Podcasting and Digital Humanities

In my opinion, history is well-suited to the audio format. As Liz Covart stated in her 2019 AHR Interview episode, “humans are hardwired to receive information via oral storytelling.” This means that any attempts to do history via podcasting should lean hard into storytelling techniques and audience engagement. Podcasts like NPR’s Throughline, Omohundro’s Ben Franklin’s World, and Consolation Prize from the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media are thoroughly produced and utilize atmospherics like music, voice over actors, and interviews with guests to create an immersive narrative.

However, these elements are not necessary for all storytelling projects. Storytelling occurs naturally in our day-to-day lives in conversations with friends, family, and colleagues. I’m not sure about your conversations, but in mine, no editor is present to remove my awkward pauses or pipe in dramatic music. Podcasts like Dig: A History Podcast and the Waco History Podcast follow a conversational model, with minimal additional elements to enhance the story. Personally, I find podcasts that follow this model to be the most intriguing. It’s easy to be drawn in by “flashy” production techniques, but listening to a podcast with bare-bones editing can require an individual to listen actively instead of passively. This active listening can inherently increase the level of investment and engagement on behalf of the listener.

That being said, I’d love to see a highly edited history podcast about the eugenics movement in the United States. Books by Paul A. Lombardo, Adam Cohen, and the Buck v. Bell Supreme Court case could be used as inspiration for the podcast. The breadth of the project could be wide-ranging. Topics could explore Margaret Sanger, Nazism, genetic counseling, genome editing in human embryos, disability rights and the history of individuals with disabilities, miscegenation laws, and modern examples of coerced sterilization. A quick search reveals that a number of individual podcast episodes have already been released on the subject (Dig has 4 episodes that fall under their “eugenics” tag), but I am not aware of any shows that exist and are entirely dedicated to the topic. I think a topic of this nature would benefit from high-production efforts and increase the accessibility of the product, therefore increasing the potential audience base.

Regardless of the format and editing, doing history via podcast can have its challenges. So much of history is visual – photographs, letters, government documents. All of this is left out in an audio communication. The issue of how to credit sources referenced in the production of a podcast episode also needs to be resolved. Websites and show notes can be viable solutions for both of these challenges – encouraging listeners to visit a website for more information or to view images related to the episode – but this requires individuals to go beyond the original platform. Many people who listen to podcasts do so while multi-tasking: driving, performing chores, or exercising. I wonder how many listeners would actually follow through on these prompts from a host.

Take for example, the eugenics movement mentioned above. A podcast episode centered on Buck v. Bell could describe the tests that were performed on Vivian Buck that resulted in her being declared mentally deficient, then encourage listeners to visit Paul A. Lombardo’s website to view an accompanying photo. But if the listener is in the middle of a long run or about to walk into work, will they stop what they’re doing and look up the photo? Will the task be added to their to-do list? Will they ever actually engage the source? Regardless of the answers to these questions, the potential of podcasting is too rich to pass up. Podcasts allow listeners to access history on their own terms and on their own time – even if it means squeezing an episode in while tidying up the house.

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