Invasion of the pod(cast) people

I enjoyed the first season of the Serial podcast. It brought in a lot of important topics, from islamophobia to the frailties in our justice system. But a journalist friend of mine clued me in to the idea that Serial is, at heart, a show about journalism: it’s a reporter’s winding, uncertain route through a difficult story, with all of the pieces that don’t fit left in. It’s the twenty hours of interviews that go into a five-minute news segment, and it’s something that could only happen in a podcast.

99% Invisible is another good example of something that wouldn’t be quite the same in any other medium. Episode 76, The Modern Moloch, brings in multiple correspondents to talk about the rise of cars in the United States, the safety problems that came with it, and the invention of the jaywalker. At 25 minutes long, it doesn’t have a time slot to fill, and it only sneaks in one advertisement, right at the beginning. I listened to it on my headphones while I was rocking a baby to sleep, and if that doesn’t speak to the versatility of the medium, I don’t know what will.

With a more academic historical focus, Backstory seems like a good model for “scholarly” podcasting. As in any new medium, it’s hard to resist the temptation to just read a paper, and I worry that Backstory can get too wordy–I listened to a 50-minute episode on the rise of our national parks with one finger on the fast-forward button. Unlike a radio show, though, that’s something a podcast allows you to do. It’s a medium where the listener and the speaker both get a lot of control over the experience.

So, do podcasts let us bring history to the public in ways we couldn’t before? The potential is definitely there. Podcasts deserve a place in the messy toolbox of digital history. But they give us new ways to miss the mark, too. I think You Are There is a clever idea with hit-or-miss execution. The episode that “broadcasts” the trial of Marie Antoinette is full of colorful historical details, but it’s also hard to follow. The layers of static and crowd noise are confusing, and it doesn’t seem entirely successful, even though it’s clear that a lot of work went into the production. And for my taste, The Memory Palace often swings too far in the other direction. The cozy, pathotic perspective on historical events is great when it works (here’s one of my favorite episodes,) but when it doesn’t, it feels overwrought. Then again, I have the same criticism of This American Life, so what do I know? Which is all to say that people are doing exciting things with podcasts, and there are lots of signposts to guide a new podcaster today.

I’m happy to see that podcasts are having their day, because I like the medium. I like radio as a concept and I’m frustrated by most radio stations–somewhere between the announcers, the ads, and the slow conglomeration of all radio into the same station, it loses me. But there’s something about digging around online for podcast episodes that feels a little like trying to tune in Art Bell’s Coast to Coast on the shortwave back in the nineties. I like stepping onto the bus in the morning with a trove of new episodes on my mp3 player. I hope they continue to find an audience and support their creators.

Speaking of which: here are two audio segments for stories I’m working up for Spokane Historical. I have an idea for the third, but I thought I’d put these out for feedback first. Thanks in advance!