A photo of a man and a woman standing next to each other in front of the Richmond city skyline.
Michael Paul Williams and Mallory Noe-Payne are the creators of “Memory Wars,” a six-part podcast series that will serve as the 2024-25 VCU Common Book. (Kevin Morley, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

‘Memory Wars,’ a podcast series about history, tragedy and reckoning, selected as the 2024-25 VCU Common Book

Created by Richmond journalists and aired on NPR, the podcast marks a first for VCU program that offers new students and others a shared learning experience.

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“Memory Wars,” a six-part podcast series that explores how societies confront their difficult histories and sin, has been selected as the 2024-25 VCU Common Book. It is the first podcast selected in the decade-plus history of the Virginia Commonwealth University program, which introduces first-year students to complex social issues through a common text.

“Memory Wars” was created by Richmond-based journalist Mallory Noe-Payne and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Michael Paul Williams of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. It examines how Germany confronted its horrific past in the wake of the Holocaust, and turning their focus to the U.S., Noe-Payne and Williams explore “the struggles it takes for a society to change its narrative, face up to an uncomfortable past and pave the way for atonement,” as noted by National Public Radio, which first aired the podcast in 2022. Noe-Payne and Williams worked with Roanoke based RadioIQ  while writing and editing the podcast. The station, where Noe-Payne was working full-time while creating "Memory Wars," also helped edit, fund and distribute the podcast. 

The VCU Common Book is a universitywide initiative, hosted by University College and the Office of the Provost, that helps frame complex social issues in an interdisciplinary lens, through which the selection can be analyzed in an academic setting. A podcast, rather than a physical text, was chosen this year to give students a different medium to explore in hopes of sparking new kinds of conversations. In 2023, 42% of Americans ages 12 and older said they had listened to a podcast in the past month, according to “The Infinite Dial” report by Edison Research.

“I believe that ‘Memory Wars’ will serve as a great launching pad for discussions among VCU students, faculty, staff and the local community,” said D’Arcy Mays, Ph.D, interim dean of University College. “The podcast is such a compelling listen that I am certain students will engage with its themes and see how the U.S. can reckon with our past and, more locally, how Virginia and Richmond can reckon with its past for a better tomorrow.”

“Memory Wars” will be used in the curriculum for UNIV 111 and UNIV 112, which are courses taught by University College’s Department of Focused Inquiry that are required for first-year students. The Common Book selection committee, consisting of faculty, staff and undergraduate and graduate students from across VCU and VCU Health, selected “Memory Wars” for the upcoming academic year.

“‘Memory Wars’ is an exciting choice for next year’s Common Book due to both its format and its contents,” said Ginny Marzoratti, a sophomore environmental studies major in VCU Life Sciences who served as an undergraduate representative on the selection committee. “I think choosing a podcast will encourage students to participate and get involved. ‘Memory Wars’ is a series of important conversations that are crucial for students to learn about the grim history of where they are living and learning, in hopes that they can help aid in the process of taking accountability for past tragedies.”

How people reckon and live with difficult histories that surround them was at the core of what “Memory Wars” seeks to explore, Noe-Payne said. She hopes students can find ground to relate on and explore the subject in their own way.

“At its heart, my goal with the podcast was to share the incredible stories of the people I met in Germany who live with hard history every day,” Noe-Payne said. “The descendant of Holocaust survivors who is trying to make Germany her home. The descendent of a Nazi soldier who just wants to learn what her grandfather experienced in the war. It made me think about how we live with our own traumatic history differently, and that’s what I hope it does for students, too.”

Noe-Payne and Williams will visit VCU’s campus on Thursday, Oct. 24, to deliver a keynote address to students, faculty, staff and the public. More details, including time and location, will be available closer to the event.

Leading up to the keynote, the Common Book Program will host a series of on-campus events with VCU faculty and other community partners around “Memory Wars.” For more information on those events and the program, visit commonbook.vcu.edu or follow @VCUCommonBook on social media.