Behind the scenes of “America’s attic”

When you hear the words “Smithsonian Institution,” you might think of a hallowed yet fusty single museum in Washington, D.C. But the Smithsonian is much broader and deeper than that — in addition to its 19 museums  visited by millions every year, it encompasses 9 research centers and the national zoo spread across multiple states and countries where active research is happening. Justin O’Neill, the producer of the Smithsonian’s podcast Sidedoor, is trying to bring the many rich aspects of the Smithsonian to life and to share them with the broader public, and Pop Up Archive is a critical tool in his workflow.

The format of Sidedoor is longform narrative storytelling that takes you behind the scenes of the Smithsonian buildings, where the public can’t go. Episodes are about 20 minutes long, with four to six interviewees in each: a combination of researchers, curators, and outside experts that explore topics as diverse as a murder mystery from the 19th century to a combat photographer capturing the reality and humanity of war. This rich, diverse lineup makes for a lot of raw tape that has to be processed and reviewed. Justin estimates he has between three and five hours of interviews to transcribe for each episode. Pop Up Archive helps him to quickly and easily transcribe, organize, and search them.

As soon as an interview is recorded, Justin uploads it to Pop Up Archive, regardless of whether it’s for an episode that will be airing shortly or not. He then exports it with timestamps into a Google document where he edits it further, sometimes color-coding text according to topic so he can scan the transcript and quickly find different types of audio content such as personal anecdotes, technical/in-depth discussion, background, and more. “Getting the transcripts completed quickly helps us organize our tape and also informs the next interviews that we do. We wouldn’t really be able to produce on this schedule without Pop Up Archive; it basically saves us from spending probably close to half of our time transcribing, and allows us to actually do the work of putting out a podcast. It’s huge for us.”

Many people might think of the Smithsonian Institution as America’s attic — “a dusty document of our country’s past,” Justin explained, “but really it’s just as much a living breathing organism, more university than archive. We’re trying to shake that dusty feel and bring the research and work that we’re doing to life, and broaden the public understanding of who the Smithsonian is in the process.”

The Sidedoor team also includes host Tony Cohn and associate producer Stacia Brown. Episodes will start airing tomorrow, June 21 (and you can listen to its eight-episode pilot season here). You can watch an introduction to Sidedoor on YouTube, follow along on Twitter, and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts.