BackStory

The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities

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Diverse podcasts hook listeners

A screenshot of podcasts in the iTunes store.

A screenshot of podcasts in the iTunes store.

Editor’s note: Rachel Isralowitz is a student reporter for Summit High School in Summit, NJ. This story originally appeared in Summit’s student newspaper, The Verve.

Three historians analyze the true story behind “The Revenant.” A reporter investigates a military court-martial. A “Seinfeld” star reads an essay about a dying goldfish.

These diverse topics are all featured on podcasts, audio recordings available online, that have recently surged in popularity.

A 2015 study by Pew Research Center found that 17 percent of Americans had listened to a podcast in the past month. This percentage has nearly doubled since 2008.

Podcasts provide both information and entertainment. The top-rated “Serial” unravels the mystery of soldier Bowe Bergdahl’s apparent desertion and eventual court-martial, while “Modern Love” features actors, such as Jason Alexander, reading true stories about the different types of love.

Another popular podcast, “BackStory with the American History Guys,” is hosted by University of Virginia Professors Mr. Peter Onuf and Mr. Brian Balogh and University of Richmond Professor Mr. Ed Ayers. “BackStory,” which has ranked in iTunes’ top ten “Society and Culture” podcasts, explains the historical roots of current events.

In a recent episode, the hosts examined Oscar-nominated films. In addition to “The Revenant,” the show features the history of the psychology behind “Inside Out” and an interview with the daughter of James Donovan, the lawyer played by Tom Hanks in “Bridge of Spies.

Brian Balogh

Brian Balogh

“The main audience for the show is made up of people who are not history specialists but who are interested in history, as well as political, social and cultural trends and who want to know about how we got to where we are today,” said Balogh.

The audiences also include teachers using podcasts in the classroom.

Other teachers have recorded their own podcasts. For example, Biology teacher Ms. Cynthia Vitale creates podcasts that include course material and then assigns them for homework.

“These podcasts allow me to devote more of class time to hands-on activities instead of lecture,” said Vitale.

Junior Alexis Greenblatt listens to podcasts for entertainment rather than education.
“Listening to ‘Serial’ was almost like watching a Netflix show. It always left me hanging and wanting more information,” Greenblatt said.