Podcasts: History or Just Stories?

I became interested in podcasts my senior year of undergrad when I was required to create a podcast episode for my senior thesis. For this project we looked at numerous podcasts to examine the style and story telling process. As a result, I began listening to more and more podcasts, especially ones about history, or true crime. One of the big questions I’ve had about these podcasts is how this media has changed or has the ability to change the state of the field when it comes to story telling. Also, to what degree is there historical integrity with the story telling, because there are numerous podcasts that are not hosted by historians.

For this project I’d like to look at what goes into making historical podcasts and the differences in historians and non-historians in making podcasts. I’d like to know if historians have an upper hand in creating these podcasts. Which group makes podcasts that are more popular? How do these podcasts do research and cite their work? Do historians or non-historians do more in depth research for their podcasts or is it about the same? Do non-historians have an upper hand because they can make it relatable or more interesting?

Podcasts have potential of making traditionally boring subjects, like history, more interesting and thus have the ability of making history more accessible both in terms of entertainment and ease of understanding. By using the podcast medium, the hosts are able to make the history more entertaining by adding often humorous commentary that wouldn’t usually be found in a traditional academic piece. In addition, it’s a more accessible medium because it’s not written like an academic journal article. It is usually much more conversational, especially the podcasts that are not hosted by actual historians. I want to divide the podcasts in three categories:

Podcasts hosted by Historians, namely Ben Franklin’s World and Backstory.

Podcasts hosted by Journalists, namely Slow Burn, Revisionist History, and Hardcore History

Podcasts hosted by Non-Historians, namely The Alarmist, The Memory Place, and The History Chicks

By looking at these three categories I want to first determine which group, if any, is the most reliable to listen to. Some of these podcasts are run by non-historians and their research for each episode is not available on their websites. Although most listeners probably won’t be looking at their research because it is all given in the episode, it is helpful to include it on their website to establish credibility for those who do check. Most of the podcasts I am looking at have the research used for each episode listed and it seems that journalists and historians are the ones that always have research, with Slow Burn and Hardcore History having the most extensive research, which is interesting because they are written by journalists. The Alarmist and The History Chicks, hosted by non-historians have no locatable research on their pages. This also brings about the question of who does their research? Do they have historians doing research for them or are the hosts responsible for doing their own research?

I also want to look at the popularity and discoverability of these podcasts. A big part of the creation of these podcasts is the ability to make them fun. If they sound like an academic journal article while you’re listening, most audience members won’t continue listening and/or it will come off as a boring podcast. Personally, even though I’m not easily bored by academic texts compared to most people, I am very sensitive to how podcasts sound. For me, there has to be structure, but it also needs to be entertaining. Usually this comes with unknown fun facts or just overall fun/weird things instead of a boring monotone voice with a seemingly boring narrative.

Ultimately, the questions I’d like to answer are: What research goes into these podcasts? Is the research they do reliable (who is writing the pieces they’re referencing? Where are their primary sources coming from?)? What makes these podcasts accessible to people? Why are some podcasts more discoverable than others? How does the structure and content of the podcast affect its popularity?

5 Replies to “Podcasts: History or Just Stories?”

  1. This sounds like a great project, Sarah! I think history podcasts are very easily accessible to people, but it does raise a lot of questions about validity and source material. Some true crime podcasts often get negatively reviewed for this, and as a result have started to cite their sources audibly in the podcast. Do any of the history podcasts you are analyzing do this? Would this be a helpful step even if they do not formally cite sources on their website? Just some thoughts I had while reading your post.

    1. Thanks Jess! I’m not sure how often these podcasts cite their sources audibly but I think it would be beneficial if they did that more often. I’ve been listening to Crime Junkie like all day every day recently and they’re pretty good about talking about their sources in the podcast and also directing their audience to look on their websites for pictures and articles they refer to. I think the history podcasts should definitely do the same thing. It’s about credibility but also can be a promotional thing for people to check out their websites, because when they talk about sources on their website on Crime Junkie, I always check them out. It’s true crime though so it might be a little different. But thank you for your thoughts!!! I’ll definitely keep that in mind while I listen.

  2. Sarah,

    Great project idea! It might also be interesting to use another digital tool of analysis: Twitter! So many historians tweet about podcasts (both positively and negatively) and interact with hosts on their feeds. It could be interesting to see what podcasts are most discussed on Twitter and which are criticized.

    1. Thanks Sarah! That’s a great idea. Podcasts don’t really seem talked about widely on platforms and it seems weird?? But I think Twitter could be a great place to check for this!

  3. This is a really great idea. I think your focus on exploring differences between podcasts that have history in them and podcasts made by historians makes a lot of sense. If you do this project, I think you may want to also reach out to the creators of the podcasts to get their thoughts directly about how their experiences as historians or not informs their work and what they think works and doesn’t work for historical storytelling and the podcast medium. It would also be interesting to look at thinks like reviews of these podcasts as sources to get a sense of what parts of their storytelling approaches are resonating with their listeners.

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