“What Endures:” Producing and Publishing an Oral History Podcast
In 2009, the T. Harry Williams Center for Oral History began producing an oral history podcast that can be found on the center’s blog, hosted by Louisiana State University Libraries Special Collections. What follows is a brief synopsis of the project and some guidelines for podcast production using oral history collections.
Why Podcast Oral History?
In 1999, Charles Bolton, then director of the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Oral History and Cultural Heritage, received an Award of Merit for the radio series Mississippi Voices: A Trip through the Twentieth Century. The exposure garnered from this radio broadcast broadened public knowledge about Mississippi’s history and about the center’s rich oral history collection. Not everyone has the chance to work with public radio producers to replicate such an opportunity, but wouldn’t it be great if anyone in the field of oral history could produce a radio-like program featuring oral history interviews? Well, today this is possible thanks to new media and Web 2.0 applications.
Podcasting is one of the technological advancements that all oral history practitioners can use to their benefit. Essentially, an oral history-based podcast is a fluid exhibition produced in a consistent, shareable format. Today, producing a podcast is relatively simple and inexpensive, and the product is readily available to the public. Even those who have only brief access to the Internet can quickly download an episode for later consumption.
Public access to oral histories online, in their entirety or partially, has been a focus of the discipline for some time now. Since oral history is based on either audio or video recordings, the marriage of oral history and podcasting makes sense. Plus, anyone conducting interviews already has the equipment necessary for producing a podcast. Also, since they are generally easily accessible and free, sharing resources through this medium aligns with the democratic principles of oral history.
An audio or video podcast is a web-based broadcast of compressed digital media files, delivered through RSS feeds. They are designed for download or streaming playback on computers, tablets, smart phones, and MP3 players, and are typically released episodically so users can download and listen at their own leisure. There are endless possibilities for podcast types, one of which is an oral history-based production.
What Endures: The Williams Center’s Project Experience
The idea of producing a podcast for the Williams Center was born over winter break in 2005, when the director received her first iPod. Because of her long commute to campus, she was immediately enamored by the portability and content diversity of podcasts. Inspired, she conceived the production of an oral history podcast for the center that would integrate content from previous exhibitions and presentations that featured clips from oral history collections. She also imagined interviewing oral historians working in the field, specifically center partners. The immediate, ostensible goals were to reach a wider audience, to showcase stimulating content, and to increase awareness of the center’s collections and their public outreach program. The secondary objective was to standardize a way to present materials, moving away from reliance on PowerPoint presentations and into a format that was more easily accessible and portable.
In the fall of 2009, the Williams Center, after years of planning, launched its first episode in the series What Endures and produced 12 to 13 episodes at regular intervals over 18 months. By that time, podcast publishing had become mainstream, the center had 15 years of exhibition and presentation content from which to draw, the director had assembled an excellent support staff, and the infrastructural support of the LSU Libraries administration came to fruition. The publishing pace did not slow until after LSU cut state funding to the Williams Center, resulting in a reduction of staff and resources. Overall, it has been a successful endeavor and this article is meant to employ lessons learned from that experience that will be useful in outlining best practices for publishing an oral history-based podcast.
Producing What Endures
To take the first step toward the creation of What Endures, staff researched the podcasting landscape and examined current formats and content from various genres. After thorough analysis of dozens of productions, a basic outline for What Endures episode production was born. The resulting podcast script template and blog format template have been imperative to every episode’s production, and standardization has helped expedite the process (see appendix).
The subsequent analysis of how oral history content was being published as podcasts from 2008 to 2009 revealed that there were very few episodic, show-like oral history productions. Even Storycorps, whom many die-hard oral historians consider to exist outside of the customary field of oral history, was posting only short vignettes, sans full citations and public access information. Some institutions like the New York Public Library published conventional oral histories in this format as a way to make item-level collections available. That is, they published full audio or video interviews and/or accompanying transcriptions as podcasts for public access purposes. Since LSU already has an online content host in the LOUISiana Digital Library, electronic public access was not what the center needed from this medium. Rather, the idea was to bring attention to the center’s materials by showcasing engaging audio clips and to bring to life the people whose stories were housed in the center’s collection. Perhaps seeing oral histories used as secondary sources would inspire patrons to use the center’s collections for their own projects or to partner with us to create their own. Maybe listeners would be encouraged to donate interviews or even funding. What Endures is a way to advertise the center, promote its mission, and introduce the public to its personnel–the staff and students behind the processes of interviewing, archiving, and public outreach.
After 15 years of outreach, the center had any number of audio-visual presentations and exhibitions from which to pull content. Over the years, center staff had published books; produced small films; aided in the creation of documentaries; produced a number of HTML presentations, multiple PowerPoint presentations, and a few iMovies; and co-curated several in-house LSU Library exhibitions. In fact, a significant amount of material for several of the first podcasts came from the 2007 exhibition Have You Heard? co-curated by LSU Libraries Exhibitions Coordinator Leah Wood Jewett and the Williams Center director. After recycling material for the first four episodes, producers and writers began mixing previously used content with new material in order to explore new angles. Today, although there is a significant amount of established content from which to choose, staff researches and features new material as the need arises. Even after a reduction in resources and personnel, the center still publishes new episodes at regular, although longer, intervals thanks to the vast amount of content, the established workflows, the template, and the experience and creativity of the producers and writers involved.
The production of What Endures, or any podcast, is not achievable without the ideal staff in place. The center had both this and the support of LSU Libraries. Each staff member has differing responsibilities in the production of What Endures. The center’s director, Jennifer Cramer, is the executive producer, head writer, and facilitator. She also hosts, researches, generates public interest, and serves as the audio engineer when personnel are low. The manuscripts processor, Erin Hess, researches, copyedits, coauthors, and coproduces the shows she does not write, host, and produce herself. She also assists with audio isolation and editing. The audio engineer, locates audio clips, compiles, splices, and optimizes the excerpts into one audio file, and negotiates server distortion. In the audio engineer position until September of 2010, Rob Fleming also brainstormed, hosted episodes, researched, and gave feedback on script design and content. The contributions of the graduate assistant, Blake Renfro, include research, writing, brainstorming, and co-hosting. Other special collections faculty and staff assist as well, including Germain Bienvenu, whose voice is heard in the intro/outro, and Elaine Smyth, who– as head of special collections– provided feedback, especially with the early episodes.
The remaining steps in the pre-production of What Endures included the following: completing a technical training workshop, vetting content, designing a production template, securing and testing equipment, setting up a recording area, and establishing a podcasting framework within the center’s existing blog. Each task was completed in overlapping stages and took varying degrees of time (see Table 1 below).
Challenges, Lessons Learned, and Feedback
While feedback about What Endures has been positive and constructive, as with any project– especially new endeavors in uncharted territory– the production and publication of the podcast has faced and continues to face challenges. The lessons learned from how the center navigates these hurdles, small and large, can be readily transformed into actionable items and solutions. It is also our hope that we can provide some advice for others who are beginning production or find themselves in similar situations.
The most immediate challenge for many oral history collections using analog interviews would be analog-to-digital file-conversion (ADC). Fortunately, the center began an in-house digitization initiative in 2007 and used a donor-funded endowment to purchase the ADC hardware and software that is instrumental in audio post-production. For those oral history projects or programs without institution-sized set-ups, there are less expensive solutions for ADC and free audio editing programs are available; however, this aspect of production of episodes takes time.
Time is, in fact, the most common challenge in any production, in particular as it applies to the frequency of publication. Initially, we hoped it would be possible to publish on a bi-weekly basis, which, in hindsight, is laughable. Of course, we soon realized that a monthly frequency was more reasonable because many post-production steps take more time than is allotted. Further reducing the amount of time available for staff to publish a secondary source is the budget cut that eliminated state funding for the Williams Center. And, after the loss of an audio engineer, we are reducing the frequency of What Endures episodes to once a semester. Clearly, to produce quality content, flexibility is the key.
Sometimes adaptation is not possible and we have little choice but to work with the options we have, however narrow they may be. For example, we must use a very basic version of a WordPress–a blogging application that has basic support for podcasting. The LSU Libraries already use this application and IT staff has ultimate administrative privileges. Together we eventually cobbled together a way to publish podcast episodes with limited plug-ins. A bothersome result is that, on the center’s blog site, the RSS feed appears to be unavailable on some browsers and the “download” plug-in does not actually allow for downloading from the blog. We remedied this by making episodes available through iTunes. It is also helpful that the episodes are included on LSU Libraries’ Facebook page. A more streamlined way to make a podcast publicly accessible is to use a publishing site like Podbean, where subscribers can design and publish each episode with a corresponding blog post. Also, sites like Podbean will store the audio or video files on the site’s server for free or for a small fee, depending on storage requirements. The center, however, stores the audio files on LSU’s server, which during times of heavy usage, causes a frustratingly irreconcilable streaming distortion. This renders, at times, less than professional audio quality.
To ensure that the product is appealing to the listener, it must have professional sound quality. If time and resources permit, the center’s director– or anyone experimenting with podcasting— should seek help from a community or campus resource (like Mass Communications at LSU) to assist with audio engineering issues in the final stages of production and publication. One small tweak any producer should make is to incorporate pauses for station identification, in case public radio wants to feature an episode. In addition, the center, and any aspiring oral history podcaster should experiment with shorter vignettes posted on a more frequent basis, as these may also be more easily incorporated into local radio or online newspaper content.
LSU Media Relations is very supportive of What Endures, posting press releases to LSU Today and other local news organizations. The center was also featured in a regional magazine, Country Roads, and the series was mentioned in a few public radio announcements and in several Baton Rouge Advocate stories about oral history. However wonderful this free advertising is, it would be ideal if What Endures could be included in the university’s radio station programming and online newspaper content. Unfortunately, neither has yet responded to the center’s inquiries. Perhaps the burden is on the center to prove more interesting or to do a better job of marketing the series and episodes. Marketing, however, is another challenge. The advertising budget is zero and we actually pay for materials like business cards out of pocket. In the future, the director and the LSU Libraries administration might more aggressively advocate the use of the What Endures content in the university and local media. After all, the content is free for them. Also, if LSU, or any organization with similar content decides to participate in iTunes U, an oral history podcast would be a great addition. The iTunes U program is where consumers can currently find numerous existing oral history-based podcasts that have arisen over the past three years.
The positive feedback from the community about What Endures has been immediate and long-term. The LSU community is embracing it and often features university-related episodes on LSU’s homepage. The general public responds to episodes with stories of their own, suggestions for interview candidates, or requests for workshops. Other Web sites link to various What Endures episodes, and when the podcasts are incorporated into training workshops, audience members are impressed with how quickly a podcast can be produced and published.
How to Get Started with Podcasting
The previous sections recount the beginning-to-end production process of What Endures so that the reader may derive tips from the center’s experiences. This section will emphasize, in a more step-by-step manner, what will be necessary and helpful to produce an oral history-based podcast (see also Table 2 below).
Build a Concept
Research the current podcast landscape. Compare and contrast the attractions and detractions within content and format. Involve staff, students, and others in this endeavor to get multiple perspectives on what does or doesn’t work.
Consider your intended audience. Who are they? What will pique their interest? How can you present your collections to them in a way that will be intriguing? It is also important to tailor the tone, or voice, of your podcast to your intended audience.
Choose a title for your podcast series that you will want to keep. Your title should be something simple, original, catchy, and meaningful that you’ll be comfortable saying over and over again. Also, choose titles for each episode that reflect the content.
Carefully consider the episode length. Twenty to thirty minutes is a good standard. You don’t want to overwhelm or bore your audience, but you don’t want it to be so short that it feels incomplete to the listener. Also consider how much time you can feasibly fill with your material. If you plan on having episodes distributed via radio or other outlets, think about creating multiple versions (short vignettes and an extended episode).
It’s a good idea to get technical training on podcast production, publishing, and audio engineering. Workshops are often offered by local libraries, universities, or even online. In a few hours you can learn the basics.
Determine what recording equipment you will use for your host audio. Often times you can use field recording equipment, but you may want to record directly to your computer’s hard drive. Experiment recording your host audio in MP3 and WAV formats and using different recorders and microphone setups (if available) to determine what combination will render the best quality. Designate an area where you can record your host audio portions to achieve a consistent sound.
Determine the audio editing software that best fits your needs by researching and asking colleagues. Experiment with editing: make changes within individual clips, edit clips together, and convert file formats.
Choose a podcast publishing site and/or Web page design software and familiarize yourself with how it operates.
Consider the extent of your blog posts for each episode. Full citations are a must, and transcriptions of excerpts are highly encouraged. In addition, decide if you will also transcribe host audio portions or include images. You will need to employ the tags feature on your blog to generate online visibility.
Make plans for how you will reach you audience and publicize your production. Will you generate printed materials? Are you planning to use social media and/or conventional media? How? From whom can you solicit help or sponsorship?
Create Internal Workflow
Establish what roles various staff members will play: Who will be the executive producer, episode producer(s), writers, host(s), and audio engineer? Establish various corresponding responsibilities.
Create a standardized script and blog template or outline to assist you in keeping a consistent format from episode to episode (see appendix).
Plan potential episode topics in advance to determine what you want to cover and in what order. Your first few might provide an overview of your project or organization and give a sampling of your collection. Subsequently, focus on more specific topics. It is crucial to identify your best material and determine how you can do it justice. If you plan to release episodes to coincide with certain dates or historic commemorations, planning ahead is crucial. Try to stick to the release dates you’ve chosen, although this can be especially difficult in the beginning when you’re still learning.
Keep all materials organized. Use a dedicated, backed-up location with clearly labeled folders that are accessible to everyone involved in the production. Back up your files frequently.
Divvy up specific production steps among your staff. Determine who will research, write, and host, or co-host, each episode. Research the content; choose audio and possibly corresponding images.
Write and edit the script. Remember to introduce each episode and the hosts, especially if there are co-hosts who might sound similar. Beware of being too academic and exclusive with both content and discipline jargon. Avoid lengthiness. Be sure to credit all contributors in the intro.
Rehearse your script before you start recording: You want to sound like you’re having a conversation, not reading off a page. However, don’t practice too much or fatigue will set in. You are most likely to get it right on the second take.
Record the host audio. Edit segments and splice them together with interviewee excerpts into the final episode. For your first episode, create and publish a draft in advance to identify and correct any problems.
Update the corresponding blog entry with citations, text, photos, contact, and copyright information. You can usually copy and paste from your script to speed this process.
Publish the episode and publicize it through local networks, social media, and conventional media. Monitor the blog/Web site stats and solicit feedback that you can incorporate into the production of your next episode.
Congratulations! You now have an enjoyable, portable, and easily accessible podcast showcasing your oral history collections.
Citation for Article
Cramer, J. A., & Hess E. M. (2012). What endures: producing and publishing an oral history podcast. In D. Boyd, S. Cohen, B. Rakerd, & D. Rehberger (Eds.), Oral history in the digital age. Institute of Library and Museum Services. Retrieved from http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/what-endures/.
Cramer, Jennifer Abraham and Erin M. Hess. “What Endures: Producing and Publishing an Oral History Podcast,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/06/what-endures/
This is a production of the Oral History in the Digital Age Project (http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu) sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS). Please consult http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/about/rights/ for information on rights, licensing, and citation.