Using Podcasts in U.S. History

Well-produced podcasts pull you in with evocative music, meaningful sound bites, and great narration. Good podcasts, in short, are good stories, which make them a natural fit in the history classroom.

Professors are already starting to take notice of this fact. For example, the website Teaching with Podcasts, founded earlier this year, provides full lesson plans to go along with selected podcasts. (You might also want to read its helpful set of answers to the question, “Why use Podcasts?”) I recommend using podcasts in the same way one might incorporate photos, videos, and other audio-visual material to enrich other primary documents, secondary scholarship, and lecture material. Because podcasts tell stories succinctly and evocatively, they are an especially powerful medium to facilitate student engagement.

Many students have never listened to a podcast, but they appreciate the “portability” of the medium. That is, they like podcasts for the same practical reasons anyone does — the fact that they can be listened to anytime, anywhere. I’ve seen enough freshmen at the gym with biology books propped up on the treadmill to know that being able to complete part of your coursework “on the go” is a big plus for students nowadays. But convenience aside, podcasts give students the opportunity to experience history in a new way. (NB: Accessibility can be an issue with podcasts; check with the resources on your campus to see if they have a dedicated team that can transcribe them for you to ensure all students have equal access.)

Below you’ll find three podcasts I’ve used to teach the U.S. survey, plus a list of other episodes that I think would work well in the classroom.

Weenie Royale: The Impact of the Internment on Japanese American Cooking,” The Kitchen Sisters.

The Kitchen Sisters, Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva, produce stories about hidden worlds. This 24-minute episode examines Japanese internment from a cultural angle and explores the lasting impact it had on what Japanese Americans ate and how it fundamentally altered the style of family meals. It also includes the personal stories of Japanese Americans who lived through the internment as children. Consider pairing this episode with documents about Japanese Internment, including Executive Order 4066 and pictures taken by Dorthea Lange.

American Icons: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial,” Studio 360

This 51-minute episode investigates the origin, construction, and controversy over the striking Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC. This podcast works well in a section on the power of memory, precisely because most students today did not live through the Vietnam War but constantly encounter the memory of this war. This podcast allows students to engage in questions that include: Who controls memory? How and why do we memorialize war? And can you celebrate a soldier without celebrating the war they fought in?

60 Words,” Radiolab

This is a favorite podcast among students because it is shocking. The award-winning podcast Radiolab produced this hour-long story five years ago and won a Peabody for its examination of the 2001 Authorization to use Military Force, or AUMF. Congress passed this 60-word authorization just weeks after 9/11 and its ill-defined language continues to be used to justify a slew of military actions that many Americans know very little about. I try to devote a final day of the modern U.S. survey to 9/11, because students are hungry for information about the seminal event of their generation. The AUMF is, simply, the legal foundation of the “war on terror,” a war that’s literally been going on their entire lives.

Here is a list of podcasts that I have not personally used in the classroom but nevertheless recommend.

“Confronting the Past,” Sidedoor

Sidedoor is an especially well-produced podcast put out by the Smithsonian Institute. This 22-minute episode about the 1921 Tulsa riot is chilling. It would be an excellent pair to a discussion about post-WWI racial violence.

“Missile Mail,” Sidedoor (1:39-7:21)

This barely six-minute story about the Postmaster General’s scheme to ship mail via missile in 1959 is a more light-hearted addition to this list. It would be a fun introduction to a discussion about the faith in technology that exploded (pun intended) in the early decades of the Cold War.

“It’ll Make Sense When You’re Older,” This American Life (Act Two)

This American Life is still the gold standard for radio, and this story is no different. Comedian Sasheer Zamata and her mother frankly discuss being called *the* racial slur. As the story goes on, you realize that Zamata’s mother, who was one of the first black students to help integrate a white junior high school, did not relish the opportunity. This is a complex story that can lead to a nuanced conversation about race, including the difficulties borne by children at the forefront of the mid-century struggle for black equality.

“The Deacons,” Undone

This is a great podcast that discusses the history of the Deacons for Defense and Justice. It would fit well into a discussion of how and why popular U.S. culture has embraced the non-violent image of the civil rights movement but has largely forgotten (or ignored) the complicated and often deadly reality of the struggle. This 34-minute episode is a great introduction to the Deacons and discusses their complex legacy. 

Sexism Takes Flight,” Sexing History

Sexing History is a brand-new podcast with high production values. This 36-minute episode about sexism in the airline industry would be a great primer on the second wave. Other Sexing History episodes are worth a listen, too!

Numbers,” The Memory Palace

This is a short (barely nine-minute) but powerful story about the Vietnam War draft lottery. It imagines how men felt, listening to the numbers come out, knowing that their number could be pulled at any moment. It’s a wonderful opportunity for teachers to humanize the soldiers who faced the draft.

Slow Burn,” Season One

This deep dive into the Watergate Scandal does a great job of imagining what it felt like to live through it. Instructors could select single episodes — there are eight hour-long podcasts — or, in a specialized class could also easily assign the whole thing.

“The Crime Machine” Part I & Part II, Reply All

Reply All is an irreverent podcast and is undoubtedly the most informal one listed here. However, this two-part episode about the creation and integration of CompStat, a computer program developed by the NYPD to track crime statistics in the 1990s, is a must-listen. The stated goal of CompStat is to make policing more efficient, but these two episodes demonstrate how it caused some serious consequences for the NYPD, and police forces nationwide These episodes would be a great addition to any syllabus, particularly for a course on policing, punishment, or the carceral state. (Bonus: it comes with a full transcript!)

There we have it! I encourage you to try a podcast or two in your next class and see how it goes. And please leave a comment if you have a favorite podcast or episode that you regularly use in the classroom!

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