Why I listen to The Memory Palace

I’m a devoted listener of the short podcast The Memory Palace, created and produced by Nate DiMeo. If you haven’t heard the show before, a few of my favorites include The Messrs. Craft— the incredible story of Ellen and William Craft’s escape from slavery to freedom, OMG!!! JKP!!!— a fast-paced lesson on President James K. Polk, and the tragic 400 Words for 79th Street. For me, part of the show’s appeal has always been how it works as both an engaging podcast and an example of accessible public history. I was intrigued to read Nate DiMeo’s behind the scenes look at the production of the show contrasting his approach to story telling with a narrower approach that might be more typical for historians–

On my way out the door, I pitched a concept for a weekly, hour-long history show to the powers that were at American Public Media. Part of this was pragmatic: there’re shows about nearly every big humanities category—art, books, religion/philosophy, auto-repair, music—but, at the time, no one was doing a history show. It felt like an opportunity missed. My theory then (which I still buy, I think) was that people who love history enough to try to start a history show were…wait for it…historians. And historians are specialists. They like depth. They fear reductivism. They love details. And they often produce great radio. But if you tune into a program and hear that it’s all going to be about the Korean War and you don’t think you care about the Korean War, you will turn it off and turn on your audiobook of Freedom (you are a public radio listener after all).

I am not a historian. I cannot even claim to be a history buff. But, jeeze, do I love a good story. And history is, at its core, just a bunch of stories. I figured if you remembered that, if you placed an emphasis on narrative, and drama, and amazing facts, and wonder, and kept things varied and kept things moving and kept things short, you could build a general-interest history show that the person tooling around on a Saturday could enjoy as much as any of the other weekend, public radio crowd-pleasers. Or their reruns.

I think his comments on historians hit close to home. I know I struggle to share stories from my own historical research without dwelling too long on the details and losing sight of what really makes the story interesting. BackStory with the American History Guys (another tremendous public history radio program produced by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities) manages avoid excluding diverse audiences in part through its focus on seasonal themes and current affairs — listen to 2010’s Beyond Numbers: A History of the U.S. Census or 2008’s Panic!: A History of Financial Crisis for good examples. With The Memory Palace, Nate DiMeo consistently offers fresh narratives and structures that connect compelling true stories to layers of voice and music that truly provide a visceral sense of wonder for the experiences of people in the past. The rest of his post on the show at transom.org reveals the project to be a labor of love with meager financial rewards, but I sincerely appreciate his effort to build and engage audiences around historical stories. If you’re curious to hear it for yourself, download the podcast at The Memory Palace and connect with the show on Twitter and Faceboook.

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