Archivists on the Issues: Podcasts as Oral Histories

Archivists on the Issues is a forum for archivists to discuss the issues we are facing today. Today’s post comes from Samantha “Sam” Cross, the Assistant Archivist for CallisonRTKL.

If you have an issue you would like to write about for this blog series or a previous post that you would like to respond to, please email archivesissues@gmail.com. Please note that opinions expressed in Archivists on the Issues posts do not indicate an official stance of SAA or the Issues and Advocacy Section.

 

What I’m proposing isn’t that all podcasts are oral histories, but that podcasts should be considered another avenue of the oral history tradition. Oral histories, as a medium of historical study, have been a boon to historians, researchers, and archivists given the information they provide. Through the recounting of people who have actually lived through and experienced specific events or eras in history, we’ve been better able to flesh out the socio-economic and political nature of lives led that might have been forgotten – unintentionally or otherwise – by the written record.

In the past, however, oral histories were limited by the technology available. Having the right equipment with which to record required money and, unless you worked for a university with a large staff, transcription was a time consuming affair. On the user end, access to tapes and/or transcripts were dictated by institutional policy, which presented its own ethical problems when dealing with marginalized communities.

Technological advancements seem to be, in some cases, the great equalizer. Recording devices with good sound quality are relatively cheap, though most smart phones provide free downloadable apps for recording as well. Editing and transcription software is free to download on the internet and accessibility to audio, video, and transcripts have increased as more collections become digitized. The line between oral historian and podcast host is about as blurred as it can be. So what prevents us from accepting podcasts as a means of doing oral history? Well, I suppose we need to look at what podcasts are and how they’ve carved out their own niche in popular culture.

Podcasts, as a medium, evolved from the soundbite driven interviews of radio and television, but as the technology has improved podcasts have grown into a far more dynamic, narrative driven medium. Part of that narrative includes extensive and, in some cases, intimate interviews with celebrities or well-known public figures. These interviews then provide first-hand accounts of different eras of history and industries such as comedy, Hollywood, and politics. There are literally hundreds of podcasts available to download on iTunes, Soundcloud, Stitcher, etc, and very little stands in the way of participation. If you have a smartphone and a decent wifi signal, then a podcast you can record.

Perhaps that’s where the hesitancy lies, in the ubiquity of podcasts. There’s an overwhelming amount of data and hours of audio to sift through, but can we rely anymore on the hosts or panelists of these programs than we do on actual oral historians? With oral histories, at least there’s a purpose behind it that veils itself in attempting to add supplemental information to the current documented record. Podcasts are entertainment. They’re superfluous and disposable when compared to the weighty task of recording and transcribing the words of active agents who lived through events that shaped our society. And yet, some podcasts inadvertently accomplish the same goal even if that was never their original intent.

I’ve been a long time listener of the WTF with Marc Maron podcast. Granted, when Maron started his show, he didn’t know or anticipate what podcasts would become or where he would land with his listeners, but his transition from enraged comic to engaged interviewer was what got me thinking about the idea of podcasts as oral histories. Specifically episodes 358 and 359 when Maron talked with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, respectively. The comedic landscape as we know it began with Brooks and Reiner’s generation and the two are forever linked with the late Sid Caesar and his comedic force of nature. They are also the products of a bygone era of vaudeville and Catskill comedy. And while I understand the showmanship behind interviews for public consumption, the intimacy of a long form conversation shouldn’t be overlooked.

Have Brooks and Reiner provided similar answers to questions over their long history of giving interviews? Yes, but the context of those interviews, which theorists love to extol, are predicated on previous soundbyte driven formats. An appearance on a late night show or an interview in a magazine facilitates short, almost concise answers, which become practiced over time. But when the format expands and the limitations are loosened the results become a completely different animal. There’s also the matter of the host or interviewer’s intention. Again, it adds to the context of the piece. Maron’s goal, ultimately, is to understand the people who visit him in his garage/studio. Citing his own journey of self-awareness, his aim is to talk about what brought the interviewee to the moment of conversation. He tries to go deeper with his guests, sussing out who they are, where they come from, and the environment that shaped them. No audience, no real time constraints, just Maron and whoever’s on the other side of the mic. Historical value may not have been the primary goal, but as a byproduct it’s just as useful.

Podcasts, then, through the archival lens have tremendous potential to act as another form of supplemental material as well as a means by which our own passions might bear fruit. Kate Brenner recounts her revelation regarding the potential of podcasts as tools of oral history while listening to an analysis of an episode of Radiolab:

I was waiting outside a pizzeria for my delivery to be ready when the episode “Finding the Story When You Know Too Much” came on.  

The episode analyzed a Radiolab episode that I’d heard before, and really enjoyed because it used oral histories. Ostensibly, the point of this episode was that the producer of the piece on German POW camps in Iowa had to learn everything about the subject and then figure out how to whittle it down to a coherent podcast.

But that’s not what I heard.

I heard the story of a woman who was passionate about a subject, did all the research, and made an impeccable case as to why it should be made into a podcast. The dramatic climax of her narrative is getting rejected for the podcast, until she’s in line at security about to fly somewhere and gets a call from Radiolab. They want her to come in immediately to talk about her idea. She ditches her flight and goes to work on her episode.

Podcasts are not oral histories in the sense that hosts or production teams have a clear intention to create them. Instead, podcasts are conversations that provide just as much, if not more, supplemental information that historians and archivists alike can find value. Podcasts don’t have to carry the weight of academia nor do they require permission to be accessed. They are free (mostly) to be consumed but that doesn’t mean they are lacking in the necessary information or context needed to flesh out the historical record. If anything, the more podcasts that are made, the more potential we may have to find voices that might have been lost.

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