In this post, OHMA alum Kate Brenner (2014) writes about her desire to make oral history projects more accessible to a public audience. The popularity of podcasts means the field is ripe for oral history, but breaking into the world of radio is difficult for people unfamiliar with it. As a result, Kate decided to start Amplify: The Oral History Podcast Network.
Not long after I handed in my thesis at Columbia, I decided I would try to be a freelance oral historian—which, in my early days of exploring this path, meant I spent a lot of time working as a delivery person, zipping around the Lower East Side on my adult-sized Razor scooter.
The pay was terrible for these side gigs, but I got to listen to a lot of podcasts. I was entertaining the idea of making my own podcast, and consequently devouring the backlog of episodes of the podcast How Sound to learn as much about audio production as I could. I was waiting outside a pizzeria for my delivery to be ready when the episode “Finding the Story When You Know Too Much” came on.
The episode analyzed a Radiolab episode that I’d heard before, and really enjoyed because it used oral histories. Ostensibly, the point of this episode was that the producer of the piece on German POW camps in Iowa had to learn everything about the subject and then figure out how to whittle it down to a coherent podcast.
But that’s not what I heard.
I heard the story of a woman who was passionate about a subject, did all the research, and made an impeccable case as to why it should be made into a podcast. The dramatic climax of her narrative is getting rejected for the podcast, until she’s in line at security about to fly somewhere and gets a call from Radiolab. They want her to come in immediately to talk about her idea. She ditches her flight and goes to work on her episode.
It had never even occurred to me how difficult it must be to get on a well-known podcast. One of my classmates, Leyal Vural (2014), made a short audio piece from her thesis on Hart Island—New York’s potter’s field—and it was so compelling that I spent forever trying to convince her to submit it to This American Life, with little knowledge of how to actually do that.
It’s simply out of reach for most people who do oral history projects because podcasting isn’t really something we talk a lot about or learn how to do. So the hours and hours of amazing stories we record are sometimes doomed to languish in archives and on harddrives, precluding them of the chance to make it into the world of podcasts that other people run.
Unless I did it.
Instead of fighting against the current, I decided right then—on my somewhat absurd scooter—to just make my own space. Rather than spending the time to try and get a short spot on a pre-existing podcast, or even just a stand alone podcast of my own, I was going to create Amplify: The Oral History Podcast Network: a place for others who want to make podcasts.
So that’s what I’m doing.
I’m bringing podcasting to oral history. Or maybe oral history to podcasting. My oral history network will serve as an incubator, to help foster the creation of high quality, oral history-based podcasts.
Do you want to make a podcast from your project? Come to Amplify. Need something interesting to listen to on your commute? Check out Amplify.
I named the network “Amplify” after a quote from renowned oral historian Alessandro Portelli; you probably know the sentiment that we don’t give voices, we amplify them. Portelli says, “The real service I think we provide to communities, movements, or individuals, is to amplify their voices by taking them outside, to break their sense of isolation and powerlessness by allowing their discourse to reach other people and communities.” (1)
Podcasts aren’t the only answer to this, but they are one great answer. And I’m already starting.
I just released my first episode of The Other Side of the Mic on August 1. Every other Monday, I’ll have a new interview with someone who uses oral history to make something that people can experience for themselves. I want to cover traditional subjects and projects, as well as some that are unusual or push the bounds of oral history.
So join me in this oral history podcasting renaissance:
Subscribe and listen to The Other Side of the Mic or reach out with your project. Turn your oral histories into their own podcast. Use your expertise in audio editing to help someone get started with podcasting.
There are so many ways to be involved and I hope Amplify can be the place where we work together.
To learn more about this podcast network, visit www.amplifyvoices.org. You can also follow Kate (@amplify_kate) and Amplify on Twitter (@amplify_voices). Kate’s first podcast, The Other Side of the Mic, is available for download on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts.
(1) Alessandro Portelli, The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997), 69.