History podcasts are a great way for historians to present a topic to a wider audience. Podcasts have a few strengths compared to other digital mediums; they’re portable since even a cheap mp3 player can be used to listen to a podcast, for people who like to have background noise while working podcasts are a good choice since there’s no video to worry about being a distraction, and they’re relatively easy and cheap to produce. I’ve actually had to produce weekly reactions in podcast form before, similar to the blogging format being used this quarter. Generally, I like podcasts and try to use them while working to keep from being distracted by other people’s conversations. It can get a little awkward when I’ve already listened to so many of the podcasts that are assigned so I can’t give a fresh reaction.
All that being said there are different approaches to history podcasts, from narrative style ones to interviews, to back and forth discussions there are all sorts of different variants and combinations that can be used to convey the creator’s information to the listener. There are certain traits that I prefer and believe work better than others but it is a personal preference. For example, I dislike panel podcasts like “Ouiji Broads” where two hosts have back and forth conversations without any sort of script. This style of podcast rely more on the hosts’ personalities and make them fairly hit or miss, but also allows for going too far off-topic at any given time (depending on the hosts) to make them as informative as they could be, and while some people may find them entertaining the act can wear thin fast if the sense of humor doesn’t match ones taste. Ouiji Broads, in particular, comes across as two people just telling one another about what Wikipedia articles they’ve read recently, you could get the same experience (with a lot of the same stories) listening to two museum tour guides on their lunch break.
Interview-based podcasts like “Ben Franklin’s World” are often more scholarly because the interviewer has a set of questions to ask about the interviewee’s work or research. These types of podcasts need two things to work, the interviewee to be engaging and the topic to be interesting otherwise it becomes a normal radio interview about someone’s latest book. This is especially true if the interview audio isn’t great, which is often the case. Interviews are often done over the phone or away from a space that has decent audio recording qualities, interviewers also can’t always use more sophisticated microphones and are reliant on fairly basic voice recorders to get the interviews so it’s understandable why there may be lower quality audio.
Podcasts that are done in a more narrative style like Death in the West or even just basic informative styles like the Memory Palace are my favorites for nonfiction podcasts. They’re often done fairly simply by a narrator telling a story, although some like Slow Burn utilize more interviews and sound clips to make a fuller more enriched production. As long as there is an interesting story to tell then this format works fairly well. However, they can sometimes get a little long-winded, the other types can as well but it’s especially irritating to me when a nonfiction narrative podcast episode is longer than 40 minutes. A longer episode length relies on the personality of the host/narrator and most just don’t have the presence to carry a single episode for that long. It’s even more apparent when the host of a history-based podcast uses their personality to cover up questionable historiography and by extension makes an episode that could probably be done in half an hour end up being an hour or more.
Some fairly well-known history podcasts get recommended in just about any podcast recommendation conversation on the internet so there cleary is a wider audience appeal than many people might believe. This makes the ability to produce a podcast, even a rudimentary one, a valuable skill for public historians as more museums and agencies will begin producing them for audio-video outreach projects. Programs like Audacity may seem a little overwhelming but that also makes having some knowledge of using them a competitive skillset to include on a resume or to have a project demonstrating use in a portfolio.
Some audio I made for this post, it’s pretty basic but it illustrates some knowledge of how to use audacity.
The summer of 1889 was incredibly dry in the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, cities in the region like Seattle, Ellensburg, and Spokane Falls were relatively young and most of the buildings were made from wood, and wood-frame buildings are flammable. On August 4th the city of Spokane Falls burnt down. A restaurant on Railroad Avenue caught fire and despite efforts to maintain the flames by the time the fire was under control 40 city blocks were destroyed resulting in 14 million dollars worth of damages. The cities volunteer fire department was unable to adequately fight the fire due to issues with their equipment.
Lloyd Gandy a resident of Spokane at the time of the fire describes the issues.
Interviewer: Mr. Gandy did the city have any kind of a fire department?
Gandy: No the city had a volunteer fire department with what is known as hose carts, an enlargement of the present hose you see in a yard with a reel and volunteer firemen who prided themselves on their firemens hats and uniforms, but that was the greatest part of their efficiency. As happened on this Sunday afternoon while we had a city waterworks the manager of it was away, out hunting or fishing or something, and the man left in charge didn’t know how to increase the water pressure which you could in times of fire. When we got down to this fire the hose was barely trickling little water and practically had no fire resistance.
The fire in some ways provided a fresh start for the city, which was seeing rapid growth. Wealthy mine owners and timber barons from North Idaho began moving to the city to invest in new opportunities, architects like Kirtland Cutter were able to redesign the city core and make their mark on the region, and businesses like Washington Water Power had a chance to better integrate themselves within the rebuilt city. Two years after the fire the city adopted a new charter, embraced the changes that came after the fire changed its name from Spokane Falls to Spokane.