It’s an intimate feeling when you are listening to a podcast. The podcast hosts will be speaking softly and slowly to you through your headphones. Where so much of digital engagement with archives comes through a bright screen, podcasts feel different because the human voice makes them a personal experience. Podcasts give us an immersive connection to the subject discussed and can be a powerful mechanism for engaging new audiences in archives.
Let me take you back to a dreichy evening in the Highlands of Scotland. Our story begins in the upstairs of one of the murkiest pubs in Inverness, where I scooped up a slightly intoxicated environmental scientist named Jenny Johnstone. She had just performed a superb stand-up comedy routine which culminates in a dreadful human-dolphin noise.* We started blethering and I learnt she had an incredible curiousity about history, so we decided to make a podcast together about Scottish nature and heritage.
Everything about the Stories of Scotland podcast is grounded in archival research. With my co-host, I played about with different formats of presenting archives. We discovered that a storytelling format was most engaging and although it was fun to develop, this made me feel a bit uncomfortable at first. My co-host would take quotes from archives and tell them in silly accents. It didn’t feel professional, however it was engaging to listen to. We developed a style of presenting the podcast which balanced both our personalities and professions. The archives offered amazing content, but it’s the delivery of the stories within that matters in podcasting.
This process of experimentation with storytelling from archives gave me a completely different perspective on the collections I encountered. For me, it reaffirmed the incredible value of oral traditional culture which I feel is often absent in heritage institutions. Multiple past cultures in the Scottish Highlands relied on oral traditions to keep their histories, from the Norse skald to the Gaelic clan seanchaidh. In the modern world, storytelling is an archive for multiple cultures in Scotland and across the globe, it’s a living record and at the heart of it is creativity. Our podcast performance of the archives felt relevant and connected us to a rich culture of storytelling.
For example, our first episode on bothy culture delved into oral traditions for 19th and early 20th century agricultural workers in rural Scotland. It felt authentic to portray bothy-related newspaper archives in an informal way because it reflected the nature of bothies.
Orality has its own unique characteristics that can be lost when they are converted to text. Oral storytelling is a living experience, the nuances and performance of the storyteller is what makes it unique and seductive to listeners.
For me, the process of podcasting about archives has re-energised my passion for the archive profession. Stories of Scotland receives thousands of downloads across the globe. My co-host and I receive regular messages from listeners who tell us that the podcast has special meaning for them, and this is very touching. With podcasting, people feel like you are telling stories directly to them, and this is a splendid way to experience archives. It’s wonderful to think of building a wee community of listeners influenced by Scottish archives. Podcasting is an opportunity to broaden the impact of the stories we care about.
Pointers for podcasting your archives:
- There’s a massive appetite for high quality podcast content. Choose collections that intrigue you, and your listeners will come along for this journey.
- Plan and map out the episode before you start recording. For Stories of Scotland episodes we aim to be between 20 and 40 minutes. Each episode is themed on a particular subject and divided into segments of 5-7 minutes which look at a different aspect of the theme. Before we start recording, we have printed copies of any archive material we will read from.
- Find a tone that fits the archive you are discussing but be yourself. Try to be open-hearted and honest. I love describing the materiality of archives, talking about the imprints on the paper, discolouration or scribbly handwriting.
- Aim for the best sound quality you can achieve. There are affordable microphones for different budgets and try to record in a small quiet space.
- Deliver your podcast through an RSS feed. This can be hosted on your own website or on a podcast host like Libsyn or Podbean which charge a fee. The RSS feed can be submitted to Apple podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts and lots of smaller podcast apps.
- Show notes can be used to increase findability and accessibility. They are also a good place to reference the archives you use. One of my regrets is that I didn’t use show notes at first, but I’m trying to change this.
*Jenny’s dolphin noise can be heard on the Stories of Scotland podcast in episode Covesea Part 1.
Annie Gilfillan, PhD candidate, University of the Highlands and Islands