We hold these truths to be self-evident, NOT all podcasts are created equal!
I must admit that listening to a podcast is not the first activity that comes to mind when thinking of how to spend a little leisure time. However, after researching different types of podcasts for my digital history class at Eastern Washington University, I can see that podcasts are not only a great way to learn history, they are a fun way to spend some free time. Although, free time is not a requirement. As one of my classmates pointed out, podcasts allow you to learn history while you are doing other activities. They are perfect for multitasking. Perhaps the most obvious is listening to a podcast while traveling. Podcasts can also be enjoyed while doing many other tasks such as doing housework, working in the yard, or while exercising at the gym. Learning history while doing other tasks, what could be better?
There are many different types of history podcasts out there, and their structures vary. There are interview podcasts, where the interviewer asks questions of an individual who is usually a professional, or at least very knowledgeable on the subject being discussed. One example of this is The History Extra Podcast. There are many different historical topics to choose from. I happened to listen to History’s Greatest Mysteries: The Lost Colony of Roanoke
This podcast was methodical. The interviewer asked prepared questions to a very knowledgeable speaker. The content was an in-depth discussion of the many different possibilities which attempt to explain the disappearance of the colony. There was minimal personal opinion included in the commentary, and the podcast finished with a recommendation of additional sources.
There are niche podcasts, which attract listeners who are interested in specific topics. I listened to one from The Memory Palace titled A Washington Monument.
This was certainly a different style of podcast than the last one I mentioned. It was a rather abstract approach of having us look at the Washington Monument in a different way. The speaker used a solemn voice, and music played throughout the entire podcast. The goal was to evoke an emotional response from the listener.
There are big budget podcasts that have sponsors, include commercials, and include experts on a variety subjects. One example of a big budget podcast is Bundyville. I listened to one titled Nuclear Weapons, Waco And The Radicalization Of Cliven Bundy. This podcast was expertly done. It included a lengthy introduction, had ominous background music, and had a main narrator who brought in experts that helped deepen the story. At the end of the podcast they left us wanting more as they ended with a break in the story and conclude by saying “that’s next time on Bundyville.” It was clear that more money was spent on the production than other types of podcasts.
There are even short and simple podcasts that are more like short lectures, have one speaker, and have no sponsors or commercials. One example is Five Minute History.
Even though this type of podcast is short and sweet, it is well put together. It includes inspiring “historically appropriate” music at the beginning and the end. It says up front that their podcast does not have any sponsorship nor advertising and suggest a way to make a donation.
The lengths of these different types of podcasts vary. Some podcasts, such as Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History,” last over 4 hours. Others such as “The History Extra” podcasts last about an hour. Still others such as “5 Minute History” last around 6 to 9 minutes. Length of time is certainly not the only variable; the quality level of different podcasts varies as well. A good case study for looking at quality in podcasting is the niche podcast Ouija Broads.
Notice the tagline:
“Ouija Broads: Tales from the Pacific Northweird.”
The Ouja Broads are very up front, explaining the horrible quality of their first podcasts:
“They don’t sound great!” We didn’t have an intro, a plan, a tagline, a grasp of how to edit audio, the ability to keep our faces pointed at the microphone.”
However, as they became more experienced their podcasts improved:
“We’ve come a long way.”
It is clear from looking at their website that they indeed have come a long way. Their website is polished and they include lots of information such as guides to where to go in the Pacific Northwest to see strange or “haunted” locations. They also give information about how to subscribe, how to connect on twitter, how to purchase their merchandise, and even include a short bio of who they are.
After experiencing these different types of podcasts, I took away several things that I feel helped make a good podcast. 1) Music is one tool for making a good podcast, and not just any music. The music needs to be “appropriate” to the content. It needs to match the time period and the “mood” of the content. The music can change as the mood or time period changes. 2) Expert content, whether coming from an interviewee or from written materials. Having in-depth accurate information seems crucial to keeping the quality of the podcast high. 3) Giving an introduction and background information is important as well. Just because I may know a lot of details about a certain subject, other listeners may not have any understanding of the topic. 4) Including the season as well as the episode number is a nice addition for the listener to know which podcast they are listening to. 5) Humor can be good or bad. Keeping things light in a podcast can be a plus, helping to keep the mood of the podcast light and cheery. However, this also goes into the “to be avoided” category as well.
It is clear from listening to these podcasts that there are definitely things that should be avoided. The Ouija Broads podcast that I mentioned earlier is a good example of how annoying outbursts of laughter can ruin a podcast. For one of the narrators, she acts as if what she is hearing is the funniest thing ever, and laughs annoyingly loud and repetitively. 1) Humor and laughter are fine, but not consistently over and over again throughout the podcast. Her laughter became very annoying and took away from the interesting content included in their podcast. 2) Personal opinion can get in the way as well. I would rather listen to historical narrative by an expert, than listen to someone on a tangent telling me what they thought or felt about a situation. 3) Don’t get lost in the weeds. Too many rabbit trails, or ones that are too lengthy, detract from the story and causes the listener to lose interest.
Podcasts are a great way to learn history, even while multitasking. However, not all podcasts are of the same quality, length, and structure. While it may be easy for me to criticize what I see in podcasts, perhaps I shouldn’t be so harsh. I am now going to attempt to do my very first podcast and I am including it below. Please feel free to let me know what you think.
Thanks for reading (and listening)!