History on the Radio (or at Least on Your Lap Top)


Mr. DiMeo is a public radio producer living in Los Angeles.  He reports regularly for programs like All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Marketplace.  He recently launched “the memory palace,” a history podcast posted weekly at thememorypalace.us

I’m a collector of moments. 

There’s the one when Truman is handed the letter that tells him he has The Bomb.

There’s the one when Stephen Kearny tells the people of Las Vegas, New Mexico that they now live in the United States.

When the women realize the other door on the ninth floor of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is locked.  When Lewis and Clark reach the source of the Missouri, realize there’s no Northwest Passage, but call an audible and keep going anyway. When Arnold Schoenberg gets ticked that the Stars Homes tour-buses are pointing out Shirley Temple’s house but not his.  When Franklin Pierce’s wife decides she’s taking the train home.  When they tell the pencil-pushing Elwood Mead that they’re going to name the lake after him.

These moments have stayed with me long after the rest of the books or documentaries or articles or museum tours from which they jumped out to grab me have been largely forgotten. 

Over the course of the last decade, I’ve spent my career in public radio trying to find those moments—those scenes in which it all hangs in the balance, or when lived-reality snaps into focus and you suddenly get that this-is-a-real-person’s-life-we’re-talking-about here—within the story I’m reporting or editing.  Out of a belief, I suppose, that the journalism worth doing is that which reminds you that there are people—real people—behind or within what’s being covered, even when it’s a stock market report or a Hollywood business story.  But often, I’ve tried to bring those specific, historical moments I’ve collected to the air, but can’t find a way to get them there.

There is surprisingly little history on Public radio. 

There are shows about politics, fine art, pop culture, music, books, car repair, but a great history story is a rare find on your local NPR station. 

It’s not entirely absent, of course.  It is one of the things that All Things considers on occasion.  Some of my favorites in my collection of moments came to me through This American Life. American RadioWorksproduces vital history documentaries (I produced one of their less vital) but often struggles to shoehorn them as specials into inflexible lineups. And, last year, The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities helped launch BackStory with the American History Guys, an hour-long program of conversations and the occasional story led by the titular “guys:” UVA’s Peter Onuf and Brian Balogh, and Ed Ayers, the current President of the University of Richmond.   Heavy hitters all (as far as this non-historian can ascertain) and an already strong show I expect will get stronger as it broadcasts monthly this year. 

But, for the most part, Public Radio is a news medium.  While, as the mission of HNN would have it, historical perspective deepens our understanding of the present, (and while I’ve enjoyed doing timely pieces about Gilded Age Presidents or Vice President Curtis) public radio spends little time looking back.

And if there’s no news peg for poor Mrs. Franklin Pierce (suddenly childless after a horrible train accident on the way to her husband’s inaugural), what’s a radio producer to do with his ever-expanding collection?  The stories I’d love to tell simply because they are incredible stories?

It being 2009, I created a podcast.

In December, I launched the memory palace (at thememorypalace.us and available on iTunes) in order to make a place for those stories.  Each week you can hear  a new short (like, just a few minutes out of your Historianing) sweet, slightly idiosyncratic story of the past.  Sometimes hysterical, sometimes horrifying, occasionally both.   It beats waiting for Robert Segal to talk about your sub-specialty. 

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Jeb Sharp - 2/19/2009

Thanks for this post--can't wait to hear the memory palace. What a great name. I am a reporter for PRI's The World who's always thirsting for more history on the radio. I too have started a podcast in 2009 called How We Got Here. Each week I take an item or topic in the headlines and explore the history behind it. It's on iTunes or you can subscribe via RSS at http://www.theworld.org/rss/history.xml.
Here's to more history on the radio! -JS