Archiving today’s culture for tomorrow’s researchers, through podcasts

By Meghan Chua


When Samuel Hansen started producing podcasts about mathematics and science, it was possible for a small, independent podcast like Hansen’s to rank in the country’s top 60 most popular shows. Now, the top charts are dominated by network-produced podcasts, a change that has taken place in the last 10 years alone – but not the last the world of podcasting will see.

To preserve podcasts as they are now, and archive the changes within them, a project at UW–Madison is dedicated to making today’s podcasts available well into the future. PodcastRE, funded by the UW2020 initiative, creates a digital archive of podcasts and episodes, storing both the podcast’s audio content and its metadata, and allowing researchers to look back on popular culture through them.

“Podcasts are starting to become more and more a media of record,” said Hansen, a graduate student research assistant on the project. “It’s also a place where dominant culture is being made and being shared.”

Graduate student Samuel Hansen wears headphones and works on a podcast on a laptop.
Graduate student Samuel Hansen works on a podcast.

With a background in database management, mathematics, coding, and podcasting, Hansen (they/them/their pronouns) was a perfect fit for the project. When they joined PodcastRE, the project’s database and archive was already established, downloading new episodes as they were released.

Bringing the perspective of a master’s student in the Library and Information Studies program, Hansen saw that the database could be improved to not just store one version of each episode, but capture change over time.

“An archive tries to get every single version of an object so you can see how it changes over time – especially with digital archiving,” they explained.

Hansen embarked on a redesign of the project’s data model, ultimately creating two tables of data for each podcast show and episode. The two-table structure allows anyone looking for information on the podcast to see both the podcast definition and each instance of unique metadata, which often changes, for that podcast.

Each day, PodcastRE grows its database of shows, adding any new shows that climb to the iTunes Top 100 chart in the U.S., Great Britain, France, or Australia. It also archives shows from the Podcasts in Color directory, which features shows made by people of color, in a deliberate effort to capture underserved voices.

The project archives everything from UW-Madison student-made podcasts to the biggest hits. Many of the popular podcasts right now are in the true crime genre, Hansen said, tracing the trend back to NPR’s hit show Serial. But as the culture changes, so too may the podcasts.

“It’s important for people who look back at the culture in the future to be able to look back at these shows,” Hansen said. “People decades from now will be able to use this archive to really look at this moment of podcasting and be able to contextualize it and do scholarship around it.”

The UW2020 initiative supports innovative and groundbreaking research at the University of Wisconsin–Madison with the potential to transform a field of study. UW2020 grants are supported by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) with combined funding from the Graduate School and other sources.