For anthropologists, who labor in a discipline obscure enough that even most educated lay-people have no idea what it is, podcasting offers a new and powerful way to reach out and tell the general public about our work, how we do it, and, critically, why it matters.
If you’re anything like me, you have also subscribed to about a dozen anthro podcasts, then found them piling up in your feed, unheard. Many of them are long; many come out frequently; many are good, but none of them are perfect. On top of that, iTunes is littered with the husks of anthro podcasts that persisted for a few episodes, then died in obscurity, leaving nothing behind but a few forlorn episodes, and web pages that sit oddly high in the search results.
I’m going to start putting up occasional roundups of the anthropology podcasting universe. For listeners, I’ll be highlighting the best of what I hear, and pointing to new shows as I find them. For my fellow podcast producers, I’ll be trying to learn from what I hear, and sharing those lessons, and hopefully building a community of practice.
What’s running? What’s good?
If you found us, there’s a good chance you already know about the podcasts that come up first in an iTunes search for “anthropology.” Some of the feeds at the top of the list stopped updating years ago. What gives? Any many of the ones that are still active are really just recordings of lectures and conference presentations, which, I would argue, aren’t really podcasts at all. They belong in a different category, along with “great courses”-type lecture series, and ought to live on iTunes U, rather than the regular podcast directory. In a medium distinguished by creative storytelling and audio magic, with a unique and rapidly developing artistic sensibility, these offerings are imposing an old, analog format onto a new technology. They’re like those conference presenters who put the entire text of their paper onto Powerpoint slides. It’s a tragic misuse.
Different audiences, different styles
If you hunt, though, you will eventually find a solid crop of podcasts, in a range of styles, that speak to different audiences.
There are more or less three different audiences that anthro podcasters are targeting.
– The general (or educated?) public. These podcasts minimize the jargon, and maximize story and audio texture.
– Students, and teachers who want audio to teach with. These are the “explainers,” which introduce a concept, define it, and give examples.
– Academics and practitioners. These are podcasts where professional thinkers ramble into theoretical thickets and hair-splitting debates, to the delight of a small but dedicated audience.
While there are way, way too many anthro podcasts to mention in a single post, I’ll start the survey by looking at one example of each of these podcast styles.
Camthropod, out of Cambridge University, has the potential to appeal to a general audience. They do some interviews, which are fine. But what makes Camthropod special are a handful of audio pieces that incorporate field recordings and audio storytelling. Some of my favorites are episode 5, “Hiddo Dawr: Singing Love in(to) Somaliland, by Christina Woolner,” and episode 14, “Thinking About Vision, by Harsha Balasubramanian,” on “audio describers,” who help the visually impaired experience visual spectacles such as theatrical performances.
Frequency: Twice a month, during the semester
For an explainer, there’s A Story of Us, out of Ohio State University. The focus here is on bio anth and archaeology, rather than social/cultural anthropology. They’ve just entered their third themed season, looking at death, following seasons on human migration and childhood and growth, all with a special focus on reading social conditions out of the archeological record. Send this one to undergrads, and to the professors who teach them, and are looking for a new way to get some lecture materials across.
Frequency: Twice a month, during the semester
Home page: https://u.osu.edu/astoryofus/
For a podcast aimed squarely at academics, look no further than Cultures of Energy, out of Rice University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences (CENHS). While not strictly limited to anthropology, the show is hosted by two anthropologists, Dominic Boyer and Cymene Howe, who bring an anthropological sensibility—as well as a sense of joyful exploration that’s rare in academic podcasting—to their discussions with experts in the production, distribution, and consumption of energy, as well as the relations between humans and their environments, both natural and constructed.
Home page: http://culturesofenergy.com/
Coming up: how to communicate anth?
In coming roundups, I’ll take a more critical view of anthropology and its hand-wringing relationship with the new field of science communication; look at the ways that podcasting, with its emphasis on voice, narrative, and personality, produces a particular sort of ethnographic “truths”; consider audio recordings in ethnography (something I avoid in my own field work); and, of course, keep tabs on the growing anth podcasting community. For now, check out The Familiar Strange podcast on iTunes, Soundcloud, our website, or your favorite podcatcher. Until then, keep talking strange!
[Feature Image: A Farmer Listens to Crystal Wireless, Courtesy of US Department of Agriculture, National Archives and Records Administration]