In elementary school, I participated in a program called Book It!® (and it’s still live! Sign up your kids!) Everyone in my class got a (totally badass) button with spots for stickers indicating how many books we’d finished reading, and for every completed button you earned 1 free personal pan pizza from the friendly folks at Pizza Hut®. I cannot for the life of me remember what the book per pizza ratio was, but I do know that I ate an obscene amount of pizza for an elementary age child. It says something that my notoriously health-minded parents were willing to sacrifice my tiny body’s cholesterol count on the altar of higher learning.
So why books? Why not use pizza bribes® to encourage kids to attend college lectures, or complete their multiplication tables? Or maybe just eat some kale?
What better demonstrates the tyranny of text in our time? Certainly it’s the written word that dominates our experiences in academia. Oral histories are slowly gaining respectability within the academy, but it’s still a far cry from the gravity inherent to a written source Laws, property ownership, and certainly scholarship are unimaginable in the present day in purely verbal forms. . Bees may communicate through dance, but could a ritual dance substitute for a doctoral dissertation?
And what about learning? How about absorbing information into your brain folds®, understanding it, retaining it? Scholarship shows us that lectures are a less than an ideal learning method. Why? Possibly due to the tyranny of the schedule: no professor postpones their lecture for a single sleep-deprived student. (Though tele-lectures are making it possible to learn from bed, if there’s any comfort in your tempur-pedic.)
By contrast, books (or Wikipedia) grant users an independence to learn when and where we choose to, and to trace the logic of others as quickly or as slowly as we prefer. A reader can reread, pause to ponder, or halt the process to look up a word or research a related topic. This independence empowers the best kind of motivated, independent learning.
Since the early 2000s, podcasts have allowed listeners to essentially schedule and choose their lectures. Podcast creators – like radio producers – have innovated to enrich their product, creating programs that are a far cry from the dry, droning lecturer. The benefits are akin to those possessed by the written word: listeners can pause, listen when they chose to, rewind or skip subjects that fail to interest them. As an end result, we find a product that, in terms of ease-of-use, can be promoted alongside the book for conveying information.
But what about the information itself? Here’s the rub. Podcasting thrives on listener interest, which makes engaging narrative the preferred vehicle. Though podcasts come in a variety of formats and budgets, those that linger in silence, drone on in monotone, or move slowly, are few and far between.
Is that a problem? Maybe. There’s an advantage to slow learning and nuanced, detailed information. This isn’t to say that a podcast can’t convey information by deploying storytelling techniques long practiced in radio. But hooks and succinctness can easily slide into shallowness. And like the written word, podcasts too-often suffer from the tyranny of the narrator.
As in a written text (and unlike Wikipedia) no voice is going to interrupt a podcast host if they omit a critical fact, gloss over a detail, or tell a bald lie.
And a tendency to superficiality may even increase subscriber counts with broader audience appeal (worth noting that the most-holy mantras of podcasting, are, respectively: Please subscribe! Leave us a review! We’re on Patreon!) though it doing so may occur at the sufferance of the subject.
These narrative issues aren’t a problem privileged to podcasting. After all, no one would fault a children’s book on Ancient Rome for glossing over the massive slave population that ran their economy. But the format of the written word also allows for massive lengths and enriched text, as appropriate, something a podcast cannot yet easily achieve.
I posit, then, that both creators and consumers of podcasts would do well to remember the limitations of the format. Can it supply listeners with cocktail chatter? Certainly! Can it reshape a field of scholarship? Unlikely.
Or at least, not yet.
Podcasts embody many of the greatest aspects of the digital humanities: they can be easily produced and hosted, conveniently consumed, and distributed to a diverse and massive – or fabulously niche – audience at a minimal cost. This makes an ideal tool for penetrating historical silences and promoting less mainstream histories. Certainly podcasts like the low-budget Sexing History (so many interns!) and the higher budget Death in the West make accessible, interesting narratives out of histories not found in your public school history textbook. A podcast like the Memory Palace makes poetry of the past, lifting historical empathy to another level. Writing Westward and Ben Franklin’s World both promote the work of lessor-known academics, while History Extra takes the glossy-magazine approach of expanding upon listener knowledge by re-examining popular subjects and promoting popular new books.
Similar to the rest of the digital mediums – and distinctly unlike books (but like Wikipedia) – people expect their podcasts for free. This problem is more immediate and drastic than any concerns about narrator integrity. The lack of funding creates a landscape familiar to the humanist, presenting a familiar, unpleasant problem in terms of both labor and resources.
While much can be accomplished in the podcast format – situating it squarely within the toolkit of the public historian and the digital humanist – it is best to acknowledge and appreciate that the format serves best as an accessory primer: provide the first word on a subject, and leave it to the listener to seek out the the last word.
I speak from experience on this one, having started (but never published) a podcast series called Contempt, which focused on the McCleary Case in Washington State. My ambitious visions of probing public education, school funding, local politics, race and power fell apart with the too-late realization that I could not craft engaging audio content that accurately related such complicated, subtle subject matter. An outcome that I could only dream of was later released in a hit podcast on public education called Nice White Parents. Yet even that impressive work, created by public radio rock star Chana Joffe-Walt, came under criticism for failing to accurately navigate its complex subject matter.
I invite you to take a listen to the overview episode (and, if you’re a masochist, episode 2) from the still un-published Contempt below, and let me know your thoughts on it and the podcasting medium.
And don’t forget to subscribe!