Before discussing my experience of producing a podcast to promote and disseminate the Letters of 1916 project as part of an outreach assignment, I must first offer a tip of my cap to Richard Breen for allowing me to ride on his coattails so to speak. Initially I had intended to fulfil my outreach obligations in a more, lets say, analog way, by helping to promote one of the launches of the project that were set to take place in Cork or Galway during late November. Time and other factors hampered this however and, thankfully, Richard allowed me to help out with his own outreach concept which was to produce a podcast.
I must admit, my initial reaction to the notion of a podcast was one of apprehension on the basis of my previous experiences with documentary. I had discovered while making a documentary film during my prior academic occupation as a journalism undergraduate that each stage in the process of preparing a recording for broadcast are always far more tedious and gradual than anticipated. Organising equipment, finding a space and making it work, researching, writing, designing format and style, recording and editing are all steps which, by their very nature, pose further deliberation and questions than perhaps planned for.
Choosing a subject
We decided that focusing the podcast on a letter that was written one hundred years to the day could be a useful device to give meaning to both the project and the artefacts and one which might evoke interest in the audience. This would mean choosing letters that were sent in or around the time we intended to publish the podcast. As our due date for the project was December 18th Richard secured a list of interesting letters from the month of December 1915 from members of the Letters of 1916 team, Richard Hadden and Neale Rooney.
Having studied the letters we picked the one that suited us in terms of both timeliness and curiosity. It was sent on December 13th which seemed ambitious but possible for a publishing date and was sent from a Irishman living in Canada to his titled aunt Lady Clonbrock. The subject matter was the author, Alfred Crofton’s, financial situation and his recent enlistment in the Canadian army.
Once we had picked a subject we began to explore our options and plans in relation to the recording process. The department had a very good Rode shotgun style microphone which they made available to us as well as the use of a resource room to record in.
The room provided its own challenges as the ceiling is polished concrete and it was filled with a large wooden desk and various other hard surfaced pieces of furniture. This type of environment lends itself to echo and poor acoustics so we took steps to dampen the sound by adding foam padding to the desk and above the microphone. We both felt that beyond the obvious practical benefits of good sound quality, it could also give the podcast an air of authority. On that basis we were both willing to invest significant time to get the best standard.
One technique for easing the effect of poor acoustics is to record the ambient room sound and then use it between audio cuts the make them less obvious. We tried this and it helped but the quality was still distractingly poor. Richard, using the Audacity software and his experience from his music undergraduate, applied various equalising effects and masks to take out some of the more problematic elements. Finally, we discovered a feature of the software which allowed us to sample the ambient room sound and then effectively mask or remove it from each track. This had the desired effect and the quality of the recording was coming closer to the level we needed.
In spite of our efforts it became quickly apparent that no amount of sound engineering would turn Richard or myself (in particular) into radio broadcasters. The off the cuff conversational style we had imagined for the podcast proved really difficult to deliver well. Nerves, giggling, idiosyncratic features of speech like “uhms” and “ahhs” and other aspects certainly made it sound off the cuff, but perhaps too much. To avoid sounding amateur, we decided cohesive scripts would suit us best.
Scripts and research
The scripts for the introductory elements of the podcast, the welcome and explanation of the project and so forth, more or less wrote themselves. We then proceeded to research our author and recipient, Alfred Crofton and Lady Clonbrock. We discovered a webpage for the ‘Salt Spring Island Archives’ when researching the source of the letter. This proved an invaluable resource as Alfred Crofton’s children, who he had raised on Salt Spring Island before and after the war, had contributed their family history, both oral and photographic, to the archives.
We got in touch with the archives to ask about usage policy for their webpage content. They replied positively and were delighted at the prospect of our podcast benefitting from their archive. They were incredibly helpful and kind but the most wonderful part was their reaction to the letter itself which they had not seen before and they felt it had filled a gap in their understanding of their local history.
This small success, this tiny enrichment of the cultural heritage of a place I’d never before heard of, was a result of the outreach process rather than the podcast itself. The sense that a lot of the meaning and value of the activities can be found as much in the doing, in the processes, as in the delivering of a product, has been manifest throughout the semester and seems evident throughout the Letters of 1916 project itself.
The democratising effect of a public history project has left quite an impression on me. Every step where the public have been asked to be involved seems to have anchored the history and the artefacts back in the public domain. The period, a time of World War and momentous rebellion, has been imbued with mythical degrees of meaning and implication. The characters and events have been politicised and commodified into a hyper reality where our knowledge is based more on the mediated version of events than in any truth. While much of the mediated versions can and are challenged, there is no arguing with the hand written intimate thoughts of the people that were there. Exposing the public to these types of primary sources has the surprising and profound effect of redistributing the ownership of the historical record, and by extension, the culture’s heritage, back to the public. This is largely because of the outreach and crowdsourced elements of the project.
I’m certain A.G. Crofton could have hardly imagined what would happen to his short letter to his aunt and what it might come to mean. That butterfly effect is the nature of time and mediation. Should our podcast have even the slightest effect of inviting people to take part or simply take a look at the project, then I will be delighted. As I have learned, the net effect of anything is always difficult to gauge.
To hear our podcast please visit The Letters of 1916 podcast.