Monthly Archives: September 2014

On The History Hour

Hello everyone. It’s been a while, but I’ve finally gotten around to starting up the blog again, and (in theory at least) it’s going to be a weekly thing, like it was before little things like my final project had the habit of getting in the way. Originally, I’d planned for my grand re-opening to be an earnest discussion about some major historical theme or theory, before pretty quickly coming to the realisation that I had neither the will nor the energy to write that post. Instead, I’ve written a post about the BBC World Service’s History Hour podcast, and why you should all be listening to it.

I first started listening to the History Hour podcast in January/February this year, after the tutor on our radio production module told us we should listen to as many different radio programmes as possible. Being a conscientious student, I immediately downloaded roughly a hundred different podcasts, and whilst most of them were deleted after around three episodes for various different reasons, the History Hour has stood the test of time. It is a superbly crafted show, and it is a podcast which I believe exemplifies the benefits of the World Service and the licence fee in general.

Like all the best magazine shows, the format of the History Hour is pretty simple. Each episode has one title piece and four or five others, which are either linked thematically, or by the fact that the events discussed happened in the corresponding week. Furthermore, one of these pieces (usually the title piece) is followed up with an interview between the main presenter and an expert on that topic, and whilst this may not be the most original format, it is certainly the most effective.

For one thing, the post-piece interview allows the show not only to go into more detail about the background of the event or issue being discussed, but also explain its short and long term effects, and why it is still relevant today. In past posts, I have been critical of those institutions, historians and programmes which try and divorce the present from the past, and talk about history as something which has definitively ended, rather than something which continues to affect us to this day and whose meaning is constantly being negotiated. As such, for the History Hour to explicitly debate how an event such as the South African invasion of Lesotho continues to affect current African politics is a laudable move.

Another strength of the show is (as the example above highlights) it discusses topics which most people, including myself, have never heard of. I didn’t know South Africa had invaded Lesotho before I listened to the History Hour, just as I never knew that in 1987 Myanmar’s economy virtually collapsed, much less that it was due to currency reforms which were inspired by General Ne Win’s belief that the number nine was particularly lucky.

Admittedly, it could be argued that this focus on the more obscure elements of history may, in some cases, be due more to necessity than editorial policy: after all, if you’re talking about events which correspond to a particular week, you’re going to have to include some which are lesser known. However, the range of pieces included in each episode suggest that the focus on lesser known historical episodes show is a deliberate choice, and even if they were included for no other reason than they were the only six they had, the fact the producers were willing to do so demonstrates a enterprising and adventurous attitude that others can learn from.

However, what I like most about the History Hour is its use of witness interviews. Whilst each piece does feature a central narrator, the interviews are not used to support their interpretations. Rather, the focus is on the opinions and experiences of the interviewee, with the narrator’s voiceover serving simply to create a coherent narrative. Furthermore, many pieces use archive sources, such as news reports, rather than a central voiceover to create a narrative, and whilst I would like to hear more pieces which allow the narrative to be told simply through archive sources and witness interviews, and do away with a central voiceover entirely, History Hour still does a fine job of ensuring that the focus of each piece is on the interviews, rather than the narrator.

Admittedly, the History Hour isn’t perfect. Personally, I feel the show could benefit from having a more thematic approach, or at least present the pieces in a way that flows more logically, as it is somewhat jarring to go from listening to a piece about 1970’s fashion to one about the Siege of Dubrovnik. It would also be interesting to re-interview some of the featured interviewees, so as to see how their opinions have changed in the years since the event, but that does run into the tricky issue of finding them, assuming they are still alive. Aside from these minor qualms, however, it is a damn good show, and one you should download. Now. Do it, you won’t regret it.