Updated: Dec 2, 2020
When it came to choosing the final entry for #PodcastingHistory (for now!) I knew it needed to go to the person who started me on the podcasting path, Elizabeth Keohane-Burbridge. So please, welcome her and enjoy her discussion about researching and creating the Footnoting History episode, "Cemeteries: Washington Park Cemetery and Early 20th-Century Atlanta":
Hello and welcome to Christine’s blog and my contribution to her series on #PodcastingHistory. I am Elizabeth Keohane-Burbridge, the producer of Footnoting History, a podcast series on anything and everything history (yeah, we’ve got an ep for that). It helps me - at all times - to start with a series of questions and develop my answers from there and that is how I will write this overview. Are you ready to learn all about what goes into making an episode of a history podcast? Well, then, by all means: keep reading! :)
Why did I start podcasting? A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I started a podcast series called Footnoting History. I was inspired by other history podcasts but also at a place in my life where I didn’t know if I had a monetizable future in history. I was working on my dissertation on late medieval England, had three small children, was adjuncting -- I felt like I would never finish graduate school and then, when I did, I would not land an academic position. I know, like I have always known, that I like to talk about history. It gives me happiness to research and present that research. I did not want to lose that joy and, so, I did what many have done: figured out a way to keep doing what I loved as a side-gig while potentially preparing for a stable job in an alternative field. Knowing that new content would be important to a growing show, but also realizing I did not have the time to do an episode a month, let alone a week, on my own (see above: dissertation, children, adjuncting), I contacted a number of friends from graduate school and asked if they would be interested. Well, 5 years, over 175 episodes, and almost 2 million downloads later, we’re still here.
What do you podcast about? Our show is largely unpredictable because we all get to choose our own topics and there’s no theme to our programming. All of us, however, have developed interests over the years which are reflected in our topic choices. I, for instance, started with late medieval England, but then moved onto using fiction as historical sources, and, finally, US History. You see, my fear that I would not be able to talk history in my career was unfounded: I teach high school history at an independent school in Atlanta, GA. My courses include both Modern World History and US History. (Yes, that’s right, I do not teach any courses on medieval history.) As I began to teach US history, I realized how much I don’t know, especially about the metro region in which I live. We moved from New York City to Atlanta about 8 years ago when my oldest was a toddler. My roots are largely in the NY-area and I was not familiar with the local history beyond Sherman burning it down during the Civil War. That brings me to the episode which is the focus of this post: “Cemeteries: Washington Park Cemetery and Early 20th-Century Atlanta.”
What’s the deal with that episode? Here’s why I want to talk about this episode: because it surprised me. I didn’t just learn things I didn’t know, I unlearned what I thought I knew, and found a story I never even considered existed. This episode was actually the Part II of an earlier episode on a white, working class cemetery in Atlanta ("Cemeteries: Local History of Mid-20th Century Atlanta") but what I learned while researching Washington Park Cemetery helped give me a better understanding of early 20th-century Atlanta and the South as a whole.
What research/work was involved? This question is a big one for academia, and I’m going to take you down a tangent that is actually one of the reasons Christine started this series: because of how public history (like podcasts which are intended not for experts but for the public) is not considered as lofty a goal as a work intended for your specialist community. The problem hinges on the fact that podcasts are not peer-reviewed (meaning that other scholars in the field aren’t required to vet them before release) and, as such, aren’t considered true academic work. And, yet, I used my training as an historian to find evidence and evaluate it as well as scholarly works on my topic - just as everyone on Footnoting History does for each episode. As I teach high school and am not on the tenure-track, this lack of inclusion toward podcasts does not impact my career, but it does feed a belief that I have “left academia” because to be “in academia” you need to publish in peer-reviewed journals or through university presses. Of course, publishing in those venues is excellent and scholarly, but if one is hoping to engage the public - and we at FH most certainly are - than we want to make our work accessible, meaning that we try to avoid professional jargon and keep our information freely available. Unfortunately for those still in academia, this goal has not yet caught on when filling your portfolio for tenure, but, hopefully, universities will begin to realize the value of our work.
No, really, what research was involved? Sorry, off my high horse. Okay, so as mentioned, this episode was a Part II. I found the cemetery I discussed in Part I simply by taking a walk by my house. I knew after learning that East View was a cemetery for white people, that I wanted to examine a cemetery in the Atlanta-area in which members of the black community were buried. I turned to google and came up with Washington Park Cemetery, also known as Washington Memorial Gardens. This cemetery was also within my county, but a drive, not walk, away. If you listen to the episode (please do!) you will learn the stories I discovered, so I will just describe the actual steps it took to develop this episode.
First, I bundled two of my daughters (the youngest was in daycare - the bigs were on Spring Break) into the car and we drove to Washington Park Cemetery. I was able to speak with a staff person there and my daughters and I walked the cemetery, finding people to research. At home, I turned to ancestry.com (I use my dad’s account) and began to piece together what I could about the two women and one man I had selected. In Georgia, as I knew from the previous episode, death certificates are not easily obtained by non-family members. A few weeks later, my oldest two (again, baby was at daycare) and I went to the Atlanta-Fulton Library to look at newspapers on their microfilm reader. While some newspapers are now available online, unfortunately the timeframes for the newspapers I was interested in were not, but, luckily, we live near a library that houses records of them. Re-learning to use a microfilm reader, which I had last used a decade ago while researching my dissertation in the UK, was a pleasant experience. We then drove to the Auburn Avenue Research Library at Georgia State University to use their computers to look at the Atlanta Daily World, an African-American newspaper with copies online - I did not have remote access to the database as I don’t have a Fulton County library card and the online access is not available through all libraries. It was there that I struck the motherlode as one of my subjects had numerous articles on her and my other two subjects had slightly more detailed histories in this newspaper for the black community rather than in the “white” newspapers available on microfilm at the Atlanta Fulton Public Library. I printed out the articles and put them in my little composition notebook in which I was recording everything I learned.
It was now summer. Yes, that’s right, my research took place over months because as a full-time working parent, this podcast is, sadly, considered my hobby and, therefore, comes after everything else - it does, however, sometimes allow me to show my children exactly what an historian does. But it was summer. I emailed the head archivist of the local county museum and asked if I could see any records they had pertaining to Washington Park Cemetery. We made a date and time for me to visit, the girls were in summer camp and daycare, so I went alone, which proved to be fortuitous as the Dekalb History Museum allowed me to look through folders of records, a task difficult with children sitting nearby. I was also able to discuss the history of Atlanta and learn some information of which I wasn’t aware and hadn’t considered.
Then, I spent the next few months writing the episode and reading scholarly sources on Atlanta, Georgia, and the American South. As a trained medievalist, I had major gaps in my knowledge of American history and, especially, African-American history. I looked for works which would give me an overview so that I could write a more compelling and more honest story. History is never just a collection of facts. History is the story of the past and to tell a good story, I had to know the context - I had to know what life was like in Atlanta for those born in the generation or two after the end of slavery and the only way to do that was to dive into the research - to find those peer-reviewed articles and books published by university presses and mine them for information. Once I did that, I was able to take all of the scholarly knowledge others had written and published, all of the information I had researched myself throughout the Atlanta-area, and write my episode. I usually write about 100-200 words a day to make sure that I actually have time to get everything in, but also because I don’t often have time for more than 100-200 words. I recorded the episode in September and it aired on October 7, 2017. From start to finish, it was a 6 month process for a 29 minute episode.
This process is similar to how I wrote my article which was published in a peer-reviewed journal (check my academia.edu page for details:) and also how I wrote my MA thesis and my dissertation, but instead of sending it off to be peer-reviewed, I worked to craft the information into an entertaining episode. In the past, parents with middle-schoolers have said they listen to our episodes with their children, so when I write, I keep these families in mind. These are the public for whom I write when I engage in public history. Those are the people I want to reach.
My advice for history podcasters? People listen to history podcasts because they love history. People make history podcasts because they love research and presenting that research. Not all of my episodes take 6 months from start to finish, but even the “easy” ones take approximately 3 months. There’s a lot of reading involved and you need to make sure you have a good understanding of the historiography (the history of the history) of your topic. It is easy to read a major tome and base much of your work on it, but that major tome might be considered outdated - there may be new information available, new ideas, new discussions, and you want to make sure you have a good handle on all of it. If you are interested in a specific field or topic, I would look up reading lists for courses on the subject at universities, especially reading lists for graduate programs. Those reading lists will give you a good idea of the current state of the field. From there, think about how you view that story - do you agree with the conclusions of the authors you have read? Why or why not? And, then, after all that: take the story you have been slowly creating in your head, write it down, and record it. Now you have a history podcast episode :)
In addition to being Footnoting History's Producer, Elizabeth Keohane-Burbridge enjoys teaching social history and using contemporary literature to get at historical truths - at least that's why she says she reads so much Wilkie Collins. Elizabeth earned her BA in history from Boston College and has her MA and PhD in medieval (/early modern - take that periodization!) history from Fordham University. You can find her on twitter, @historianmum.