History podcasts are a way to bring historical analysis and insight to a wide-ranging listening public. To do so, a history podcast must engage its audience, creating a narrative arc that brings the listener along from start to finish. At their best, history podcasts help their listeners understand something that they did not understand before.
Before making a podcast of your own, you have a chance to listen to and critique a professional podcast.
Sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, BackStory examines the “history behind the headlines” by taking a contemporary news topic and using it to take a “deep dive into our past,” as the podcast website puts it.
Your job is to choose a BackStory episode and write a critical commentary, or a critique, like you might see in the Washington Post arts section, or the New Yorker. Your goal is to consider the choices that the podcasters made and whether those choices combine to create an effective episode. If you thought the podcast did not work, that’s fine too! Just remember to support your criticism or praise with concrete examples from the episode.
Along with your commentary, write up an outline of the podcast, indicating at what points (ie minutes: seconds) the podcast switches gears, plays music, introduces an interview etc. Dissecting the BackStory episode will help you when it comes to putting together your own outline for your podcast in a couple of weeks.
Note: You may choose any BackStory podcast you like, but your choice must be an original BackStory podcast (not an episode where the podcast uses material from another podcast). For example #202 “Skin Deep: Whiteness in America” is not a good pick. If you have a question about whether your selection works, just ask.
The large print: Your 400-500 word podcast critique and accompanying outline are due at the start of class on Nov. 13. At the top of your critique, clearly identify the podcast that you are writing about, including the podcast number and the title.
Some things to think about as you listen to and evaluate your BackStory episode:
Does the episode have a central theme? If so, how is that theme carried through? Is the theme of the podcast different than the subject of the podcast? In other words, is the podcast about one thing literally, but in reality about something deeper and more abstract?
How is the overall podcast structured? What connects the various episode segments? Are the individual segments of the podcast scripted, meaning that it sounds like the podcasters are reading from a printed script, or loosely structured, meaning that there is some organization to the conversation, but they also improvise?
How does the podcast take advantage of the auditory medium to connect to the listener? Does the podcast use sound effects? Music? Interviews? How does the podcast toggle between past and present?
What kinds of techniques does the podcast use to evoke a historical moment? Do the podcasters read or have someone else read historical documents? Do they incorporate historic audio or sound files?
What kinds of techniques does the podcast use to keep the listener engaged? Does the podcast use humor? Suspense? Surprise? What is the tone of the podcast: Is it serious? Informal? Chatty? Funny? Somber? Newsy? Are there lots of voices? Just one voice?
Lastly, how does the podcast handle credits: Where in the episode do the speakers give information about the people that they interviewed, or the files that they used?
Tip: You are going to need to listen to the BackStory podcast more than once to do this assignment.
The first time you listen, put on your headphones and do something active: Go for a walk, clean your dorm room or go to the gym. Keep something handy – like a notes app or a notecard, so you can jot down elements of the episode that really strike you. But you are mostly listening to get an overall sense of the episode. What is it about? How do the podcasters bring you, the listener, along? Don’t try to do something visual while you are listening – don’t surf around the internet, or scroll through Facebook. You may think you can multitask, but you can’t.
The second time you listen to the podcast, you should be generating your outline on the side. This listen-through will take you longer than the timespan of the episode because you will constantly be starting and stopping the recording.
A PDF version of the assignment is available for download.