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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

Oral History vs. Podcast: What an Oral History Is and Isn’t

Wisconsin Historical Society
All the oral histories I collect will be donated to the Wisconsin Historical Society

When I tell people that I’m collecting oral histories from people involved in organic and sustainable agriculture, I get an almost uniformly favorable response. In fact, one reason I started doing oral histories was because there was so much demand for it in the organic community. Several earlier oral history projects collected oral histories from organic farmers in California and from people involved in crafting USDA organic policy. And lots of other people want their stories recorded, too.

But one thing I’ve discovered as I do interviews is that not everyone has a clear idea of what an oral history actually is. Most people are more familiar with podcasts than with oral histories, and that sometimes leads to unrealistic expectations of what the finished product is going to sound like. An oral history is not going to sound like a professionally edited podcast or radio show. It’s not supposed to—and here’s why.

The goal of an oral history is simple: to record the story of someone who was involved in a historically significant event in their own words. That’s why the person telling the story is called a “narrator,” not an “interviewee” or a “research subject.” The interviewer (like me) still plays a role, asking questions to guide the conversation. But I try to avoid asking leading questions or interjecting my own opinion. (If you want to know my opinion on something, don’t ask until after the interview—I don’t want it influencing your response).

So what is the difference between an oral history and a podcast?

An oral history is recorded with the intention of preserving it in an archive. A podcast is recorded with the intention of making it available on the internet immediately, often without a long-term archival plan. So the podcast will be available sooner, but the oral history will last longer.

An oral history records the narrator’s story in their own words, exactly as they told it. I don’t edit my recordings at all, not even to remove mistakes. This may make the recording and transcript sometimes seem rough and informal. A podcast is often edited for clarity and will sound more polished to the listener. A podcast interviewer may also edit the content; an oral historian never will unless the narrator specifically requests it.

An oral history records the narrator’s perspective on past events. I may ask follow-up or clarifying questions, but I won’t question your beliefs or viewpoints during the interview. A podcast interviewer may do this as well, but sometimes slants interviews and asks leading questions to prompt answers that agree more with the interviewer’s agenda.

Finally, an oral history will probably be listened to by fewer people in the short term than a podcast. It’s not a polished product that you can stick in your earphones and listen to while doing something else. But in the long term, it will be available to more people, long after an ephemeral podcast might be lost to history.

Oral histories allow me to preserve each narrator’s story in their own words. And that’s why I keep doing them, even if they might not sound quite as cool as a professionally edited podcast.

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