Podcasts at LMU: Infotainment for the ears

25 Oct 2021

Podcasts have attracted new fans in the course of the pandemic. At LMU too, more and more of them are being produced to share knowledge, offer services – and simply entertain the listener.

The murder of the Russian royal family by the Bolsheviks; the killing of revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg by the rightist Freikorps paramilitary; and the attempt on the life of Pope John Paul II by Ali Agca – True crime in its historical context is the topic of the Tatort Geschichte (Crime Scene: History, only in German) podcast. Designed and produced by Dr. Hannes Liebrandt and Niklas Fischer from the School of History’s Department of the Didactics of History/Public History, this fascinating podcast has, since April 2021, been tracking down historic crimes from recent decades and centuries, describing the deeds committed, putting them in their historic context and exploring the consequences for villain, victim and the course of history thereafter. The aim, its creators assert, is not just to relate historical facts, but also to entertain. “Historians are storytellers. And that is what we want to do with Crime Scene: History. We want to tell stories,” says Hannes Liebrandt. Both podcasters are nevertheless at pains to point out that this should never be at the expense of scientific quality. “The format obviously forces us to leave things out. But we still want to work on the basis of facts and reliable sources,” Fischer adds. “Sources are a historian’s most important tool.”

The format has been well received. “Although our podcast is still relatively young, we’ve had a lot of decidedly positive feedback from our listeners.” For example, the man who wrote the biography of Klaus Barbie (the “Butcher of Lyon”) really liked the episode on this Nazi war criminal. “Obviously, we get criticism and helpful suggestions for improvement too, and we try to act on these as far as possible,” Fischer and Liebrandt insist. “But there is only so much we can do about our voices,” they grin. It was the coronavirus pandemic that gave the two historians the idea of using the podcast format: “University tuition largely went digital, so we decided to offer a course in the form of podcasts,” Fischer recalls. The feedback from students was so positive that the duo agreed to continue the format, albeit with a different thematic focus.

Hannes Liebrandt and Niklas Fischer lead through the podcast "Tatort Geschichte"

Exam preparation: Learning by listening

In the German audio space, the pandemic gave a powerful boost to podcasts. Witness the findings of a representative survey commissioned in 2020 by German digital association Bitkom e.V.: According to the survey, 33 percent of Germans now regularly listen to podcasts – nearly 10 percent more than in the period before the pandemic. And the most popular topics? The pandemic itself, followed by news, comedy and educational formats. The gain in popularity clearly also includes migration from what used to be presence-based events in the online world: In the university milieu, the central aspect is naturally digital tuition and the associated issue of how traditional event formats can best be transposed into the digital realm. Diana Rieger has found a solution. To complement her lecture “Introduction to communication studies”, she has made the customary question-and-answer session available as a podcast. “I want to add value for the students,” says the Associate Professor for Communication at LMU. Together with her undergraduate assistant Larissa Ruf, Professor Rieger collects the questions asked by her students during the lecture. Larissa then reads the questions aloud and she answers – with the microphone switched on. “We try to make the whole thing as humorous as possible,” Rieger notes. Which is not really a problem: Both she and her student are very impulsive and are always cracking a joke or two. Neither Rieger nor Ruf works from a script, though the professor does use written notes to help keep her responses comprehensive but concise. “The advantage of a podcast over a lecture is that the podcast is only published after a time lag, so I can make sure the answers are well prepared and can conduct further research into issues. That is something I can’t just do off the top of my head in a lecture situation.” The same goes for her listeners: Paula Hofmann, currently in the third semester of her communication studies, says she can formulate her questions much better than she could in a live lecture. She has listened to all the podcasts so far to prepare for her exams. “The podcast lets me take a deep dive into those slides that are of relevance for the exam,” Hofmann explains. She also quite simply enjoys listening to them, “because they are so funny and laid back”. She knows what she is talking about, having coproduced her own podcast on the subject of sustainability for CommunityKlima e.V., a community-based climate initiative.

The format has certainly been a resounding success. So much so that Diana Rieger can well imagine continuing to offer Q&A podcasts even when Covid is over and she can teach again in the auditorium. That said, she readily admits: “I would rather see the students in person and answer their questions face to face”. Rieger sees the ability to leave your desk and listen while walking or running outdoors as another benefit of podcasts: “It’s good to be able to get out when you are in lockdown. Podcasts are a very mobile communication format.”

Good sound sets the tone

Fascinating topics, thorough preparation, interesting discussion partners and eye-catching headlines are important if your podcast is to achieve a certain reach. Experts advise budding ‘casters’ to break complex subject matter down into a series rather than dump mammoth podcasts on their listeners. Ideally, an episode should last between 20 and no more than 40 minutes, although the topic itself will obviously influence how long audiences can and want to listen for.

While podcasts can be produced at little cost, a minimum level of technical equipment is vital: A good sound goes a long way to determining whether listeners stay loyal. “When I first started, the sound quality was one of the most important criticisms of my podcast,” Professor Rieger recalls. “To begin with I just used a normal headset that you can buy in the shops. So, I upgraded that to a proper radio microphone, which vastly improved the quality.” To deliver a good sound even without a perfectly appointed studio, it is indeed useful to work with good microphones, what is known as a microphone screen (to filter out echoes and ambient noise) and reliable podcast software for recording and postproduction.

The ‘perfectly appointed studio’ is a luxury enjoyed by Hannes Liebrandt and Niklas Fischer: To produce their crime podcast, they were able to enlist the support of both the Georg von Vollmar Academy, an educational facility south of Munich at Kochel am See, and Bavarian broadcasting company Bayerischer Rundfunk, which provides editorial and technical support for Crime Scene: History. Yet as important as technology and the subject matter undoubtedly are, the two professionals advise would-be podcasters to do a bit of market research in advance: “You need to know who your target group is,” Liebrandt says, “and identify gaps in the coverage of your topic in the online landscape. And you naturally have to be interested in the subject.” Also, to avoid ‘rambling podcast syndrome’, the historians recommend working with a script and a well-thought-out structure, though obviously without neglecting the ‘storytelling’ aspect.

The „Ostcaster“: Maximilian Fixl, Martha Schmidt und Georgiy Konovaltsev

What is Eastern Europe?

Martha Schmidt, Maximilian Fixl and Georgiy Konovaltsev attach great importance to exciting stories that are relatively obscure. On that score, Eastern Europe – the focus of their Ostcast (Eastcast, only in German) – probably has enough material to keep them casting for decades to come. But what exactly is Eastern Europe? The question is not an easy one to answer. Russia, for instance, was still classed as part of Northern Europe until well into the 19th century. And Austria is not part of Eastern Europe, even though its capital Vienna is farther east than Prague, capital of the Czech Republic. Logically, therefore, the very first episode of Ostcast tackles precisely this issue: It makes sense to define what you want to talk about before talking about it! The three students sought to do so by interviewing Dr. Darina Volf, an LMU expert on Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Martha Schmidt, who is reading Eastern European studies and majoring in political science, says drawing on Dr. Volf’s in-house expertise right at the start of the podcast was a big advantage. Going forward, Schmidt, Fixl and Konovaltsev nevertheless plan to spread their pool of experts far and wide beyond the boundaries of LMU. Interview partners will therefore be a key structural attribute of the Ostcast. “We always draw up an outline of the podcast and send it to our interview partners in advance,” says Georgiy Konovaltsev, who is also reading Eastern European studies but majoring in history. Konovaltsev is responsible for the technical side of the Ostcast.

The distinctive feature of their podcast is that topics are addressed from an interdisciplinary perspective, taking in aspects of history, politics and culture. The subject matter is as varied as it is intriguing, ranging from an episode on contemporary Russian film to tourism in Eastern Europe to the Holodomor, the devastating famine that struck the Soviet Ukraine in the early 1930s and is hotly debated to this day. Another characteristic is that the topics covered largely fly under the radar. “This new interdisciplinary approach is very important to us. Above all, we want to explain issues in a way that makes them accessible not just to scientists,” Konovaltsev notes. “When planning a podcast, you’ve obviously got to try to avoid clichés and stay true to the science. We pay very close attention to that,” adds Maximilian Fixl, who is currently studying for his doctorate.

And what will happen to the Eastcast when the threesome one day leave the university? When their undergraduate and doctoral studies are over? “You don’t have to be in the same place to make a podcast,” Fixl says. Back during the lockdown, no more than two households were allowed to meet. So even then, it was not possible to record the podcasts in one place. All three are therefore already familiar with remote production – and definitely want to continue their Eastcast even after finishing their studies. As we saw earlier, podcasts are a very mobile format.

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