Although radio is still the dominant audio platform (88% of Australians aged 12+ having listened to AM/FM/DAB+ in the last week, up from 85% and outpacing the U.S.’s 65%), more and more people are turning to podcasts. The 2018 Infinite Dial Australia study, conducted by Edison Research and Triton Digital, shows that 13% of Australians have listened to a podcast in the last week, up from 10% in 2017. According to Sharon Taylor, CEO of Omny Studio, Australian downloads are now in the tens of millions per month. While you might have noticed radio stations such as the ABC making a big push for podcasts (and we love you ABC!) the national broadcaster is by no means the only podcasting platform in town (actually only 14% of weekly podcasts are by Australian radio stations or Australian radio personalities.)
In the US and the UK there are some hugely popular history podcasts. Those that immediately come to mind include Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History (four or sometimes five hour non-academic history jaunts pondering whether Alexander the Great was worse than Hitler); the carefully crafted, Peabody awarded, Memory Palace; and the BBC’s In Our Time with Melvin Bragg (a show that, despite having an ambition to be “never knowingly relevant”, receives 3 million downloads per week). But there are plenty of others.
Of course in Australia ABC Radio National is a standout producer with history shows such as The History Listen, Shooting the Past and Little Tiny, and there are also emerging some brilliant independent offerings (see for example, My Marvellous Melbourne, Last Stop to Nowhere and the new To the Island). And then there is the boom in true crime podcasts – not history necessarily, although certainly historically minded.
Yet, with a fast growing podcast audience, there is definitely demand for a new history podcast in Australia.
There’s also space for a new kind of history podcast.
At the moment, history podcasts tend to fall into three categories:
This third kind of show uses atmospheric sound and story telling techniques to present an account of the past that is often the end product of historical research. They can be set up as mysteries that need solving, or framed as untold stories of people or groups previously “left out” of our histories. And the thrill in listening to them is in the story – learning what happened and what it meant.
I love listening to all three of these kinds of shows, but all of them often skip over much of the process of doing history – the reliance on sources and the difficulties of finding them; the process of interpretation and the wrestling with what it’s even possible to know. They miss out the large part of the history iceberg that lies below the waterline.
Audio offers particular opportunities for conveying the experience of doing history; for presenting the story about the process of finding out, as well as the story of what happened.
This is the sense in which History Lab is an experiment in investigative history. It seeks to draw the listener into the thrill of historical research, with all its uncertainties; to take them into the struggle to make sense of the traces the past has left behind.
This approach to podcasting sees the listener, not as a passive recipient of an interesting tale, but as an integral part of this process of meaning-making. We want listeners to finish an episode with a sense that they have made connections themselves. We hope they will leave with tools that help them to see in a different light and perhaps also, with the inspiration to go off and do some exploring of their own. We will be thrilled if they share what they find. This is the kind of history podcast we are working towards and our first four History Lab episodes are an experiment in that direction.
It matters for two reasons.
First, in a world of fake-news and post-fact, showing what lies behind historians’ claims to knowledge about the past is imperative if those claims are to be believed.
Second, and related, personal experience is transformative. Abstractions and stories must be taken on trust, but lived experience is direct. Hearing steps echoing in empty corridors and the host wondering about the things historians say, invites the listener into the process of discovery. It opens up the experience of history-making to all who listen.
In these two ways, History Lab seeks to be a contribution to public discourse – it is premised on the notion that doing the work of thinking and making meaning together is central to the good society.
In a world in which we are bombarded with “content” and enclosed in filter bubbles, audio is slow and intimate. It requires both the listener and the producer to stop and attend. By bringing out multiple and sometimes marginalised voices and by opening up the question of how we know, History Lab provides a space for complexity and contestation. Through the magic of sound, it makes history-making a vivid and sensory experience. It is a tiny space in which, for 30 minutes, thinking and making meaning together is enacted.
In June 2018, History Lab will be launched as an engagement platform for all historians working in and outside of institutions across Australia. For more information on how to pitch an idea and all that this entails, visiting the pitching page.
Connecting with audiences beyond the academy is increasingly central to the work of academic researchers. Historians engage with broad audiences in a variety of ways, from writing for public audiences, to building partnerships with teachers, institutions and community groups. Effective engagement requires more than broadcasting the research of academics to “outside” audiences. It entails a plan for connecting and building relationships with people and groups who have their own experiences of the past and working together with them on ways of making sense of it. Although there are many brilliant exceptions, this kind of engagement is often not feasible for academic researchers.
The rapidly growing popular demand for podcasts makes it a promising – but as yet unharnessed – platform for historical engagement. While the ABC is fantastic, it is pressed for resources and has only limited capacity. We want History Lab to be an audio platform for the whole historical community in Australia.
But making really good audio is time consuming and therefore expensive. It is also requires skills in recording, sound design and editing that academic historians simply do not have.
Central to History Lab is its partnership with 2SER and its stable of brilliant producers, many of whom, in a fragmented media landscape, are simultaneously working for major broadcasters and brands. Trained in media and communications, these audio-makers are a new breed of journalists. With an ear to how things sound, they chase down leads and unearth lines of enquiry that historians have never imagined, and they use their full armoury of story-telling and sound production skills to produce a history podcast that is very much a collaboration between historian, host and producer. This means that, if History Lab is a platform for doing history, it is also crucially a nesting ground for the nation’s rising generation of audio-makers, providing opportunities for career development, mentoring and leadership as well as the support of the History Lab and 2SER network.
Building an audience of listeners will also be key to History Lab’s success. Without the amplifying power of a national radio station, we need all the help we can get to promote the show to a variety of audiences. The larger our listening community, the more effective History Lab will be in its quest to be a space for thinking about the past and making meaning together.
If you are interested in helping us make History Lab a platform for the whole history community, or if you are already using History Lab in your classrooms, please do get in touch. We’d really love to hear from you.