History on the Download: Podcasting the Past

Sadie Bergen | Feb 29, 2016

The first time Stuff You Missed in History Class topped over 2 million downloads in a month, it was for a two-part segment on Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. These days, the podcast, which is produced by the HowStuffWorks edutainment network, consistently garners over 3 million downloads per month and sits comfortably around number 11 on the iTunes charts. At a time when historians are becoming ever more serious about finding ways to engage with the public, what secret formula are hosts Tracy Wilson and Holly Frey using to keep audience coming back each week for a history lesson?

Gavin Whitner/ via Flickr/CC BY 2.0

The answer is simple: they tell good stories. And history, it turns out, is full of them. Wilson explained via e-mail that their podcast focuses on offering juicy tidbits about “overlooked and underrepresented” people and events in history that would add flair to any dinner party conversation. Not that the show isn’t rigorous—each episode involves between 8 and 20 hours of research, and the bibliographies posted online reveal a healthy balance between primary and secondary sources.

Stuff You Missed in History Class is part of a growing trend—there are over 200 history podcasts now available on the iTunes Store. Although only a few of these are produced by academics, podcasts offer historians a potentially exciting way to bring their work to a general audience, to expand their professional networks, and to develop unique classroom content and exercises. Podcasts are also among the most accessible formats for history learners outside the walls of the university—they are available for free, online and on demand. To discuss how historians can tap into the growing popularity of podcasts, producers from three history podcasts, Backstory with the American History Guys, Who Makes Cents? A History of Capitalism Podcast, and The Urban Historians, joined together in a roundtable, “Podcasting History,” at the 2016 AHA annual meeting.

Podcasts allow historians to bring their work to a general audience, to expand their professional networks, and to develop unique classroom content and exercises.

Of the three, Backstory stands out for both its relative fame and high production value. A program of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Backstory is a nationally syndicated radio show and podcast hosted by historians Ed Ayers (Univ. of Richmond), Brian Balogh (Univ. of Virginia), and Peter Onuf (Univ. of Virginia). Hour-long episodes include historical investigations of topics inspired by current events; recent episodes have covered Islam and the US, Confederate symbols, and a history of American exceptionalism. During the roundtable at the annual meeting, Balogh emphasized that although he and his co-hosts are scholars who try to convey complex analytical concepts in each episode, Backstory’s audience is mostly nonacademic. Knowing their audience, Balogh said, forces them “to look outside of the fishbowl of academia and consider new ways of telling stories.”

Of course, it’s not just the storytelling that makes podcasts like Backstory popular. Podcasts are both intimate and manageable—the hosts speak directly into your ears and you decide when you want to listen in. The ease inherent in listening to a podcast extends to the process of making one. For those willing to make the time commitment, all it takes is a voice, a microphone, and a basic audio-editing program to become a podcast producer. If you aren’t trying to make a profit, you can cultivate a small and loyal following without worrying about reaching the general audience of Backstory and Stuff You Missed.

This is where Who Makes Cents? and The Urban Historians come in. Both are low-budget, minimally produced shows created by professional historians seeking a niche audience. Both podcasts began with a desire to unsettle traditional modes of disseminating new historical scholarship. The Urban Historians’s Andrew Needham (New York Univ.) explained that he and co-host Lily Geismer (Claremont McKenna Coll.) were envious of authors who got to go on radio talk shows and have fun, free-­ranging conversations about their recent work. In comparison, the traditional historian’s “book talk,” in which scholars present their work and answer a few predictable questions, seemed an unnecessarily limiting way to discuss new and exciting scholarship. Needham wanted The Urban Historians to capture the kinds of effortless conversations that happen between historians at conference bars and in informal settings.

Similarly, hosts Betsy Beasley (Yale Univ.) and David Stein (City Univ. of New York) of Who Makes Cents?, which features interviews with authors of recent books related to the history of capitalism, hope to foster more field-widening, interdisciplinary conversations. Stein explained that the podcast offers them a way to fulfill their roles as public intellectuals. As Stein said, they allow scholars to use their “knowledge and skills to serve the public good.”

For early-career historians like Beasley and Stein, podcasting is both a professional and an academic undertaking. Engaging with their colleagues’ work inevitably enhances their own scholarship and widens their professional networks. As Backstory host Peter Onuf wrote in an e-mail, podcasting is “a wonderful antidote to scholarly isolation and self-absorption.” Ayers agreed, writing that working on Backstory while serving as president of the University of Richmond was “was not a competition with scholarship but a connection to it,” because it allowed him to “continue as part of the history community even when I had other pressing obligations.”

Podcasts can also benefit history learners within university walls. All the podcasters on the annual meeting roundtable agreed that producing their own shows had made them better teachers. Balogh explained that, as in teaching, “co-hosting a radio show and podcast requires constant efforts to explain things in relatively simple, straightforward terms, without sacrificing the nuance and complexity that is the stuff of history.” Building on this sentiment, The Urban Historians host Needham said that he had become “better at asking questions and then shutting up” in class, allowing students to talk, rather than continuing to “qualify, qualify, qualify.”

Podcasts can also serve as teaching tools themselves. Roundtable discussants and audience members encouraged using podcasts as resources in and of themselves, as well as turning podcasting production into an assignment that encourages students to experiment beyond the typical confines of a paper or presentation. Needham explained that a podcast like Backstory presents a “perfect example of how to tell stories in relationship to sources, to books,” while also pushing students away from “the totalizing focus on the thesis statement and getting them toward storytelling, which is the most compelling part of what we do.”

Bringing podcasts into the classroom isn’t just a good idea in theory. In 2012, the University of Central Florida’s Robert Cassanello brought podcast production into his Historical Documentary and New Media class. He had some experience with podcasting and thought the form was well suited to a collaborative project that would require his students to engage with public history while also producing something of their own.

Modeling their approach on the BBC Four podcast A History of the World in 100 Objects, Cassanello’s students chose objects from local museums as well as interview recordings, narration, and photographs to create video podcasts for the class, ending up with a 50 episode series, A History of Central Florida. As Cassanello put it, “Once they get their hands dirty in a project, they own it.” Cassanello has drawn interest from other teachers who want to replicate the project, and he and his students are currently developing a model that will be available online for free.

From the story behind Disney’s Haunted Mansion to the history of capitalism, podcasting offers enormous potential to widen the bounds of teaching and learning history, both inside and outside the academy. The podcasters who participated in the roundtable illustrate some winning methods of leveraging this new and accessible format. As they and others like them continue to do good historical work and to lower the bars between academia and the interested public, it is inevitable that others will join in. The age of podcasting has just begun.

Sadie Bergen is editorial assistant in the AHA’s publications department.

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