From the Technology column of the May 2008 issue of Perspectives on History
Podcasting and the Profession
Krista Sigler, May 2008
As symbolized by the AHA's own web site, historians have made admirable advances in utilizing computer and networking technologies. In one area, however, they are falling far short of technology's potential. It is time for historians to capitalize on the power of podcasts.
A "podcast" is an audio file distributed over the Internet, either as a single release or as a regularly updated subscription.1 For those new to podcasts, the simplest comparison is to an old-fashioned radio show, albeit one with the attractive potential to be played whenever one likes. This is the great convenience of the podcast: It can be played at any time, anywhere, with a DVD-like capacity to quickly replay or fast-forward. Although the name itself is a portmanteau of the words "iPod" (for the most famous electronic audio, aka MP3, player) and "broadcast," one does not even need an MP3 player to play a podcast, just a computer.
Historians have come nowhere near accessing the full power of this technology. It is true that some adventurous historians have experimented with podcasting, but their efforts have been aimed mainly at transmitting lecture information to the broader public. The AHA's own blog (AHA Today, at blog.historians.org) recounts the encouraging story of how one instructor, Lars Brownworth of Stonybrook School, composes podcasts for mass distribution at the leading online music store, Apple's iTunes.2 And the "Making History" podcast (http://makinghistorypodcast.com) has featured several prominent historians, including Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, the president-elect of the AHA. A visit to iTunes (www.itunes.com) and its academic side, iTunes University, confirms that many professors, across many disciplines, have used the ability to distribute audio online as a means to share course content with a larger audience.3
But taping one's lectures is just the tip of the potential offered by podcasting. What other professions have noticed, but historians have yet to seize upon, is the way in which this technology, podcasting, and its popularity could be used to help the profession from within. Let us look at a few examples:
Special lectures and conference papers: There are already a few speeches on iTunes University. This would simply require a microphone—preferably a lapel mic on the speaker, but any good microphone will work; most universities have the electronic media technology to do this easily. What is the significance here? Imagine if we could sustain a conference topic beyond just the two days of the conference itself, by sharing the speeches with a larger community of historians beyond those present, and encouraging everyone in the field to contemplate the issues and questions raised, perhaps with a web site message board where listeners might post comments after the release of the podcast. Imagine if we could get students unwilling or unable to attend a conference to tune in to us in their free time, and perhaps give them a taste of our lives behind the lectern. Podcasts of conference speeches could widen the reach of a given assembly and help, to a degree, equalize the experiences of scholars who can afford to attend a variety of conferences and scholars who cannot.
A lone commentator: We already have a sprinkling of these, in the form of lectures, available on iTunes U. What about doing these as a series of book reviews, or even individual papers? Podcasting papers could help historians develop working drafts of papers.
The talk show model: This is where the historical profession has not made a dent in podcasting. We have very few podcasts that take advantage of this form.4 What is that potential? Consider what other, non-history, podcasts do with it: EconTalk, hosted by Duke University, is a weekly discussion involving a host and rotating list of guests. National Public Radio frequently uploads its interviews as podcasts and has several weekly episodes dedicated to roundtable book discussion. Many podcasts, across fields, use this model. MacBreak Weekly, a technology podcast, goes from the week in technology news to software picks of the week, with commentary on each choice.
In terms of applying this model to history, what about a monthly podcast with a fixed host and rotating guests, a podcast that featured news in the profession, commentary on that news, then discussion of a specific theme, followed by book or article recommendations? Imagine being able to go for a jog, or drive to work, and listen in as historians from different fields share thoughts on books, trade insight on the profession and the lives of academics, and expand the world of the profession beyond papers, conferences, and lectures—to see the AHR's forums come to life in one's ears.
Audio podcasting requires only a microphone, a computer, a fast Internet connection (home broadband or the T1, T2, and T3 connections of university internet feeds), and a quiet environment. In addition, podcasting requires a program in which to record the audio. There are a variety of programs that fit this need (the free program Audacity for both Macs and PCs, available at download.com, or Garageband, pre-installed on most new Macs today, and so on). In all cases, the basic model of podcast creation works like this:
- The creator records him or herself speaking for an extended amount of time. While the variety of programs for use make step-by-step directions difficult here, most are no more challenging than hitting the universal "record" button on an interface and a "stop" when done. Note: This is the most simple kind of podcast. To do a true talk-show-style podcast, combining different voices speaking together, there are a few different options. In that case, the creator and guests meet on Skype (a free internet calling service, available at skype.com) and the creator's computer simply records the conference call they make. To do this in an even simpler fashion, one can use the services of TalkShoe.com to gather together your guests and record your commentary.
- After recording the raw podcast, the creator may then choose to edit the podcast as necessary, editing musical elements and deleting the inevitable "ahhhh…ummmmms." While such features are present on the most highly edited podcasts, such a degree of editing is not necessary for a compelling podcast, as such speech flaws convey the sense of live conversation.
- In the penultimate step, the podcast creator uploads the file to her or his internet server space. In an ideal situation (in a university or similar institution), one would utilize the Web presence of the university to host the podcast, a feat departments like IT, electronic media, or networking would gladly help to accomplish. If the podcast creator lacks such automatic internet space, there are a number of free sites that will host homeless podcasts (including Archive.org).
- Finally, the podcast creator links the new audio content with a podcast directory, from which subscribers can receive the podcast and be notified if subsequent podcasts are released. The creator must go to iTunes (the major depository of podcasts, including iTunes University's educational material) or another major depository (such as podcastalley.com) and follow their site-specific instructions for submitting the link to a podcast.
The Way (Fast)Forward
Podcasting may sound intimidating. In reality, it is no more difficult than using a cassette player to tape oneself speaking or making a PowerPoint presentation. And there is no lack of support for a podcasting initiative: at every university I have visited in the last year, there has been an electronic media/IT department that was wildly enthusiastic about getting the academic community into podcasting. These departments ran free classes on podcasting, offered to set up live taping for lectures/conferences, and volunteered their own electronic media studios for use in creating an ideal area for creating a podcast.
Podcasts, as part of the audio drift in our culture, could be a great resource for historians. To this point, used just by a few professors for the taping of class lectures, it has been severely underutilized. I urge all of my colleagues to consider the uses of this wonderful technology for communicating with other scholars and the broader public alike, and to make a real presence for history in this young arena within the digital frontier.
For more information on podcasting, I invite you to consult these sites:
—Krista Sigler is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Cincinnati. She can be reached at email@example.com.
1. Podcasts, originally called "audio blogs," appeared in the early 2000s as audio-only files. Podcasts now include video podcasts, sometimes called vidcasts, as well as the traditional audio podcasts. For file size and quality control, however, audio podcasts are vastly more popular than video podcasts.
2. See Elisabeth Grant's post, "History Teacher Creates Popular Podcasts" (AHA Today, February 5, 2007) at http://blog.historians.org/resources/130/history-teacher-creates-popular-podcasts.
4. See Exploring Environmental History as an option, at www.eh-resources.org; this international podcast has rotating speakers and emphases on environmental history across the world. The Organization of American Historians did sponsor Talking History, a roundtable podcast devoted to specific themes in American history, but that was discontinued as of 2006. Since late 2007, newer podcasts relevant to history included "New Books in History" (www.newbooksinhistory.com), featuring a single interview of an author per week, and History @ 33 1/3 (www.history3313.com), a self-described "webmagazine" dedicated to discussion of smaller titles.