What happens when academic historians, museum professionals, and a radio producer try to tell a new story, every other week, for a large radio audience? How does that work? We’re still not entirely sure, but we think our podcast, TriPod: New Orleans @ 300, offers a model for bringing historical research to the public and fostering a new level of public engagement with the past, all via the radio and the internet. TriPod is a bi-weekly podcast that airs on New Orleans’s local NPR affiliate WWNO.
TriPod started two years ago when WWNO approached The Midlo Center and The Historic New Orleans Collection about creating a radio podcast for the city’s upcoming Tricentennial. It was an interesting proposal. While academic historians have become some of the most inventive curators and critics on the web, with a few exceptions (a big shout out here to Backstory), they haven’t veered towards radio. Museums perhaps even less so. The strength of this particular collaboration is that it gathers together different sets of expertise that are seldom used in concert. Universities, museums, and the media tend to work on parallel tracks when it comes to bringing history to the public. Talking heads and disembodied voices contribute to broadcasts of various sorts, but with TriPod we decided to bring everyone into the script room and see what happened. Which is not as simple as it sounds. In fact, if we were going to interview ourselves, it might sound something like this:
“As historians, we think we have an advantage when it comes to telling stories about the past because we traffic in these stories everyday.” This is Molly (aka Mary Niall), Associate Professor and the Midlo Chair in New Orleans Studies at the University of New Orleans. “I guess we like to believe, as the discoverers and interpreters of the past, that we know best how to convey it to others. But in truth, too many of the stories we find seem to stay hidden from general audiences. This seems especially sad with regard to local histories. So we thought: shouldn’t the people of New Orleans learn what historians have learned lately? After all, who is this history for in the end?”
“Ok, so historians have great stories.” (Laine chiming in here, radio producer at WWNO and producer for TriPod) “But in radio we can tell stories that really reach people, a lot of people—office workers in their cubicles and carpoolers in the family SUV.” Typically, if you’re interested in history, you have to go find it. You visit archives, museums, attend lectures, and seek out books and documentary films. The simple act of putting history stories on the radio creates a role reversal—history finds you. Broadcasting these segments on WWNO during Morning Edition exposes the thousands of listeners to these local histories, reaching a general public that otherwise would never discover them. The podcast format can reach even further beyond the ‘captive audience’ of NPR listeners, to those always in search of a new podcast to download.”
“Okay, but if you want to use history to engage the public, we can’t forget that museums have been thinking about this for a really long time.” (And this is Jess, publications director at The Historic New Orleans Collection) “Through our exhibitions and museum programs, we grant audiences direct access to the building blocks of history. But we’re so dependent on visual storytelling. How can we take all of these amazing raw materials in our archives, these artifacts and artworks, and translate them into good audio?
Good question, Jess. In fact one of the biggest challenges has been getting the historians and museum professionals in the room to think like radio producers and getting radio producers and editors to think like historians. Our editorial board–a small group of historians, curators, our writer/radio producer, and a radio editor—meets every month to develop script ideas, share interview contacts, and flag important lectures and events happening in the city to record for future episodes. This group also reads every script before it gets produced and recorded, contributes rewrites, raises questions, and yes, even fact checks. The editorial board is supported by a larger advisory board of research historians from across the country and around the world who specialize in the history of New Orleans. We draw on our advisors for interviews, story ideas, and even additional review of scripts when a given topic aligns with their area of expertise.
As much as we have learned from one another, we have also disagreed, sometimes profoundly, right up until deadline, on how a given story should be told. To use one example, talking about race and ethnicity in New Orleans is, well, hard. Precise language is key and time is always short—we try to keep each episode under ten minutes. So, for instance, the historians in the group might want to explain all the nuances of nineteenth-century race relations, but radio listeners aren’t necessarily going to absorb those intricacies. And, of course, academic historians don’t agree among themselves on how to tell a good story. A historian of tourism might broach the subject in one way, while a women’s historian might have a very different interpretation. If you want to hear how we resolved this particular kind of tangle, listen to our “Mythbuster!” episode on Quadroon balls and plaçage, which turned out to be one of the most popular podcasts.
We have discovered, too, that some of the most rewarding episodes are those that connect the past to the present in meaningful ways. We don’t chase after breaking-news headlines with every episode, but sometimes the timing just works. A Latin Americanist brought us the fascinating history of Camp Algiers, an immigrant detention center on Algiers Point (located across the river from the French Quarter but still part of New Orleans) during WWII. We produced and aired this two-part episode at the start of the Trump Administration’s first travel ban, when immigrants were being detained across the country. “An Absolute Massacre,” about the Mechanics Institute riot of 1866—when a white mob, joined by the police, attacked an assembly of the newly integrated Louisiana state legislature—aired in the aftermath of violent confrontations between police and civilians in 2016. And we were able to speak to historians of the Upstairs Lounge Fire of 1973 for perspective on the Orlando massacre at a gay nightclub last year.
We are working hard to promote Tripod as a teaching tool, as well, encouraging teachers to use episodes of the podcast in their classrooms. Each episode is also repurposed as a print story online, adding readership as a third audience of the same content. With our online presence, we are also able to add primary documents and additional audio that interested listeners can explore.
We are anxious to see where the next year of podcasting takes us. We seem to invent new strategies for collaboration with each new story we tell, and we have all learned more about the many facets of our city’s history than when we started. As we get closer to 2018 and the Tricentennial, New Orleans history just keeps getting more interesting. Stay tuned.
Click here to follow Tripod on iTunes.
Jessica Dorman is Director of Publications, Marketing, and Student Education at The Historic New Orleans Collection and a member of Tripod’s editorial committee. Laine Kaplan-Levenson is a multimedia producer in New Orleans and the host and producer of Tripod. Mary Niall Mitchell is Ethel & Herman L. Midlo Chair in New Orleans Studies and Associate Professor of History at the University of New Orleans. She is a senior editor for Tripod.