What I’m Listening To: Presidential Podcast
By Amanda Tewes
Chances are that if you remember anything about William Henry Harrison, the ninth President of the United States, it’s that he did not wear a coat to his inauguration on a bitterly cold day in 1841, caught pneumonia, and died a month into office, making his presidency the shortest in American history. Unfortunately, this memorable story about Harrison’s brief presidency is not true. His March 1841 inauguration day was not that cold, and modern physicians think that typhoid fever–thanks to a contaminated White House water supply–was the real culprit in laying Harrison low. So why have Americans perpetuated this myth about Harrison? This is just one of the many questions posed by Lillian Cunningham on the Presidential podcast, which she hosts.
Cunningham began Presidential, a forty-four episode (one for each president) podcast series, during the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, which critics felt was historically divisive, even during primary races. Drawing from her experiences writing about leadership for the Washington Post, Cunningham took a different approach to the election. She uses Presidential to explore each American president as a way to understand which character traits and historical circumstances made for effective leadership. In short, how do we define a successful presidency and why?
The series is a fresh take on not only American history, but also on modern American politics. Cunningham creates memorable narratives about each leader, humanizing even the “forgotten presidents.” In examining each president’s personality, she also asks guest historians what listeners would have been able to expect on a blind date with these men (pro tip: don’t let your friends set you up with James K. Polk!). This informative and witty approach makes Presidential a not-so-guilty pleasure.
Listening to this podcast two years after it aired is an odd experience. In many ways, Presidential captured the spirit of the 2016 election, but it is also a good reminder that no political outcome is inevitable. William Henry Harrison certainly did not foresee the untimely end to his month-long presidency.
As an oral historian, Presidential has me wondering: when do contemporary politics become history? This podcast has made me more aware than ever how, as an interviewer, I help shape narratives about the past. I will be thinking about my impact on oral history, from which questions I ask to how I ask them, as I conduct my interviews in the future.
Summer Institute Alum Spotlight: Julia Thomas
Julia Thomas attended our Advanced Oral History Summer Institute in 2016. When she joined us, she was studying history and environmental analysis at Scripps College. She’s now working as a freelance journalist, traveling the world to document grassroots media, as a Thomas J. Watson Fellow. We caught up with her recently to find out what she’s been up to since, and how oral history informs her work as a freelance journalist.
Q: Tell us a little bit about your work, and how you use oral history.
Thomas: I’m a freelance journalist, just beginning my work after studying history and environmental analysis at Scripps College. My current research is supported by a year-long Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, during which I’ve been learning about and documenting grassroots media from the ground up in Nepal, India, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Spain, and Ecuador. I’ve been spending time in the field, working alongside, and interviewing journalists as they report on current stories in progress and the methods they use to present people’s voices on a mix of platforms.
Oral history has played a major role in this project and I’m continually adjusting the ways I use it. Sometimes, and especially in my most recent work in South Africa, I’ve used oral history in more formalized interviews about the organizing and establishment of a community newspaper under Apartheid, the housing crisis in Durban and Cape Town, and community radio practices. At other times, I’ve engaged with oral history as it’s being produced in the moment, in the form of podcasts and radio, by journalists in-country.
Throughout this project, one of my hopes is to incorporate oral history sensibilities into any conversation I have, regardless of whether the recorder is on, or the topic is related to journalism. Oral history requires slower and more deliberate attention to questions to allow people to open up and share. I’ve sought to use oral history as a means of understanding new places and explore its possibilities. How far can the discipline of oral history stretch? What recitations of sound fall under its umbrella? I’ve developed a habit of recording the atmosphere of places, such as buses or streets, and protests or songs performed at community gatherings. I do this both as a means to viscerally return later and capture the sounds around every day movement and life. I believe that this is oral history in a way, too, and that preservation of how an environment sounds unprompted – who is allowed to be heard or what kind of voices dominate – is just as important as difficult questions posed in conversation.
Playing with oral history in conjunction with understanding journalists’ work and how best to preserve it, is a lot of fun and a consistent challenge. The questions stay the same for a while, perhaps shaped by current happenings in place, and then they change drastically depending especially, of course, on lingual context and whether or not I can understand or communicate. Much of the time, I haven’t been able to do interviews in the first language of vernacular language journalists, so the practice of oral history becomes dependent on recorded sound and my own observations of context.
This then raises the question: how much can one truly translate or take away from such a listening experience? I am still figuring out how to present and connect the many stories this exploration has led to, but my hope is to create a collection of transcribed interviews, a podcast that brings community journalists focused on similar issues in different contexts into conversation, and a longer form written project that connects the media landscapes and current stories in the countries I’ve visited.
Q: What is the state of the project that you workshopped at the Summer Institute?
Thomas: The project I workshopped eventually grew into my undergraduate thesis, which traced the use of buses as a space in social movements throughout the twentieth century in Mexico and the United States. It also became a condensed long form piece, published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, that examined contemporary examples of buses as a site of protest and state control – such as phenomena of “busing” protestors in the wake of the 2016 election and attendance at the 2017 presidential inauguration as measured by number of bus permits secured. Both of these projects are more literature heavy than I anticipated when I went to the Summer Institute, largely because my workshop group helped me to think about this research on buses as a larger and longer term focus than what I could have accomplished in an single undergraduate academic year. My workshop group very much influenced my thinking about positionally, potential angles, and people to interview. Funnily enough, I am actually answering these Q&A questions while riding on a bus in Spain!
Q: What kinds of oral history techniques do you use in your work as a journalist?
Thomas: Whenever possible, I try to think about interviews as opportunities for oral histories and ask questions that bring out a longer history beyond the topic at hand. My hope is to make interviewees comfortable enough to open up in sharing their own stories. When I’m doing an interview in a journalistic capacity, I try ask more open-ended questions and step back rather than steering the interview according to a particular angle for a story. Staying focused on the individual narrative, rather than thinking of them as a certain voice that will speak a particular perspective, is a technique I always try to use. In journalism, it can be easy to ask questions oriented around a certain topic and shut off the opportunity to go deeper into someone’s story, but oral history makes you step back, take more time, and see each conversation as an opportunity.
Something I’ve started to ask people is, what kind of story would you like to tell or feel should be told about your situation, this particular movement, etc.? Oral history gives agency and power back to the person sharing stories from memory, in their own words and lived experiences. It also inherently requires more of an emphasis on context and an individual’s position within the issue being discussed, which journalism can always use more of. I try to think about my interviews as oral histories a chance to gain a deeper understanding about situational context as much as possible.
Q: How did the Summer Institute shape your work?
Thomas: Attending the Summer Institute was a very inspiring experience for me, particularly as an undergraduate student with a strong interest in oral history but no formal training in its methodologies. I developed a lot of new ideas and gained eye opening insights from fellow attendees. The people in our 2016 cohort came from such a wide variety of places and this in and of itself was exciting to see how academics, journalists, architects, activists, policy makers, teachers, were curious about using oral history in their unique applications. I learned a great deal about the logistics of carrying out an oral history projects as a freelancer though the mock interviews and techniques that were presented. At the time of the Institute, I was actually preparing my application for the Watson Fellowship and had a general idea of my project but couldn’t quite articulate what it was that I wanted to explore. On one of the last days of the Institute, it became clear to me that the practice of asking questions and capturing people’s voices is what really fascinated me. I remember it suddenly clicking in my head after a few days of being immersed in discussions of oral history that I knew this was what I wanted to learn more about in other parts of the world.
Q: How do you hope to grow your work in the future?
Thomas: I’m planning to spend the next couple of years working as a freelancer, and hope that the year following this fellowship will be spent writing long-form feature pieces about what I encountered in each place, and continue to report (hopefully abroad!). I’d love to return to the topic of buses and do some oral histories with transport unions and workers, activists, organizers of solidarity caravans, etc., particularly in Mexico. This year has also piqued my interest in radio programming and podcasting, so I’d love to break into that. Some broad topics of interest as of right now are individual experiences and social movements related to elections, land and housing rights, and music composition and performance. Graduate school of some sort is definitely in the future at some point, but until then, my hope is to keep learning, interviewing, experimenting, collaborating. We’ll see what happens from there!
For more from Julia, follow her on Twitter: @juliathomas317 and Instagram: @jthom317
Sauntering in the Sierra
by Roger Eardley-Pryor, PhD
Deep into Sequoia National Park, a thin, wiry rider climbed a mountain trail atop a dusty white horse. He wore a dark business suit, per his backcountry custom, and from under his black felt hat, a bushy white beard spilled forth. Up the Kern River Canyon, a group of young Sierra Club members trekked through the high country. As the rider approached them, his piercing blue eyes surveyed the group from under his shadowy hat.
“Where are you going?” the rider inquired.
“We’re just hiking in to camp,” the hikers replied.
“Hiking is a vile word,” the rider returned. “You are going right past one the finest views in the Sierra. Now stop and look at it.”
It was the summer of 1908, and the young Sierra Club members heeded his command. For they knew the thin, dark rider was John Muir, famed mountaineer and co-founder of the Sierra Club.
“You know,” Muir said, “when the pilgrims were going from England to the Holy Land, the French would ask them ‘Where are you going?’ They did not speak French very well, but they would say ‘Santa Terre’ (Holy Land). That is where we get our word ‘saunter.’ And you should saunter through the Sierra, because this is a holy land, if ever there was one.”
When John Muir preached this parable of wilderness-appreciation in 1908, he left an indelible mark in the mind of C. Nelson Hackett, who recalled the encounter in a 1972 oral history interview. Hackett was born in the City of Napa in 1888. He joined the Sierra Club during high school and later earned degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Harvard Law School. After a stint in the U.S. Army, Hackett worked at the Bank of California (now MUFG Union Bank) where he became vice president and headed its trust department. When interviewed at eighty-three years old, Hackett recalled, “I don’t know of anything in my life that has been more delightful than those Sierra Club outings.” In 1908, during Hackett’s outing, Sierra Club membership had just reached 1000. Today, with three million members and supporters, Sierra Club is the largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization in the United States.
Hackett’s memory of Muir comes from Sierra Club Reminiscences II, 1900s-1960s, part of the Oral History Center’s extensive collection of interviews with Sierra Club leaders and longtime members. The roots of the Oral History Center’s relationship with the Sierra Club stems, in part, from a chance encounter on a long bus trip from San Francisco north to the dedication of the newly established Redwood National Park in August 1969. On that bus trip, Phillip Berry, then recently elected as the Sierra Club’s youngest president, sat next to Amelia Fry, an oral historian from the Bancroft Library. Fry had interviewed former National Park Service directors Horrace M. Albright and Newton Drury, and many others associated with natural resources and politics. While riding to Redwood National Park, Fry convinced Berry about the value of preserving the Sierra Club’s unwritten stories through oral history interviews. In May 1970, the club’s board of directors authorized the Sierra Club History Committee, which partnered with the Oral History Center to begin recording reminiscences of longtime club members in 1971. This interview series continued until the mid-2000s, during which the Oral History Center collected nearly one hundred Sierra Club interviews with former presidents and directors, including Ansel Adams, Edgar Wayburn (two interviews), David Brower (two interviews), Michael McCloskey (two interviews), and Carl Pope. Funding challenges brought a halt to the project, but the Sierra Club oral histories remain available online and preserved at The Bancroft Library. Today, the Oral History Center is planning to revive the series in conjunction with the club’s William E. Colby Memorial Library.
If you want to donate to this important project , please contact oral history interviewer Roger Eardley-Pryor at email@example.com.
A Few Words from the OHC’s Director, Martin Meeker
Where we’ve been, and where we’re headed in the digital age
The Berkeley campus has a quiet buzz during the summer months. Fewer people mean a shorter queue at the coffee bar, slightly easier parking, and a general calm among the undergrads throwing frisbees on Memorial Glade. Yet the campus is not asleep, and that is especially true at the Oral History Center. We run on all cylinders in the academic off-season. In addition to wrapping up some big projects and planning for others, we are busy dreaming up plans for the future of oral history at Berkeley and are taking the steps necessary to realize those ambitions.
Sometime before the end of this calendar year, the Oral History Center will launch a new search interface for our entire collection of some 4000 interviews. In a future column, I’ll provide a step-by-step walk-through on this new build-out, but it will entail two important innovations for us: first, researchers will be able to conduct a full-text search across the entire collection and, second, some oral history audio and video will be streamable, and synced with transcripts using OHMS, or the Oral History Metadata Synchronizer. We are beta testing the functionalities now and even as we work out the kinks, we’re excited to share our advances with you. They will provide scholars, students, and all those interested in the seemingly limitless topics covered in our interviews robust new tools to find and engage with the information, the stories, the remarkable first person accounts.
These steps forward aren’t always easy, and we’ve had to contend with our share of challenges. Funding is always tricky for us, but we found a great partner in the National Park Service who wanted to see our Rosie the Riveter/World War II homefront interviews — transcripts and original recordings — made more easily accessible. We don’t have the technical expertise in the office to implement these changes, so we needed to work with our Library Systems Office. The Systems Office has been a great partner and we work together to solve pressing issues around storage space (we always need more), programmer expertise (their time is precious), security (we have important obligations to our interviewees), and access (we take our mandate seriously).
While we were able to get most of the “hoped-for” functionality, compromises were made — and there are important pieces of the puzzle that will happen in the next, as-of-yet unfunded phase. These still “hoped-for” pieces include a portal designed expressly for high school teachers and their students. We think oral history interviews mesh well with common core standards so we’re just now starting to engage with teachers who will hope will help us build out this feature. And, although we’ll have a new search interface, we know that the structure of the OHC website itself breaks several “User Experience 101” rules (hello 3 search menus?!). Some problems are less a matter of funding, more of diplomacy with the larger institution!
As we plug away and attempt to build toward the future of oral history at Berkeley, we welcome dialog and partnership with our friends in oral history — and throughout the academy, journalism, digital humanities, information sciences, you name it. If you’ve got ideas, let’s talk.