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! 

Podcasts: Listen, Create, Engage

By Jennifer Vannette

Podcasts are getting quite a bit of attention lately, but they really aren't new. In 2008, the American Historical Association (AHA)'s blog featured podcasts as an alternative teaching method. The article suggested that podcasts provided a great way to listen to lectures outside of a classroom setting. This is indeed one type of history podcast.

Over the last decade, many more podcasters have offered a whole host of new material. Some are still based on presenting a stand alone lecture while others deeply explore long arcs of historical events, such as The Fall of Rome. Still others explore the quirky side of history by highlighting stories you may not have heard in history classes such as the dark history of Hollywood on You Must Remember This or the travails of the high seas on The History of Pirates. There are so many interesting facets of history that podcasters tackle to the delight of public audiences. Seriously, just google history podcasts and you be offered many different lists of the "best."

Then there are also podcasts that appeal to those of us in the profession. The Organization of American Historians (OAH) has its own podcast to compliment their journal. Each month last year Ed Linenthal, the executive editor of the Journal of American History interviewed a guest about the article he or she had recently contributed to the journal. Another approach by some of our own grad students at CMU (two current and one alum) discusses all the things we talk about with other grad students -- navigating school, teaching, professional networking, and more. I Was Told There'd Be Food is a great introduction to grad school life or a place to go for ideas and commiseration.

History departments are also finding ways to involve faculty and students in creating podcasts. A highly regarded offering that has been active for awhile, 15 Minute History, comes from the University of Texas at Austin faculty and grad students. It is what it sounds like -- brief episodes that cover a wide range of history. The faculty of University of Oxford also have a similar podcasts, and they have some general history and a few more specific podcasts such as Stories, Spaces, and Societies -- Globalising and Localising the Great War. These can be an excellent method of public engagement for faculty and grad students alike. The very specific topics are a great place to engage with the research of your specialization.

There is also the possibility of incorporating podcasts in the classroom. Not only can students gain deeper understanding of material if we assign specific podcast episodes in addition to (or instead of) a reading assignment but we can also consider having students produce a podcast episode as an alternative to a paper or other project. Free recording software is available to download from the internet and then all it takes is a pair of earbuds with built in microphone (standard with most phones now) and our students have what they need.

Podcasts can be listened to while driving, while exercising, or doing chores. When you search for podcasts, you will find wide enough variety to suit all tastes. While we listen, we can brainstorm methods for incorporating as an alternative teaching method. So, go explore the wide world of history podcasts.