In the past decade, if not in just the past five years, the popularity of podcasts has skyrocketed. According to the Nielsen Company, in the fall of 2016, 13 million homes identified as “avid fans” of podcasts. By the fall of 2017, this number grew to 16 million (https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2018/what-s-in-podcast-fans-shopping-carts.html). Although this may be due to the growth of streaming and downfall of traditional radio, much of podcasting’s rise in popularity may be tracked back to Serial, an investigative journalism series.
Season one of Serial follows the disappearance and death of Baltimore high school senior Hae Min Lee, as well as the trial that followed. Serial became the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads and streams, and defined podcasting to the general public. A year after Serial premiered in 2014, the Interactive Advertising Bureau hosted their first presentation on podcasts, encouraging companies to start advertising on podcasts. This was also when podcasters could begin earning revenue for their work (https://www.wired.com/story/podcast-three-watershed-moments/).
This project would examine how Serial tells a compelling story through podcasting, and how it has influenced historians to use podcasting as a medium of storytelling and exploration. Furthermore, it would examine how podcasting makes history more digestible in order to reach a wider audience.
For example, the podcast Stuff You Missed in History Class reached over two million people in its two-part segment on Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. Now, it consistently sees over three million downloads per episode and is one of the most downloaded podcasts every month.
But Stuff You Missed in History Class is not alone in the history podcasting world. It is estimated that there are over 200 history podcasts available on the iTunes store alone. Surprisingly, only a few of these are produced by academics, meaning that podcasts not only drawing in an audience of non-historians, but that the platform is also gives space to those without a history degree to give history lessons (https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/march-2016/history-on-the-download-podcasting-the-past).
The article “History on the Download: Podcasting the Past” (previously linked) also mentions that academics who have started podcasting have said that podcasting has allowed them to become better teachers. Unlike inside classroom walls, podcasting forces professors to rethink how they explain concepts in more straightforward terms. Considerations of new audiences further expands the idea of who can consume a product or lesson and what they may get out of it. Additionally, in doing so, podcasting also expands the notion of what a history lesson should look like.
This also relates to our class on crowdsourcing. The ability for anyone to tell stories via podcasts brings up questions on how facts are checked, how inaccurate information is regulated and whether this platform draws audiences away from academics who may present their research in other, more traditional, ways. It may be interesting to explore whether there have been instances where podcasts have spread myths or inaccurate information to listeners, and how academics can or cannot combat this issue.
3 Replies to “Print Project Proposal: The Rise of Podcasts”
Hello! I really love this topic proposal. I personally am a big true crime podcast fan thanks to Serial and others like it. I have yet to get into the history side of podcasting because of some of the same reasons you mentioned above. Just like a History Channel documentary, I worry that many would prioritize shock and awe before historical accuracy. Most of these podcasts aren’t made by historians, and there is no peer review for a podcast–so for now I’ve stayed away.
That being said, I too think it’s a great platform for historians to become more dynamic story tellers. I think interdisciplinary communication can be very beneficial. If a historian, who is likely very passionate about their specific area of study, was able to tell that history as effectively as Sarah Koenig narrates the story of Hae Min Lee’s death, it would be sure to be a hit. (On a side note, if you know of any podcast like this in existence, please send it my way!!)
If you do decide to pursue this project, the White House Historical Association has a monthly podcast called The 1600 Sessions which could be interesting to look at. Admittedly, I’ve been interning there since last September and I’ve never actually listened to one, but they seem to feature some pretty cool topics.
I think this is a great idea, and agree that podcasting is an intriguing medium for historical storytelling. I was recently struck by how the first episode of USHMM’s new podcast “12 Years that Shook the World” used the inherent mystery in the story of a hidden archive (something that, to many, could seem kind of boring) to hook listeners and build suspense. It’s definitely worth a listen, as I think it draws directly on some of the narrative techniques that Serial used so well:
Exploring how podcasts have grown and developed as a channel of history communication is a great idea for a research project.
It would be particularly useful to work to contextualize developments of history podcasts in relationship to historians use of previous developments in new media. Of particular note, Ian Tyrrel’s book Historians in Public (https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/H/bo3641730.html ) has some good chapters in it on attempts of historians to make inroads in radio and film in the mid 20th century. Along with that, it’s worth noting that programs like Backstory have been running on radio for a long time but now also function as podcasts too. (https://www.backstoryradio.org/ )
I think one way to go about this would be to just try and identify from a few different sources what tend to be promoted as some of the most successful history podcasts and then go through exploring aspects of their presentations and their audiences.