The Archive Alive Through Podcasts

We are pleased to feature a guest post by Madalyn Muncy, a marketing communications specialist at FordDirect, an automotive digital marketing agency. She graduated from Hope College with a degree in English literature in 2013, where she was a Mellon Scholar. You can see more of her work and contact her here.

In the widely popular podcast, “Serial,” a spinoff of the public radio show “This American Life” (both of which I highly recommend), Sarah Koenig follows a murder case across a series of episodes, weaving hours of interviews and research into a compelling narrative that reaches beyond the lines of journalism and into the very thing that connects us as human beings: storytelling.

It’s easy to assume that as a culture we’re obsessed with the visual. Attention spans are short. People don’t read. But there’s something about the human voice that is entrancing, raw and compelling. The forum of podcasts engage the part of the imagination that is shut off during video watching, the part that you turn on when you’re reading a good book, the words coming alive in your mind.

In a culture that often moves at the speed of our smartphones, the archive may seem like a forgotten place. However, for me, finding a story in the archive, a story that needs to be told, like Sarah Koenig’s in “Serial,” satisfied my inquisitive journalistic nature in a way that other kinds of research could not.

As an undergraduate at Hope College, I first found the story of a woman who spent her life recording and guarding the collective memory of her town at the local archives in Holland, Michigan. The historical essays she wrote and her personal documents inspired me to tell the story of Holland through the lens of her personal archive, making her story, and that of her beloved hometown, come alive.

Continuing to search for material that I thought deserved to be brought into the open, I discovered stories that spoke to me of escape—by immigrants, runaway slaves, and a man who committed suicide.  So I wove together these disparate stories with elements of different mediums—letters, memory books, photographs, oral history interviews and diaries—into one cohesive narrative. The narrative contained all of the elements of fiction:  plot, dynamic characters, dialogue. The end result was similar to “Serial”:  history told through the lens of journalism with aspects of a literary narrative.

Instead of making abstract arguments about the past, I wanted to fuse the old with the new into something more accessible and more focused on storytelling, and I decided the best way to do that would be to create a podcast based on the materials I had found. By pairing archival materials with a narrative voice, the past became vivid in a way I never would have anticipated.

You can listen to the podcast I produced for my senior thesis here.  I broke the stories down into acts (like a play), but wove each to the other by a similar theme:  escape.   I used oral history transcripts, oral history recordings, newspapers, photographs and more to create a script, also inserting some of my own commentary to shape the story.

During my time in the archive, I learned that it’s sometimes best to let the stories tell themselves. Let the archive inform your journey. It takes time and a lot of patience, but if you continue seeking out the story, you’ll find the links you need to create a compelling narrative from information you never thought would be connected or historically significant.

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