Intro: Eunice Kim, first-year OHMA student, explores the transformation of radio and digital cultures—how it influences the ways archived interviews are perceived, used, and listened to.
Eric Marcus, who came to visit Columbia University on October 18, 2018 for an oral history workshop, is a unique, accidental oral historian. He is the founder and producer of the award-winning podcast, “Making Gay History.” But he started as a journalist, who liked to describe himself as “a short gay Jew from Queens, NY.” Who knew that the interviews he conducted and produced over 30 years ago, for the book, Making History: The Struggle for Gay and Lesbian Equal Rights: 1945-1990, would become an award-winning podcast? In seeking new audiences for his archived interviews, Marcus pioneered a way to incorporate oral history interviews into a popular digital medium.
When I first told my friends that I would be studying oral history, many asked, “What is that?” At the time, I did not know what it was and did my best to explain the field by connecting it to the cultures of radio. Then, one of my close friends said, “Oh, so you are studying to be a podcast host!” As Marcus’s “accidental oral historian” story shows, radio and podcasts are shaping the ways people use, perform, conduct, and understand interviews. So, what is oral history and does it share the same function as today’s podcasts?
Nowadays, especially with smartphones and streaming entertainment dominating our culture, podcasting has become a unique and effective way of sharing past, current, and future interviews. Podcast culture pushes oral history to be a living presentation for the public.
Oral history interviews provide an opportunity for people to recollect, revisit, translate, express, and process their life stories. These stories often include the struggles of coming to terms with one’s identity or lack of knowledge of who they are or who they are becoming. Oral history is not primarily about information gathering. At its heart is inter-subjective translation and the exchange of human-to-human knowledge based on life experiences. Oral histories are dialogic and they are creative. Due to this openness and versatility of oral history work, past interviews can be re-used within the creative worlds of ever-changing and upgrading technology.
As I pondered this versatility, I had this thought: oral history can be compared to cooking eggs. Julia Child, an iconic chef who changed America’s home cooking and food culture, expressed that eggs can be cooked in so many different ways because eggs are so multifaceted. From cooking scrambled eggs to using the yolks to make custards, oral history interviews are similar in that their multi-dimensionality can be applied to various projects. Who knows, you might record your mother saying, “Bon appetit!” And years later, that recording can become a digital representation for your personal project.
Marcus’s archives of interviews did not become a dusty box of recorded tapes in an attic. Using his personal creativity and the development of digital media, he brought the old interviews alive by presenting and integrating the stories with digital tools that are accessible and portable in our hands. Because he has presented them to the public, perhaps some other accidental oral historians in the future can use his podcast recordings to bring a new, nuanced flavor to sharing and exhibiting digital humanities and oral history. This is a form of a revolutionary transformation of what oral history has done, can do, and will do.
Eunice Kim was raised and has lived in Atlanta, Georgia before coming to New York to study Oral History at Columbia. She’s currently working on a project that examines the voices of sexual violence victims, survivors, and prevention advocates. After experiencing her own personal trauma, she has a desire to make a difference through storytelling. She approaches oral history as a creative platform in which interviews offer time and space for interviewer and narrator to come together to share their forms of artistry.