AHA Activities

Call Me a Podcaster, If You Must

Producing the American Historical Review’s History in Focus

Daniel J. Story | May 16, 2024

If you’ve paid attention to podcasting in recent times, not just as a listener but as an observer of culture, you may have noticed a shift over the past few years. Even as overall listener numbers continue to climb, excitement over this still-newish medium has morphed. Series like Only Murders in the Building and the recent reboot of Sex and the City both offer satirical portrayals of the idea that everyone has a podcast now. They also channel the boom and at least partial bust of the corporate “podcast gold rush,” as Rebecca Sananès terms it in a 2023 Vanity Fair article. Podcasting, Sananès suggests, is no longer cool. The term itself can seem almost pejorative in certain contexts. But maybe that’s a good thing. “I used to have a lot more fun making audio before anybody cared,” she writes.

A old-style chrome microphone reflecting a rainbow of light colors.

Maybe podcasting isn’t what it used to be, but it still has a great deal of potential for historical storytelling. Israel Palacio/Unsplash

I can relate. I may not have been at it for nearly as long, but I, too, sometimes feel distracted by the cultural and professional baggage around podcasts and podcasting that can sometimes cast the work as unserious or merely a fad. Call me a podcaster, if you must, but for me there are deeper resonances that make this form of doing history unique and compelling.

When I’m tempted to squirm at the label “podcaster,” I find it can help to shift my attention to the great work that inspires me, whether among my fellow history podcasters or from out in the wider world of audio storytelling. And with that I can refocus—on my own experience with audio, on the fundamental reasons why I am drawn to this medium, and on what I aspire to create going forward. That is what I reflect on here, primarily through the lens of my work on History in Focus—the official podcast of the American Historical Review (AHR) and my current outlet for audio creativity.

I stumbled into podcasting almost by accident. I was a grad student at Indiana University Bloomington and working as an AHR editorial assistant when then editor Alex Lichtenstein decided that it was time for AHR to launch a podcast. Since I had a bit of experience with audio editing, I volunteered to help out. In 2017, we launched AHR Interview, and gradually this work opened my eyes to the power of audio.

This work opened my eyes to the power of audio.

When I began my job search for digital humanities positions, my podcasting experience turned out to be a big asset. In my current role at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where I am a digital scholarship librarian at the University Library Center for Digital Scholarship, I both support podcasting on my campus and produce projects myself. One of my first big endeavors was a 10-episode documentary podcast called Stories from the Epicenter, which explored the experience and lasting effects of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake on Santa Cruz County, the location of the quake’s epicenter. That project was challenging but represented a giant leap forward for me in terms of interviewing and editing. I could see more and more how audio could present intricate, complex histories in ways that could be compelling for many kinds of audiences, both inside and outside the academy.

As AHR editor Mark Philip Bradley took the reins in 2021 and began introducing exciting changes, it quickly became clear to both of us that a reimagined podcast could be an important avenue for the journal’s expanding scope, by opening up AHR content for listeners in new ways. AHR Interview already had a behind-the-scenes element to it, but with the new podcast—which we called History in Focus—we wanted to push this further with more immersive storytelling and engagement with the wider array of material that the AHR was beginning to publish. We wanted to up the production quality too. But above all, we wanted to be experimental and try new approaches in hopes of evolving toward something that would be interesting and useful for a wide range of listeners, not just academics.

The pilot episode of History in Focus, “Follow Your Nose,” which focused on the historical smells research group Odeuropa, is a good example of this new approach. I interviewed multiple researchers from the group, and they sent me scents ahead of time that I smelled for the first time on air as I talked with them. Listening back, I can hear elements that were still a bit rough, things like recording quality and editing that could stand to be tighter. But a lot of the raw material is there for what I hoped we could do with the new podcast—open up the processes of doing history and present it all in a way that is appealing, even immersive, to the ear.

Subsequent episodes carried forward this focus on less conventional or surprising contexts in which history is done. Many examples, of course, are not new, but the AHR in times past did not tend to feature them. For instance, season 1, episode 4, focused on the Blackivists, a collective of Black archivists in Chicago who are working to support the preservation of the city’s Black cultural heritage. “Art and History,” a segment in season 1, episode 8, highlighted the ways that contemporary artists are increasingly making use of history in their work. Episode 3 of our second season highlighted historians at work at the intersection of politics and public memory.

Other episodes probe the ways that historians are increasingly doing collaborative work. In our May 2024 episode, Kalani Craig and Arlene Díaz outline their joint digital history project and, with that, a potential blueprint for many different kinds of historical collaboration. In other instances, we’ve featured historians collaborating outside the discipline, such as in season 1, episode 6, “Soil and Memory,” featuring historian Alexis Dudden and graphic artistic Kim Inthavong. Alexis and Kim worked together on a written and illustrated piece in the AHR History Lab on the history of and present-day activism in Okinawa, Japan. On their episode, we had Alexis read portions of her written piece and Kim describe each of the graphic panels she created to go along with that writing. This is still one of my favorite episodes for how it provides such a clear and fascinating window into how a collaboration like this can work. I also loved the exercise of discussing visual pieces in an audio medium, a challenge that both Kim and Alexis took to readily. I think this is a clear example of an episode adding to and extending the version of the piece that appears in the journal.

I want the people who were there to tell you themselves.

These collaboration-focused episodes raise another important point. If I have any central touchstone in my audio work, it would be something like: center the voices of the people nearest the action. In other words, whenever possible, I don’t want to be the voice telling you what happened. I want the people who were there—or were there in the sense that they visited the archives, they did the research—to tell you themselves. The podcasts and audio producers that have inspired me the most tend to take this approach—above all the Kitchen Sisters, but also This American Life, Rumble Strip, and The Paris Review podcast, just to name a few. Other formats can be powerful too, and sometimes you need a more present narrator. But I know that as a producer and as a listener, I am most moved by the nonnarrated (or lightly narrated) pieces. Season 1, episode 9, “Black Reconstruction,” leans most heavily in this direction, as Elizabeth Hinton and four other historian and activist voices—and even the voice of W. E. B. Du Bois himself—carry forward the story of Du Bois’s powerful work and its legacy. This is another one of my favorites, and we were so pleased and honored to have it reaired on The Kitchen Sisters Present podcast a few months later.

Other episodes break down what might be considered more traditional AHR articles—Judd Kinzley on hog bristle production during World War II, Diana Paton on gender and Atlantic slavery, Andrew Preston rethinking America’s liberal Protestants, and Beeta Baghoolizadeh on racialized slavery in 20th-century Iran all come to mind. We tend to approach these episodes as two stories in one: the story of the history itself and then the story of the historian doing the research. We throw in related archival audio whenever we can find it. Figuring out how to tell these as one combined story, and do that succinctly in 10 to 15 minutes, is always a challenge. But that kind of editing puzzle is another part of this work I find highly engaging. And I’m not producing these episodes alone. Over the last year and a half, graduate assistants and co-producers Matt Hermane and Conor Howard have helped immensely with the editing process and have contributed great interviews themselves.

Another thing you’ll notice in all our episodes is a generous amount of music. And while it might seem like one of the more superficial aspects of the production, I don’t think of it that way. In fact, one of the things that podcasting has done for me as a scholar and historian, something that working primarily with text did not, is push me to think about the role of affect and emotion in communicating history. We kid ourselves if we think that emotion doesn’t, or shouldn’t, figure into scholarly work, whether that is our own emotions around the subjects we’re researching or the way we choose—deliberately or by default—to set this or that emotional tone in the way we communicate our scholarship. Working in audio, and in particular working with music, brings those questions to the surface in a way that I find healthy and generative.

Maybe the ultimate affective consideration in this work is the human voice itself. Podcasting is often touted as offering a heightened degree of intimacy, and for good reason. I would argue that it punches well above its weight when it comes to revealing the human side of history, whether we mean historical actors or the historians researching them. Rather than the disembodied narrator of the history textbook, or clinical voice of a typical article or book, audio brings a human voice right to your ear. We hear—more readily than we can read it—excitement, struggle, trepidation, humor, and many other complex emotions that we humans inevitably bring to the table when we do the work of history.

Ultimately, that is probably what I find most compelling about this medium, and what I hope comes through in our work with History in Focus. Whatever you want to call that kind of work, sign me up.


Daniel J. Story is consulting editor for the American Historical Review and a digital scholarship librarian at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Find him on X @danieljstory.


Tags: AHA Activities American Historical Review Digital History


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.

The American Historical Association welcomes comments in the discussion area below, at AHA Communities, and in letters to the editor. Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.


Comment

Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.