01 May 2007

Canadian History Podcasts?

A few months ago, I decided to drop my guard against all things digital. Well, not all things. But a good number of them. One of the digital technologies I have since embraced is podcasting.

Podcasts, for those unfamiliar with the term, are sort of like digital radio programs you can listen to on a computer or mobile audio player. (With the introduction of video to the world of portable music players, some podcasts have also taken to offering visual complements to their audio files, but I will not delve into that realm in this post.)

In a December blog post, Joel Ralph, a graduate of the UWO’s Public History Program (in which I am currently enrolled), wrote about history podcasts. I, too, had been thinking about that topic all last semester. Ever since enrolling in Digital History, I’ve searched – and found quite a few – podcasts suited to my liking. Unfortunately, though, not one of the podcasts I regularly listen to are about history (My interest in history tends to focus on Canadian content. If I were to broaden my scope, I am certain that I’d find many more podcasts that deal with history. Joel even mentioned a few in his blog).

One organization that is, I believe, really making quite a lot of headway in podcasting is the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I first stumbled upon a podcast called All in the Mind, hosted by Natasha Mitchell. Actually, just like Alan Cross’s The Ongoing History of New Music podcast, All in the Mind is really a radio show that is also available in podcast format. One of the reasons I like All in the Mind is that I am constantly educated and entertained. Scouring the ABC podcast site, I found some other very interesting podcasts, not the least of which were two history podcasts, Verbatim and Hindsight.

Compared to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the Aussies have us licked. There are probably 40 or 50 podcasts on the ABC website, compared with only 27 at the CBC.

The CBC conducted a survey in December 2005 about who downloads their podcasts, and how and when those people listen. Unfortunately – for people interested in history – the results are not promising. As the summary of the survey notes, “When asked what kind of content Canadians want from CBC Radio podcasts, the overwhelming response was for national news, current affairs and music.”

Again, I should point out that all of the podcasts on both sites are really radio shows put into podcast format. And seeing as the ABC and CBC are already equipped with the technology, the people, the budgets, and their respective brand names, the appeal to potential listeners is likely greater than for some schmo producing podcasts out of his two-bedroom flat in London, Ontario (I toyed with the idea of making some of my own history podcasts to fill the void in content I mentioned earlier. Its on hold for now.).

Browsing the web for Canadian history podcasts, I, too, like Joel, did a Google search for “history + podcast” and received these results:

One interesting thing that appears is that two of the first ten results are military history podcasts. Not surprising really, considering that, in my view, many people practicing history outside the academic realm tend to like – and therefore engage with – military history. Just walk into a large bookstore like Chapters or Indigo, and look at the history books. More likely than not, the portion allotted to military history will be as large or larger than the entire remaining history section.

Note, however, that there are over 63 million hits on that Google search. 63 MILLION! Well, there is no way there are 63 million history podcasts out there. So, utilizing the skills I acquired in my digital history class this term, I played with my search a little. This time I tried “’history podcast,’” with quotation marks around the phrase, and no addition symbol. It trimmed down the results significantly:

Instead of 63 million hits, I got about 78,000. Two are still devoted specifically to military history, but more of these results focus on history education than in the previous search.

Conversely, and these results are by no means inclusive, a search in the iTunes Store of podcasts with the word “history,” reveals only thirty podcasts. Four of those podcasts are the same: Alan Cross’ The Ongoing History of New Music, so the total number of history podcasts available through iTunes is really twenty-seven. Of those twenty-seven, only six fall under the “History” category. Fourteen fall under “Education” or “Higher Education” or “K-12” (another way of saying “Education”). “Podcasts,” “Music,” “Places & Travel,” “Tech News,” “TV & Film,” and “Visual Arts” make up the remaining podcasts’ categorization:

Search: “history”
6 history
14 education
2 podcasts
1visual arts
1 places and travel
1 tech news
1 music
1 tv and film

Joel’s focus for history podcasts appears, by the name of his blog, to be about education, and more specifically, education as it occurs in the classroom. I like my history to be entertaining and broader in audience, which makes my search for history podcasts troubling.

First, one could conclude that I think education and entertainment are incompatible, which is simply not true. The disappointing outcome of my search is largely the result of the (admittedly) narrow scope of my subject matter (Canadian history). I do not think that by virtue of something being educational it is naturally devoid of entertainment value. I am both educated and entertained all the time. Take Alan MacEachern, for example. He teaches me and makes me laugh, often at once.

The second problem with my search results is the implication that history is not entertaining. Anyone who has seen Band of Brothers, the HBO six-part series on a Second World War U.S. Airborne Company, should be able to tell you otherwise. Even my fiancée, whose only interest in history lies in getting me to stop talking about it, could not get enough Currahee.

I think podcasts present an interesting venue for public history creators. We talked about it in our class on numerous occasions. So where are all the entertaining Canadian history podcasts?


Anonymous said...

Well, now you're one of the results I got while trying to find 'History Podcasts'. Hahaha

Mary said...

I'm the same as Carlo. Was trying to find some general Canadian History podcasts to listen to on the way to work, but all I can get is either really specific stuff that isn't well explained (i.e. you don't know what you're downloading) or stuff that's just not history.


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