Foreign Correspondence – Letters from a Lost Land
A research proposal
What do people think about the hot topics, niggling issues and minutiae of their day?
It has never been easier for researchers to answer this intriguing question; the internet, after all, gives us easy access to the views of countless ‘ordinary’ people, whose online comments, tweets and posts constitute a rich and raw record of public opinion on a range of topics.
And yet the internet is a recent innovation. Where do we look, then, to find the opinions of people who pre-date the online era, who lived in the analogue age? In the standard sources, of course – diaries, private letters, articles and books – but the extant examples of these records tend to be written by educated elites.
One place we can encounter public opinion from the pre-digital past is in letters to the editor, those brief and often blunt missives printed in periodicals since their inception. For centuries, zealous literate laypeople have expressed their views on a multitude of topics in newspapers and magazines around the world.
My research project tests the hypothesis that letters to the editor are an enlightening and entertaining means of engaging with the past. Using the National Library of Australia’s online archive, Trove, and the popular broad-casting medium of the podcast, I plan to explore the relationship between online platforms and the pursuit of ‘public history’, in the hope of learning how (and how well) digital technologies such as the podcast serve the purposes of researchers.
My research project, ‘Foreign Correspondence – Letters from a Lost Land’, is an attempt to recover a little of the ‘lost land’ that Australia of the early to mid-twentieth century has become to present-day Australians (Bridge & Fedorowich 11). It seeks to (re)connect ‘ordinary’ people (like me) with Australia’s hidden imperial history and, in doing so, to test the axiom that, as a character in L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between, puts it, the ‘past is a foreign country’.
I have elected to study letters to the editor for several reasons. Many people are familiar with this type of text, which can be funny and fun to read, and there are myriad specimens freely and easily available on Trove. Letters to the editor are acknowledged, too, as being ‘one of the few arenas for public discussion to have survived throughout a large period of the history of mass media’ (Wahl-Jorgensen 183), with the genre constituting an untapped and understudied record of public opinion, although by no means a ‘pure’ or unmediated one (Cavanagh & Steel 1-2).
I have decided to present my research as a podcast. I have chosen to do so because the podcast, as both a medium and a format, possesses characteristics that suit my purposes. Podcasts are not only popular (in both senses of the word), but they also appeal to people on a personal level, and this, I argue, makes them an ideal means of engaging in ‘public history’; in the interpretation, that is, of the past for wide audiences (Haunton & Salzedo 41).
Since its appearance a dozen or more years ago, the podcast medium has flourished. In February of this year, Forbes magazine reported that podcasts were continuing to grow in popularity, with more Americans tuning in and many listening longer (Adgate). The same trend was detected here in Australia, where, in 2019, the market had reportedly grown seventy per cent in four years (‘Podcasts Growing’). ‘The podcast,’ one journalist observed, ‘has become fashionable.’ (Goodrich)
And not only amongst aficionados of crime and comedy. History podcasts, too, are prevalent and popular (Alegi 208). Episodes of ‘Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History’ – perhaps the most successful history podcast to date – have been known to attract almost a million listeners each (Salvati 232), and history podcasts are often deemed to be some of the finest on offer. Almost half of the New Yorker magazine’s ‘Best Podcasts of 2020’, for example, dealt with the past (Larson).
The success of the podcast as a medium has been attributed to various things, including its flexibility and convenience. As Honae H. Cuffe observes, podcasts are ‘unconstrained by strict programming time slots, accessible wherever and at a time of the listener’s choosing’ (554). Teacher and early adopter of the podcast, Dave Fagg, has praised the medium’s availability, to both listeners and creators (45). And then there is the amazing diversity of the podcast, even in the history genre alone (Rinaldi).
Clearly, podcasts – history podcasts included – have the potential to gain a large and loyal following, and this is one reason I have decided to record a pilot episode for my research project. My other reason for doing so relates to the nature of the podcast as a format, and to its inherent ability to connect with listeners, both emotionally and intellectually.
One of the strengths of the podcast is its directness, since the format allows creators to communicate personally and informally, ‘bypassing editorial and aesthetic filters of intermediaries’ (Hagood 190). The result can be ‘intimacy plus’, as one proponent puts it (Goodrich), a feeling of closeness that deepens the audience’s engagement with a subject, even (or especially) if that subject has traditionally been considered ‘dry’ or dull, as history arguably has been. As Mack Hagood observes,
A podcast offers the ability to use not just words but also sound, music, and silence – powerful tools for formulating arguments, providing evidence, illustrating points, developing empathy, and giving listeners space to think. (185)
Although some scholars have reservations about the practice of presenting history exclusively as a story – an approach to which the podcast is admittedly well-suited (see Cuffe 559-60) – others are excited by possibilities offered by the format, particularly its power to ‘engage the listener in history as a project of interpretation rather than a story or analysis alone’ (556) and its ability to enliven the past (Salvati 234).
This, I think, is what appeals to me most about the podcast, since my project aims to humanise not only history itself, but also the ways we recover, recreate and relate to the past. I hope to do so by taking history and history-making ‘to the street’: by recording anonymous adults and children reading and reflecting on archival evidence (letters to the editor) and presenting these encounters (along with music and my own musings) as a podcast.
Finally, it is these people – ‘ordinary’ Australians who are at least open to an approach from the past – who are my target audience. Ideally, my podcast – in the manner of the model proposed by Andrew J. Salvati – will invite participants and listeners alike to ‘reconsider how historical knowledge in the twenty-first century is accessed, received, processed, and interpreted by publics beyond walled academic gardens’ (Salvati 232).
Adgate, Brad. ‘As Podcasts Continue To Grow In Popularity, Ad Dollars Follow.’ Forbes, 11 Feb. 2021, http://www.forbes.com/sites/bradadgate/2021/02/11/podcasting-has-become-a-big-business/?sh=18493d302cfb.
Alegi, Peter. ‘Podcasting the Past: Africa Past and Present and (South) African History in the Digital Age.’ South African Historical Journal, vol. 64, no. 2, 2012, pp. 206-20.
Bridge, Carl, and Kent Fedorowich. ‘Mapping the British World.’ The British World: Diaspora, Culture and Identity, edited by Carl Bridge and Kent Fedorowich, Frank Cass, 2003, pp. 1-15.
Cavanagh, Allison, and John Steel. ‘Introduction.’ Letters to the Editor: Comparative and Historical Perspectives, edited by Allison Cavanagh and John Steel, Springer, 2019, pp. 1-7.
Cuffe, Honae H. ‘Lend Me Your Ears: The Rise of the History Podcast in Australia.’ History Australia, vol. 16, no. 3, 2019, pp. 553-69.
Fagg, D. ‘Podcasting Australian History.’ Agora, vol. 42, 2007, pp. 45-47.
Goodrich, Philippa, “‘Intimacy Plus’: Is That What Makes Podcasts So Popular?” The BBC, 21 Dec. 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/business-46470428.
Hagood, Mack. ‘The Scholarly Podcast: Form and Function in Audio Academia.’ Saving New Sounds: Podcast Preservation and Historiography, edited by Jeremy Wade Morris and Eric Hoyt, University of Michigan Press, 2021, pp. 181-94.
Haunton, Melinda, and Georgie Salzedo. “‘A Duty, an Opportunity and a Pleasure’: Connecting Archives and Public History.” Archives & Records, vol. 42, no. 1, 2021, pp. 40-57.
Hurley, Andrew. ‘Chasing the Frontiers of Digital Technology: Public History Meets the Digital Divide.’ The Public Historian, vol. 38, no. 1, 2016, pp. 69-88.
Larson, Sarah. ‘The Best Podcasts of 2020.’ The New Yorker, 9 Dec. 2020, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/2020-in-review/the-best-podcasts-of-2020.
‘Podcasts Growing in Popularity in Australia.’ Roy Morgan, 22 July 2019, http://www.roymorgan.com/findings/8056-podcast-listeners-australia-march-2019-201907190703. Accessed 1 August 2021.
Rinaldi, Irene. ‘7 Podcasts for History Buffs.’ The New York Times, 24 June 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/24/arts/history-podcasts-slavery.html.
Salvati, Andrew J. ‘Podcasting the Past: Hardcore History, Fandom, and DIY Histories.’ Journal of Radio & Audio Media, vol. 22, no. 2, 2015, pp. 231-39.
Wahl-Jorgensen, Karin. ‘The Construction of the Public in Letters to the Editor: Deliberative Democracy and the Idiom of Insanity.’ Journalism, vol. 3, 2002,