (for lack of a better word) academic study of the past. Even in my limited time at Loyola thus far, I’ve been able to work on a wide range of projects from traditional seminar papers to NEH grant writing to historical walking tour proposals and, most recently, podcasts.

The subject of what constitutes “public history” is a discussion in itself, but for my limited purpose in this post, I concern myself with one particular question: How much power and voice can or should historians share with their research subjects and stakeholders?

I tried to explore this through a recent podcast project while in a course on material culture. As someone interested in the intersections of faith, trauma, and memory, I decided to make a podcast about genocide memorials in the Chicago area. Since Chicago is, unsurprisingly, one of the most ethnically diverse cities in the country, I had a plethora of communities available to reach out to.

While I had some academic background with media (I earned a BA in History and Broadcasting at Western Kentucky University), I had never yet attempted to make a podcast. Thus, I had multiple motives with this project. For one, I wanted to get an experience actually making a podcast (forewarning: it’s hard work!). Related to that, I wanted to see what value there might be in conducting community-based research with this methodology. Additionally, the experience forced me to get out of my comfort zone and make cross-cultural networks with different communities (these often started with cold phone calls). Who knows – these connections might serve as building blocks down the road for future research and service work.

I won’t spend time talking about the specifics of my podcast (called Testimony), but I’m attaching an iTunes link here for anyone who is interested in learning about it. Instead, I want to briefly highlight a couple takeaways on the merits and limits of podcasts as a tool for taking your history research into the “public history” realm.

Merits

The most positive outcome is the connections made with living communities. For example, it’s one thing to read about a subject like the Cambodian Genocide; it’s another to actually be immersed a local diaspora community that’s actively trying to make sense of a traumatic past and, as a mediator, give those people a platform to express themselves orally. This was both challenging and rewarding. It was challenging because I sometimes felt like an intrusive outsider trying to reach these communities. It was rewarding, though, because interacting with real people allowed me to see the significance of my research subject matter.

When someone does topical studies or comparative studies, the fostering of interaction between different parties has the potential to create greater solidarity and convey research to a wider audience. Many of the communities with which I interacted for the podcast struggle to find an audience beyond their own ethnic or religious enclave. As such, doing this kind of work may help share their story and needs with a more general public.

Limits

This gets me to limitations of podcasting as “public history.” If I’m trying to share communities’ memory with a wider audience, how much authority is actually shared with those constituents? To take again for example the Cambodian community in greater Chicago, I encountered some linguistic and cultural barriers when recording and editing an episode on their day of remembrance vigil service. Considering the aural nature of a podcast, how appropriate is it for me to interpret/speak for some Cambodian immigrants who might have trouble expressing themselves or their history in English? Does that undermine the purpose of a podcast as a place to give their voice a platform?

Additionally, how critical can/should I be when tackling such a sensitive topic like genocide? On the podcast, I ventured on the safe side of not expressing any overt opinion on these communities’ presentation of their own histories. Is this the right approach to take? I believe historians ought to be as objective as possible but also not hesitate to make moral judgement calls or identify problematic interpretations of history.

As you can see, I don’t have definite answers to my own questions. As frustrating as this can be, I know that I will gain more clarity with the more experience I create. I can certainly see myself continuing future podcasts on other topics related to my research fields. The nice thing about podcasts, compared to videos or online exhibits, is that they are so versatile. People can listen to podcasts with little restriction. It’s an easy, low-risk way for people to learn about new ideas while engaging in a fast-paced world. At the same time, podcasts saturate the market so much that they can be ephemeral. If not repeatedly posting new content and advertising aggressively on social media, podcast episodes can have a short lifespan if few people ever listen to them shortly after their release.

For any readers out there, have any of you tried making a history podcast? What was your experience like? Do you think they qualify as public history? Could making one possibly help you flesh out research ideas?  I’d love to hear any feedback!