As early as 1954, Walt Disney used the portmanteau “edutainment” to refer to media productions intended to educate and entertain — so the concept is, by now, an old one. But it has perhaps gained special traction in recent years with the rise of the podcast. Maybe we just like to learn, or maybe we’ve become hyper-productive achievement-subjects with no chill — either way, we welcome the advent of the academic podcast as its own subgenre. The easy-to-access, DIY qualities of the podcast make it especially well-suited for public humanists interested in engaging nontraditional audiences. For that reason, we’ve drawn up a list of resources for anyone in the Triangle Area interested in transposing their research to suit this evolving media format. To accompany this resource, we asked Sara Wood, project manager for UNC-CH’s Southern Oral History Program and veteran broadcaster/podcaster, a few questions about her public-facing work with the SOHP and the future of the podcast as a tool for public humanists.
Talk a little bit about your professional background in radio and podcasting. How did this background bring you to your current position as an oral historian and project manager for the SOHP?
Print journalism is where I got started, but I decided to take a turn into documentary radio and public radio production in 2004. This American Life was hitting its stride and sending so many young folks into public radio. I’d read articles at the time calling it the “new golden age of radio.” StoryCorps was just getting started in Brooklyn and was soon sending mobile units across the country to record stories. There was little whispers about podcasting, but at that time no one really understood what it was or what its potential could become. Through the years I found that my strength was conducting interviews, with sitting with people to listen. When it came time to produce a story and edit something together I always felt lost—it’s one of the hardest things to do to create an audio story that makes sense to the outside world—it seems to me harder than film or print. I lucked out while I was in graduate school for creative writing: while everyone around me in nonfiction wanted to write their memoir, I was more interested in the lives of other people. I ended up getting a paid internship for two weeks that first summer with the Southern Foodways Alliance in Mississippi. I learned it might be possible for me to have a job where I get to drive across the American South recording oral histories from people who normally don’t get interviewed. I spent almost six years with SFA, and then decided it was important to be in a position to guide oral history projects and help teach people that this method is possible not just for research, and not just for the humanities, but for all walks of life.
Is it important for an archive like SOHP to engage or interact with public audiences? If so, what kind of work is being done at SOHP right now to get more people thinking about oral history?
Absolutely. I come to this role not as an academic or a formal historian. I don’t have a PhD. During my time in public radio (and even print journalism), one of the most important questions is “who cares?” I believe the SOHP’s oral history archive was created and is growing because it belongs to the public. It’s a way for us to remove the unspoken spaces between each other, to learn how to listen, to identify with someone’s life even though it isn’t your own. I think this archive is the most valuable asset and tool on this campus. It’s not only a way to viscerally connect the past to our present, but to continue to learn from each other, to figure out what empathy really means to each of us.
Press Record podcast started before my time at SOHP, but it was really at first geared for the public, to learn how to engage with oral history from the vantage point of researchers. It became clear over time that the podcast was more geared toward people who are in the field, or historians who are curious about the method itself. It became more of a “behind the scenes” format. In more recent years, we’ve tried the audio competition Sonic South to get the public more engaged in the archive by having to dig into the stories to create something new and meaningful, to give new life to the archive. Currently in our major research project Stories to Save Lives, we’re collecting oral histories with North Carolinians from rural parts of the state to find out how they feel about and how they engage with the healthcare system. We’ve crossed over disciplines in this project, working with folks from the medical school, the school of public health, even the nursing school. We hope that these stories help change policies that prevent people from engaging with their own healthcare. But we also hope these stories could serve as a learning tool for medical students, providers, doctors, and other folks in the healthcare system.
As a genre, what sets the podcast apart as a way for scholars and academics in the humanities to potentially communicate to broader audiences? What are the pros and cons of the medium?
Podcasting is a level playing field. You don’t need a recording studio, you don’t even need to have cash on hand. If you can record yourself and get yourself to the internet, you can have a podcast. I think of it as public radio on demand. Depending on how long you take to create an episode of a podcast, it can be done fairly quickly, so scholars and academics who are used to publishing books or speaking engagements don’t have to worry about timing. They’re also not beholden to peer review group for permission. It’s a utilitarian format for everyone, not just scholars. It’s just as easy to engage with a podcast as it is to create one, so there is no or little cost for people to access it, which is important when it comes to folks in the humanities getting across to broader audiences. These are all in themselves pros—they’re accessible. However, some of the downsides is that there is a great sea of podcasts out there, so it can be hard to distinguish one from the other. I also think (with all due respect to scholars) sometimes there isn’t as much thought put into broader audiences might engage with or find interesting. Sometimes folks just believe their research is in itself interesting, and everyone will want to know about it. It can be hard to shape those ideas and stories into something that broader audiences might connect with. I think from what I’ve heard, there are many podcasts who should have had a close friend from outside their field listen and give them honest feedback. The downside? Sometimes not everyone cares about what you care about, and it’s really on you to make them care; the general and broader audiences don’t owe you anything. It’s up to you to pull them in from the first minute. One other little con is that people overestimate the attention spans for a listening public. There’s really no need to make an hour-long episode unless you’re Serial.
What kind of advice would you give to a scholar in the humanities interested in starting a podcast to share their research or otherwise interact with a broader public?
Get people from outside your field on your team. Have a small editorial team that helps you tackle the information you want to create in the podcast. Think narratively, think about the best of writing—you need a good beginning, middle, end. You need scenes. You need to not just have the entire podcast be a conversation between two academics. Get out into the world and paint some scenes with ambient sound and audio. Listen to everything you can put into your ears. Get inspired. Listen for other podcasts that might have already tackled subjects that you plan to. Think about what sets you apart, how your podcast will be different. Like I mentioned before, there is a great ocean of podcasts. Think about how your podcast won’t get lost in it. Or reckon with the fact that it will, and think about the very specific people you’re aiming for as your audience. You can start with “everyone” but when you’re done crafting your proposal, that answer should not be the same. Oh, and one more thing: just because you came up with the podcast doesn’t mean you also need to be the host. Podcast narrators and hosts should be likable and good storytellers. Think about that as you’re building your podcast.
To the extent that podcasting is a useful tool for providing an outlet for public engagement with the humanities, can you give some examples of podcasts that seem to do this well?
I have to be honest, I have a bit of podcast fatigue right now, so I haven’t been actively listening to up and coming podcasts. But I will say that some of my favorite that deal with scholarship and the humanities is the Oral History Center at UC Berkeley’s podcast, The Berkeley Remix. I think they do a stellar job of getting their archive into the public’s ears by also doing a lot of good work in creating stories in which to weave those oral histories. I think Sidedoor from the Smithsonian is terrific. And one of my all-time favorite podcasts is 99 Percent Invisible. This particular podcast has a way of making subject matter that’s way out there interesting to all kinds of people. It also has a wonderful origin story that most podcasts wish they could claim in terms of fundraising and building a podcast from the ground up.