Another year, another blog post. 2013 has been and gone, and so far 2014 is lining up to be a pretty busy year for… well, more or less everyone. Not only is it the International Year of Family Farming and Crystallography (thank you Wikipedia) amongst other things we can look forward to this year are the Winter Olympics, European Elections, the Scottish vote on independence, and of course, the one hundredth anniversary of World War One. But all that is yet to come, and this week I will be talking about a more sedate and uncontroversial topic, namely what I like and dislike about the BBC History Extra podcast.
Rather like In Our Time, overall I do enjoy History Extra, and I like it for many of the same reasons, namely that it covers a wide range of topics, and that it is presented by people who are clearly interested about the subject at hand but rarely inject their own opinion into the discussion, if at all. However, whereas In Our Time is based around three people discussing one topic, History Extra consists of two or three one-on-one interviews about different topics held together by one presenter, an approach which has the crucial benefit of allowing for a more in depth discussion of the topic at hand. Whilst on In Our Time a guest can easily find themselves cut off mid-flow, in a one-on-one setting the guest is free to fully elaborate upon their opinions, which can often lead to a more stimulating interview.
That said, there are several drawbacks to this approach, the most obvious of which is that the quality of the interview is almost entirely dependent upon the interviewee. Whereas Melvyn Bragg has three interviewees and so is able to cut off any particularly unengaging guests without any real difficulty, the team at History Extra do not have this luxury, and the results can be stupefying at best, disastrous at worst.
This is not helped by the fact that there appears to be little to no editing done of the interviews themselves, a statement which is based on two observations. Firstly, the length of the interviews within each podcast vary wildly; and secondly because the podcasts themselves do not seem to have a set or even approximate running time. For example, whilst the 14th November edition lasted thirty nine minutes, the next week it was almost an hour long, and whilst it is commendable that History Extra try and ensure the podcast version of the interview is as true to the original as possible, it does result in several interviews which run for far longer than they probably needed to.
The other problem with a one-on-one interview is that you are only hearing the opinions of one person. Again, whilst only one topic is discussed on In Our Time, there are three people discussing it, and as a result it is not uncommon for spontaneous debates and arguments to break out amongst the guests. In the case of History Extra, this cannot happen, and whilst the interviewers do often highlight research which contradicts the guests’ point of view, at the end of the day they can respond safe in the knowledge that the only person who can challenge them is the interviewer. Similarly, the fact that there is only one interviewer means the line of questioning is somewhat limited, both by the interviewer’s knowledge and by their biases.
I think the remedy to this problem lies not in increasing the number of guests, but in increasing the number of presenters. Instead of having two or three one-on-one interviews (each of which are currently conducted by different presenters), have one longer interview of roughly half an hour, with three presenters interviewing one guest. As such, whilst each guest would have the opportunity to explain their ideas in detail, they would also be subject to greater scrutiny than if it were a one-on-one interview; and the increased number of interviewers would also create a more varied line of questioning.
There are a host of other reasons why I love the History Extra podcast. For one, they often broadcast interviews from the field rather than from a studio, which gives the show a greater variety than similar offerings; and they also provide information on a wide variety of history related events and programming. However, what I appreciate most is that, more often than not, the interviewers try and establish how and why the historical issues being discussed are relevant to present day discussions and events. For at the end of the day it is the historian’s job to show how the past and present are not just related but symbiotic, and it is one that I feel the History Extra podcast does rather well.