I was very excited to read that ABC purchased the rights to adapt StartUp into a television show called Alex, Inc. I couldn’t wait to see the show both because I loved the podcast and because I wanted to see how a podcast could be adapted for television. However, the purpose of the show is to provide a spoof on both start-up culture and podcasters. You can’t properly spoof something unless you understand it.
What can the history of radio teach us about the present and future of podcasting? I've been contemplating this question for over two years. I think about it because podcasters like to think that what we do is new and novel. Yet none of what we claim as new, is new. It has all happened before in radio. The history of radio is relevant to the present and future of podcasting.
A tour of the fourth iteration of my professional website.
Welcome to my new website!
A website represents your home on the web. It’s where people come to learn more information about you and where you have the opportunity to convey the image and message you want to the world.
I really loved my old website, but I needed a change. It felt dated (it was three and half years old) and as the third iteration of my original website, it no longer conveyed the image and message I want to convey to the world.
I don't get SnapChat. Why would you spend time creating content that people can only access for a limited period of time? I shared this musing on Twitter and enjoyed exchanges that culminated in the fact that I'm old.
I may be a first-year millennial (I did in fact graduate high school in the year 2000), but I'm a member of the "Oregon Trail" part of the generation. The part that embraces new technology and still appreciates what came before it. I'm also a member of a profession that still lauds the book as the ultimate form of scholarly production. Books vary in quality, but they all take time to produce.
In the world I grew up in and the world I work in, it takes time and energy to produce content and preserve memories. These ideas and experiences shape the way I think about digital content and how it should be produced. They also make me a tortoise living and running in a hare's world.
The "Hare Approach" to Content Creation
In comparison, "real" millennials and "post-millennials" have grown up using smartphones, tablets, apps, and hardware, like Snap's Spectacles, to easily create digital content. As a childhood friend pointed out, "now, basic content creation is nearly effortless." You can create content and preserve a memory in seconds.
We live in a world full of digital content, but most of it's created quickly and it's not very good: bad blog posts, blurry photos, mundane status updates, and shaky videos. This mediocre content clogs the internet and means something only to those who created it and to those who understand the context of its creation.
Thinking about SnapChat within the context that content creation should be easy and effortless is when SnapChat started to make sense to me: The social app caters to people who want to create fast, effortless content. And thinking about SnapChat in this light has allowed me to appreciate how Snap may be doing our digital world a great service by making low-quality, hastily created content available only for a short period of time. Less clutter means more space for the great stuff to shine.
But what does the idea of creating fast, easy content on-the-go mean for the future of content creation? Has my belief that historians and other digital content producers should expend effort to produce high-quality, well thought out content become outmoded?
Should I morph into a hare?
I don't think so, at least not yet.
The "Tortoise Approach" To Content Creation
If my ideas about content creation were outmoded then Amazon, Netflix, HBO, and now Apple wouldn't be investing HUGE sums of money in the production and curation of high-quality, niche programs like Game of Thrones.
All of these companies are producing high-quality shows unlike anything you can see on a traditional network to draw people to their subscription-based, digital content libraries. And if you're like me, you enjoy programs like Game of Thrones more than the programs on network television because of their production value. They involve many characters, have huge story arcs, and contain great special effects (hello, real-looking dragons & dire wolves). These high-quality shows also aren't beholden to the traditional time clock of network television-- episodes don't have to adhere to 30- and 60-minute time slots.
And premium digital networks aren't the only ones investing time and money into highly-produced content. Masterpiece Theater produces shows of similar quality for PBS. Think Downton Abbey, Victoria, and Poldark. They have less special effects than a show like Game of Thrones, but they all have high-quality production.
It's also interesting to compare the types of content networks are producing. HBO produces content like Game of Thrones and TrueBlood to appeal to fantasy lovers. People accustomed to good stories and who have a track record of paying for merchandise, books, games, and content. Masterpiece Theater's main goal is to drive people to support public broadcasting. They mainly produce mysteries and history-inspired programs. People who like history tend to enjoy culture, are civic-minded, and they have a track record of donating money to support the work of organizations like PBS and NPR.
Video-based content companies and companies that service digital video apps aren't the only companies investing in high-quality, digital content. So are traditional news outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and NPR.
The New York Times and The Washington Post have publicly declared that they are redoubling their efforts to produce well-researched, long-form articles to differentiate themselves from other news outlets. They're banking on the fact that high-quality content will drive ad sales and subscriptions. They've also started audio divisions to lead people to their print content and to advertise their areas of expertise-- The Washington Post specializes in political podcasts; The New York Times produces podcasts about culture and they just released The Daily, a podcast that focuses on a big news story and leads you to its printed or digital newspaper.
NPR is also investing money in high-quality podcasts. The powerhouse networks that feed a lot of content to the national NPR network-- WBUR (Boston), WNYC (New York City), and WBEZ (Chicago)-- all have podcast and mobile divisions to produce apps like NPR One and great shows like Modern Love, Death, Sex, & Money, and Serial. Further, NPR-trained talent has started a whole host of new venture-funded podcast companies like Gimlet and Pineapple Street Media.
These new digital audio companies were founded to produce high-quality, on-demand audio content. Their funding models are based on three ideas:
1. High-quality, intellectually-driven content attracts listeners that advertisers will pay a premium to get access to because host-read podcast ads aren't yet regulated by the FCC, which means ads don't have to sound like ads, and the listeners the intellectually-driven content attracts tend to have disposable incomes.
2. If you have enough high-quality content, listeners will pay to access a back catalog like a subscription network. (These paid-subscription models are just starting to appear and will become more visible as these networks add to their content catalogs.)
3. Big companies recognize the value of high-quality content and are willing to pay networks to create custom content for them--like Open for Business by eBay, produced by Gimlet, and GE's podcast The Message, produced by Panoply.
Why the Tortoise Will Win in History Content Production
Tortoises like me live in a hare's world. We look slow and outmoded in the way we produce digital content. But our goals are different from those of the hare.
In my case, I want to create content that resonates with people, that creates wide awareness about history, and that cultivates a sentiment within society that history and the work historians do is worth supporting. I'm, in fact, running a tortoise's race. So my ideas aren't outmoded, they're timely and they make sense.
I believe there is a place for the hare's content. Photos and images created quickly with smartphones are fun to produce and share. However, the hare's content won't build a lasting audience. Within the last decade we've seen Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram content producers who quickly built massive audiences only to watch those audiences dwindle and leave as new apps and social networks came out and interests changed. The quick and easy content they produced entertained only for a limited time.
History has staying power. People will always be interested in history because it helps us grapple with the big, existential questions of who we are and how we came to be who we are. This is why historians have always invested time and energy into producing content that lasts: books, articles, museum exhibits. And this tried-and-true method of investing time and effort in the content we produce should also be our approach in the digital world.
We should embrace the hare, borrow everything from its technological toolbox that will help us communicate history, and then adapt these tools to amplify our work. Because just like in the analog world that came before the digital world, quality work will rise to the top, be consumed by more people over time, and will last-- just like tortoises, which live an average of 200 years versus hares, which live an average of 5.5 years.
September 30th marks International Podcast Day. In honor of this day designed to increase awareness about podcasts and podcasting, I offer this overview about how a historian might start a podcast while in graduate school.
The Behind-the-Scenes Work
Podcasting is a lot of work.
Each episode of Ben Franklin's World represents somewhere between 40 and 60 hours of work. That work includes researching a guest, scheduling an interview, preparing for the interview, conducting the interview, editing the episode, drafting and recording intros and outros, drafting and posting show notes, creating custom graphics, and promoting the episode on its release day.
This does not count the time my audio engineer spends working on each episode nor the time I spend working on the website, troubleshooting tech hiccups, interacting with listeners, creating supplements for some episodes, or developing presentations about the podcast and podcasting for different conferences and talks.
None of the above is meant as a complaint. I love what I do.
Instead, the above overview is meant to underscore the fact that podcasting is a TON of work. Truthfully, I can't imagine trying to podcast and do it well while in graduate school.
With that said, some of you want to attempt to podcast while in grad school. So I've stretched my imagination to craft this primer to give you ideas about how you might produce a quality podcast and write a dissertation.
First, a note of caution.
Many graduate students wish to podcast because they believe it will set them apart on the job market. I do believe it could set you apart. I also believe producing a podcast could hurt your chances on the job market.
If you take too long to finish your dissertation, you will run into funding problems and some hiring committees might look unfavorably upon the extra time you took to finish your degree. Hiring committee members might also take the time to listen to your podcast. A low-quality podcast could reflect poorly upon you even if you have high-quality written work.
Time to degree and the quality of your digital scholarship matters.
6 Steps to Creating a Podcast While in Graduate School
Step 1: Careful Consideration
Before you produce a podcast you need to consider 4 components:
What period or aspect of history will your podcast explore and investigate?
It's important to pick a period and aspect of history that you could talk about all day. The more narrow you can go in your topical focus, the better because topic specificity will enable you to find members of your target audience faster.
The most successful podcasts tend to have very narrow focuses or "niches" (the industry term for topic).
Ben Franklin's World is odd in that it has a broad "niche" and it's successful. Two years ago, I could get away with framing my podcast around what is known as "vast early America" because there was only one other podcast about early American history and it had a different format and a more haphazard release schedule than BFWorld.
If I started a podcast today, I would have to think more narrowly. I might podcast on the American Revolution or perhaps on the American Revolution in the northeast. The latter may sound like a very narrow topic, but local history is so hot right now and that topic would work.
Who is your ideal listener or podcast avatar?
My podcast avatar is the fictional Janet Watkins. She's a 22-year-old pre-med student at SUNY-Buffalo and she's a woman of color. Janet hates history because her teachers have always linked history to dead, white men and have never related how history informs her present day.
My goal with each episode is to make Janet care about the early American past.
What kind of podcast will you produce?
Will you conduct interviews? Will you produce short, solo episodes? Will you present scripted, narrative stories?
You need to consider how you will discuss and present the topic you have chosen for your podcast before you start podcasting. Research indicates that listeners like regularity. They want to be able to depend on a consistent release schedule and a mostly consistent format. This doesn't mean you can't offer both interviews and solo episodes, but you should pick one format to predominate.
4. Release Schedule
Consistency and frequency matter.
The best performing podcasts release on a consistent basis.
Time is our most precious resource and listeners invest time into listening to our podcasts. Podcast listeners tend to be loyal to their favorite shows and they want their favorite shows to be loyal to them. Being loyal to your listeners means not just producing high-quality content, it means producing it on a regular schedule listeners can depend on.
If I were in graduate school, I would create a series-based podcast. I would casually research and plot episodes during the school year, produce episodes during the less hectic summer period, and release episodes over a set number of weeks during the school year. As my episodes aired, I would start the casual research and plotting process over so I could release new episodes again the following fall.
I strongly recommend you refrain from attempting to produce a weekly or bi-weekly show while you are in graduate school. The production pace of a weekly or bi-weekly show is grueling and unrelenting.
Step 2: Create a Budget
Podcasts are free to consume, they are not free to produce.
At minimum you will need to invest in a good hosting service for your audio files. I recommend Libsyn.
Before you start podcasting decide how much money you are willing to spend to both get your podcast up and running and on monthly expenses such as audio hosting, website hosting, and editing services.
The more you get into podcasting the more money you will want to spend to upgrade your equipment and invest in new apps and software. Know how much you can and are willing to spend at the start.
Step 3: Invest in a Good Mic
Audio quality matters.
If you want people to listen to your ideas and what you are saying, you need to invest in a good mic that will allow you to present your ideas clearly.
Many podcasters use the Audio-Technica ATR2100, USB microphone. It's about $80 from Amazon and it occasionally goes on sale for around $50. This is a high-quality, versatile mic.
The Heil-PR40 is a fire-end microphone, which means if you set your gain right, it will catch only the noise directed into the end of the mic.
The best course of action when buying a microphone is to go to a Guitar Center or a local music shop that sells mics and try them out. Then you can hear which mics make you sound great.
Step 4: Learn How to Use Editing Software
The quality of your content matters.
If you want listeners to take time to listen to you, you need to invest time in producing something worth listening to. You need to invest time into editing your show.
Ben Franklin's World is on the highly-produced end of the podcast spectrum. I remove "ahs," "ums," breath sounds, and extraneous speech from recordings. I also repair (when possible) drops and blips in waveforms and I make content edits.
When I listen to raw recordings, I listen not just for everything I mentioned above, I also listen to the flow and pace of the conversation. I take out extraneous rambling, tangential information that adds nothing to the points my guests are trying to make, and I sometimes re-order questions and answers to improve the flow of the conversation.
After I'm done, I send the edited files to Darrell Darnell, my assistant editor and audio engineer, so he can edit the file again and use his software to make each episode sound as good as possible.
Editing is a lot like writing. It's hard work, but fairly easy to do if you have the right tools. I started editing with a single-track editor called Fission. Today, I use a multi-track editor called Adobe Audition.
Regardless of what audio software you use, take the time to learn to use it.
Step 5: Launch Your Podcast
Your job as a podcaster does not end after your edit. You must upload and promote your content.
Once you finish working on your audio file, you should tag your file with metadata. I use the ID3 Editor app. Libsyn recently added a feature to their hosting service where it will add metadata to your file after you write the description for your file.
You should list your feed with at least iTunes (the number one podcast directory), Google Play Music, and Stitcher Radio. These podcast providers are also podcast directories and they make it possible for listeners to find your show.
Once the directories list your show, promote. Promote your content on social media networks, on other podcasts, and wherever, whenever you can.
Step 6: Manage Your Expectations
Growing an audience takes time and few podcasters are ever satisfied with the size of their audience.
I've been public about the success of Ben Franklin's World, yet BFWorld and its monthly average of 68,000 downloads is an exception, not the rule.
Libsyn is the largest podcast hosting service. Each month they publish statistics for the average number of downloads a new episode receives over the course of a month (the lifespan of a new episode) and the average number of total downloads entire shows receive over the course of a month (this number includes new episodes and back catalogs).
In July 2016, an average new podcast episode received 164 downloads; the average podcast received 2,039.9 downloads.
Podcasting is a lot of work. To do it well requires a lot of time, some money, and attention to detail. If you have the time, money, and drive it can be a very powerful way to create awareness about history.
If you are interested in learning how to podcast, tell your department head and graduate advisor. Podcasts make great tools for teaching and they could require less individual time if a department started one as a group effort. If your professors have questions about how they might start a departmental podcast, have them send me an e-mail. I have lots of ideas and a working podcast I would love to use as a teaching tool.