Technology

Going Platinum with 1 Million Downloads

bfworld-platinum-blogBen Franklin's World hit a big milestone this past weekend. On Saturday, September 17, 2016, it reached and surpassed 1 million downloads. Or as I like to joke, Ben Franklin's World went platinum.

In the world of podcasting, reaching and surpassing 1 million downloads is a remarkable achievement. What make's Ben Franklin's World achievement of this goal even more remarkable is that the show reached this milestone as an independently produced podcast before its 2-year anniversary (Oct 7). Also, it achieved these downloads without inflationary tactics such as "tweet bombing" and without paid advertising.

There are two main reasons the podcast has been as successful as it has over the last (almost) two years: First, it offers high-quality content that listeners enjoy enough to recommend to others. Second, I've had a lot of help from friends, colleagues, and listeners.

 

The People Behind-the-Scenes

Darrell Darnell of Pro Podcast Solutions has served as the audio engineer and assistant editor for the show for the last year. He works hard to ensure that each episode sounds great and as good as it possibly can. Given my sensitive ears this not always an easy feat to achieve.

The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture has played a sizable role in the evolution of the show. Last year, they helped me troubleshoot a lot of quick-growth "hiccups" that developed in the back end of the podcast. This year, they've helped shape the content side. They've done this with our "Doing History: How Historians Work" series and in providing silent, gentle encouragement to do better. (They asked me to keep doing what I was doing, but there's something about producing a podcast for the organization that publishes the leading journal in your field, and many of its leading books, to make you ask "what can I do to produce better episodes?")

Many friends and colleagues have listened to me talk ad nauseam about both history and podcasting. However, three friends and colleagues have gone above and beyond serving as sounding boards for this project: Sara Georgini, Joseph Adelman, and Karin Wulf. I can safely say all three now know more about podcasting and its technical workings than they ever thought they wanted to know.

My partner Tim Wilde also knows more about podcasting, digital media, and how they can complement history than he ever wanted to know. Tim has supported this project both literally and figuratively since I came up with idea to start a podcast. Not only did he make the project financially feasible for more than a year, he has also spent many nights and weekends being silent while I record, writing me code that integrates apps with the BFWorld website, and fixing technical issues that arise when WordPress, RSS feeds, and other code breaks. This is to say nothing of how he has yet to comment on the fact that Ben Franklin's World often turns him into a "podcast widower."

Listeners have been central in helping Ben Franklin's World grow from 288 downloads in October 2014 to a monthly average of over 68,000 downloads today. BFWorld listeners serve as the enthusiastic advertising department for the podcast. They recommend the show to their friends, family, and acquaintances because they love history, the guest historians and the topics they discuss in episodes, and that I work hard to provide them with high-quality content.

Plus, listeners have helped in other ways too. Some listeners go the extra mile to help support the show's production costs with financial donations. Many more offer support by sending e-mails, tweets, and Facebook posts of encouragement.

Podcasting is way more work than I ever thought it would be and the production schedule of a weekly show is downright grueling. There are weeks when I think about airing old content, skipping an episode, or reducing the production schedule to every other week because I'm exhausted and want to work on my book projects. There are also weeks where my perfectionist tendencies kick in and I fret over the quality of my work. Without fail, whenever I fall into a tired, mental rut, my inbox and social media streams start bulging with listener feedback telling me how much they love the show and feel enriched by it. And without fail, these words of encouragement spur me on.

I am sincerely grateful to all of these friends for their assistance.

 

Episode 100 & Beyond

million-download-whiskeyWhen episode 100 airs tomorrow (Sept 20), I will enter a different level in the podcasting space; the level that says I'm statistically likely to continue podcasting for another 1-3 years for a total of 3-5 years. It will be interesting to see if this holds true or if Ben Franklin's World and I become a statistical outlier. Time will tell.

Uncharacteristically, I'm mostly focused on the moment rather than on the future and all the work that needs to be done. Tim and I marked 1 million downloads by splurging on an expensive bottle of whiskey that we will enjoy for months to come. Next month, we will celebrate the show's 2-year anniversary with a long weekend away from Ben Franklin's World.

 

Digital Media and the Future of the Historical Profession

Digital MediaIt’s August and I’ve somehow found myself with 7, straight weeks at home. It’s the first time I’ve been home for a full month this year. (Hence why this blog has been a bit of a ghost town.) Since January, I’ve been on a type of “history podcast tour.” Historians & history lovers have become fascinated with Ben Franklin’s World and its success, and they want to know more about the show, how I produce it, and the role podcasts and other digital media will play in the future of historical scholarship. As such, I’ve spoken at a lot of conferences and sat for interviews for podcasts, blogs, and radio.

I’ve participated in a lot of conversations about podcasting, historical scholarship, and the historical profession over the last 7 months. It’s been a lot of fun and these experiences have revealed several key questions people have about these topics:

1. What is the role of podcasts and other digital media in the future of historical scholarship?

2. What has the impact of Ben Franklin’s World been on furthering historians’ ideas about history?

3. How are you making a living podcasting/what are you doing with your career?

I’ve heard these questions enough that a couple of blog posts with answers seem like a good idea. In this post, I’ll answer the first two questions. In a second post, I’ll answer “how are you making a living/what are you doing with your career?”

 

What is the role of podcasts and other digital media in the future of historical scholarship?

When most historians ask this question, what they really want to know is: do podcasts and digital media compete with traditional books and articles?

My answer: No.

Digital media such as podcasts, blog posts, and digital videos complement traditional history books and articles. They also complement museum exhibits and historic sites.

The 21st-century is a mobile age. We live on our smartphones and time has become our most valuable resource because our ability to connect to the internet and with people anytime, anywhere has drastically multiplied the demands on our time. This doesn’t mean that people dislike reading books or visiting museums. It means they have less time (or feel like they have less time) to devote to those activities. As a result, they want to know that they are going to enjoy something and benefit from an experience before they invest time and money into having an experience.

This is where digital media complements traditional books, articles, and exhibits. High-quality, well-researched, and well-produced scholarship is still very important and the need for it is not diminishing. However, this scholarship suffers from a discoverability problem.

For example, Barnes & Noble doesn’t stock books from most academic publishers. They sell end cap and prime sales space to big, for-profit publishers with deep pockets. What books are those big publishers putting into those visible spaces? Usually those by “Fox News Historians” and journalists with large platforms. This means that many high-quality, fascinating history books by top-notch scholars go unstocked by bookstores and unnoticed by people who would be very interested in them, if they knew they existed.

Digital media such as blog posts, podcasts, and video create awareness. They allow potential readers to know that there are great history books and articles available and where they can find them. Digital media also provides easy and convenient ways for potential readers to get a feel for the author, the history they are conveying, and the quality and depth of the historian's research before they invest time and energy into finding a particular book, or article, and reading it.

I’ve found podcasts to be the best digital media for creating broad awareness because it’s presently the perfect digital media for our mobile age. You can listen to podcasts whenever and wherever you want to, which makes them appealing and fun fillers of commuting/exercise/dog walking/cooking/cleaning/waiting time. Plus the intimacy of the medium allows listeners to feel like they have a bond with their favorite hosts and guests.

This is why listeners repeatedly tell me that I’m costing them a fortune. They buy the history books and visit the historic sites they hear about on Ben Franklin's World because they get a great preview of what they will see, learn, and of the personalities and processes of the historians who authored the books or exhibits.

My prediction for the future: Colleges and universities will create and add digital media programs to both undergraduate and graduate curriculums in academic and public history specialties. Departments will find this profitable in the sense that faculty and student-produced media will create awareness about their programs and the work of their faculty and students and in the sense that these programs will teach students tangible, technical communications skills that companies (and corporatized colleges and universities) desire.

 

What has the impact of Ben Franklin’s World been on furthering historians’ ideas about history?

Statistical Measurement: Downloads have risen from 288 in October 2014 to an average of almost 69,000 per month in 2016. In a survey I conducted in late 2015, 41 percent of the Ben Franklin's World audience reported that they had purchased a book or visited a historic site as a result of the show.

Objective Measurement: I receive e-mails, tweets, and Facebook messages from listeners on a daily basis that contain questions about history, topics for future shows, and that both thank me for introducing them to a book or exhibit of great interest to them and curse me because they now spend too much money on history books. Similarly, listeners reach out to show guests too. Listeners ask guests further questions about their work and attend guest talks.

 

Parting Thoughts

Historians should embrace rather than fear digital media. Digital media is, and will, play a big role in keeping traditional historical scholarship alive and well and in reversing the downward trend in major and course enrollment numbers. Plus, digital media offers historians new ways to practice historical scholarship. More options breed creativity and innovation, which every profession needs if it wants to stay healthy and relevant.

 

Plan for a Historian Digital Media Network

Historian Digital Media NetworkOn March 3, 2016, I explored the idea of whether it makes sense to create a podcast network for historians. Eight weeks later, I am convinced that historians need a network. But we need more than a podcast network. We need a digital media network. Presently, digital media consists of blogs and online magazines, podcasts, and on-demand video. In the near future, virtual and augmented reality devices will enhance each of these media types with immersive experiences.

A digital media network offers historians the ability to cultivate and convey their work to wide and receptive public audiences. Digital media compliments books and articles by providing additional ways to disseminate ideas. A digital media network also provides historians with flexibility. Flexibility to present history in different media and flexibility to work in and develop new forms of media as they enter our digital world.

In this post, you will discover my plan to start a historian digital media network.

 

Overall Vision

If granted convenient access to the work of professional historians, the public will take an interest in history and historians’ work and become advocates for it. Convenient access to professional historical work will not only increase the ability of society to think historically, but having more advocates for history will help ensure that we have the funding we need for our research and the majors we need to keep our departments alive and fresh with talent.

The historian digital media network has a two-part mission: 1. To create wide public awareness about history and the work of professional historians by providing convenient access to history and historical research through digital media. 2. To educate historians how to use digital media to communicate history to people within and outside of the historical profession.

Plan of Execution

Given the rather large scope of this idea, I have been exploring models for how to execute it. The most promising models come from the technology sector.

Alphabet Inc.: This company made up of many companies started with just one company: Google, the wealthiest company in the world. Larry Page and Sergey Brin had big, long-term plans for what they wanted their business to do, but rather than execute all of their ideas at once, they started with one idea: how to improve people’s ability to search the internet.

Amazon: Today, Amazon stands as one of the largest logistics and technology companies in the world. But, before the company provided computing power on its AWS servers, warehouse and drop-shipping services, merchandise of all types, and digital media, Amazon.com provided one service: the ability to locate and purchase hard-to-find book titles.

Apple: Apple manufacturers high-quality computers and media devices and provides media delivery services. The second wealthiest company in the world started with three dudes in a garage who wanted to bring computers to the people. Their idea: shrink room-sized machines into personal, desktop kits.

All three of these companies are huge in size, scope, and profits. They achieved their success by starting off with one, small idea and executing that small idea well.

Similarly, I intend to start a historian digital media network with one, small idea and executing it well: podcasts.

 

Why Podcasts?

Podcast-MicPodcasts are hot right now.

Since my last post, Edison Research released its “Infinite Dial 2016” report. The study revealed a large increase in the number of podcast listeners and an increase in the number of podcasts people listen to. Additionally, The New York Times announced that it is creating an audio division, Audible.com (an Amazon company) released the beta for its new short-form audio service, and Google Play Music finally launched its podcast directory and service. I also intend to start the network with podcasts because, at the moment, it is the media I most enjoy learning more about, working with, and the one I am finding the most success with.

Starting a digital media network with just podcasts is also a large undertaking. Ideally, the historian digital media network will convey history from all periods and subfields. However, launching a network with one podcast from every period and subfield won’t work. We won’t be able to build the audience we need to sustain a network with such a diversified strategy at the start. Therefore, we must begin with an even smaller piece and work our way toward the end goal.

 

Where to Start?

Listeners patronize networks because they offer consistent content in terms of quality, topic, and release schedule. Listeners are more likely to tune in to new shows if they already know and like the hosts and content of the podcasts they listen to. Therefore, I imagine building the network up and out much like we convey narrative in survey courses.

The network needs to start with one historical period and subfield. It will start by offering content about early American history. Ben Franklin’s World will serve as the network’s first podcast. It will be the base from which we launch other programs. New programs will tie into and build off of the geography and period of early American history because this consistent and related content approach will encourage listeners to sample new network programs.

 

How to Add New Shows?

Building out the network comes down to two factors: Money and historians.

I cannot build this network alone. I have many ideas for shows and how historians can utilize digital media of all types to convey their ideas, but presently, I need to keep my focus on Ben Franklin’s World. Its quality cannot drop. It is the cornerstone of the network and we must not take its audience for granted. Ben Franklin’s World will not only help us build the audience for the historian digital media network, it will help us fund it.

Ben Franklin's World has grown to a point where I could seek the corporate sponsorship of companies like MailChimp and Squarespace. (I have a different strategy for how to monetize the podcast, but that must wait for another post.) Once I monetize Ben Franklin's World, we will have funds to invest into new shows, which will need webpages, hosting, artwork, audio engineers, software, and recording equipment.

Aside from money, the network needs people. Not only should the network provide a space where the public can hear many different historian voices, but the network needs the labor of many historians to exist. Podcasting is fun, but it is a labor-intensive media. Therefore, I need to find enthusiastic people who share in the vision of a historian media network and find ways to realize the second goal of the network: to educate historians how to use digital media to communicate history to people within and outside of the historical profession.

Ben Franklin’s World could be used as an educational tool. I am confident I could bring in historians and graduate students to work on the backend of the show to gain experience in digital media (podcasting requires knowledge of blogging and video too). As colleagues gain experience with Ben Franklin's World, we could work on ideas for shows they would like to produce and work on launching them.

However, this is easier said than done. I haven’t yet figured out how to effectively bring in people to work on Ben Franklin's World in a virtual setting. I can demonstrate many of the technical aspects of podcasting via a shared-screen video conference, but providing hands-on experience and in-person discussion would be difficult and this type of work is best performed with hands-on practice.

Hands-on practice with the technology and with communication is key as the network must offer high-quality content to realize maximum success. Anyone can podcast, but not everyone can produce a high-quality podcast. Hands-on experience is critical to learning the art of the latter.

 

First Steps

Clearly, I still have a lot of details to work out and thinking to do. But, I am going to start building the network as I work out those details. I will finalize and implement my monetization strategy for Ben Franklin’s World. I will build the network's website, the gateway to all network content. And, I will survey my audience to see what periods and areas of history they would like to discover more about.

Rome was not built in a day and this network won’t be built in a day either. It’s going to take years. But, I am confident we will sort out the details as we go and hopefully within a few years the network will start to resemble a broad, inclusive platform for the profession. A platform that will help us spread ideas, promote historical thinking, and create advocates who will help support and advance our work.

 

Network Name

The network needs a name. What do you think it should be?

I am sitting on a couple of domain names, but I would love to know what you think.

 

A Podcast Network for Historians?

Historian Podcast NetworkWhat if historians owned and operated a media network? How much impact could they make with the ability to create wide public awareness about their research?

Last week, I attended Podfest, one of the two major conferences about podcasting in the United States. I used the opportunity to share ideas, meet with friends, and help new podcasters launch their shows.

As I shared my ideas, four veteran podcasters told me they had an idea for me too: Think BIGGER.

They suggested that I parlay the success of Ben Franklin's World into a history podcast network.

Truthfully, I had this idea last year, but I became busy and I haven't thought about it for awhile. Now the podcasters' suggestions have me thinking about it again.

In this post, you will discover what podcast networks are, the benefits they offer, and an overview for how to start one.

 

Podcast Networks

A podcast network is a group or company that produces, promotes, sells ad space on, and manages more than one podcast.

Some networks, like Gimlet Media and Radiotopia, own all of their own shows. Other networks, like Panoply, own some shows and manage the distribution, promotion, and ad sales for other shows they invited to join their network.

 

Network Benefits

Podcast networks offer many benefits, although not all networks offer all benefits.

1. Consistent content: Finding high-quality content can be difficult. Podcast networks offer listeners and advertisers an easy way to find shows with similar quality and/or topic(s) to the shows they already like.

Many networks offer programs that have a similar genre or topic. Gimlet Media produces a variety of storytelling podcasts. Radiotopia offers both storytelling and editorial shows.

 

2. Training and Editorial Assistance: Networks offer show hosts training and editorial guidance.

Networks that own all of their shows have producers who help hosts come up with show ideas, strategies for how to implement those ideas, and editorial assistance when it comes time to edit the show together. They also ensure that a consistent group of audio engineers edit and master episodes.

Networks that own some shows, but not all shows, may offer their members all or some of the above services.

3. Promotion: Word-of-mouth recommendations provide podcasts with the best avenue for finding new listeners.

Networks find new listeners for their programs by promoting member shows across their network. This promotion generates lots of word-of-mouth support that can quickly expand listenership for new programs because listeners are more likely to check out podcasts that belong to the same network. Listeners like consistent quality.

 

4. Bulk and Centralized Ad Sales: Advertisers want to invest in ads that generate awareness and sales. They want to work with companies (or networks) that have a track record of producing high-quality, consistently-released content that their target audience consumes.

Networks offer advertisers stability and opportunities to be heard by members of their target audience across multiple shows.

 

Why a Historian Operated Network

History is one of the most popular podcast genres. The most popular history podcast (and one of the most popular podcasts) is Dan Carlin's Hardcore History. New episodes of Carlin's podcast receive approximately 3 million downloads within the first month of availability.

The present landscape of history podcasts reflects that journalists and amateur historians, like Carlin, produce most of the podcasts about history. Although several of these podcasts are good, most reflect a lack of professional historical training.

A podcast network operated by historians would offer historians the ability to both professionalize and participate in a popular genre of a steadily growing media. The fact that such a network could tout podcasts produced by professional historians would provide its member shows with instant credibility.

Another advantage for historians: the network could be built into a sizable media outlet historians could always use and control. No more waiting for NPR, The New York Times, or the History Channel to come calling. In fact, a podcast network would increase the visibility of historians and their important work. This in turn would increase the frequency that popular media outlets would contact us.

 

Brief Overview for How to Start a Podcast Network

The first step for creating a historian-driven podcast network is to settle on an approach.

Will the network produce and own all member podcasts? Will it own some and invite other hosts to participate? Will it offer shows about any historical topic? Or will it offer shows related to a certain era, geographic area, or subfield?

The network would need a name. This name would need a domain name for its online presence, incorporation as a business entity, and trademark protection.

With legalities in place, the network would need to produce or find its first show(s). The selection/production of this show(s) is incredibly important because it will establish the reputation of the network with listeners and help the network gain an audience.

Once the network felt secure in the production of its first show it could create or add member shows. The addition and creation of member shows would likely be dependent upon the first show generating revenue from advertisements and affiliate opportunities.

 

Will I Start A Historian-Run Podcast Network?

Will I follow the podcasters’ advice and use Ben Franklin’s World to start a historian-driven podcast network?

I don't know.

I have the knowledge and a well-established first show. I also know I could help historians learn how to podcast and produce great, compelling content.

But, starting a network would require me to place my current research and publication plans largely on hold for an unknown period of time. Sure, I could create opportunities to blend my research agenda with that of the network, but it may take several years before I could really go back into the archives and work on a book-length project.

There is also the fact that starting a network would multiply the business/administrative aspects of producing a podcast that I don't always enjoy.

Network creators are both the face of the network and its "janitor." I would be responsible for finding and training new talent, creating or finding new shows, managing network hosts and show edits, show promotion, finding and securing advertising partners, and solving problems that arise.

With that said, I love the idea of building something that would allow historians to expand the reach and impact of their important research. And I think I could find a partner or two to assist with the administrative work.

Now is also the perfect time to start a network.

Historians are embracing the history communications movement and podcast networks and digital content providers are beginning to bring order to the "Wild West" atmosphere of digital media. Starting a network now will be easier than it will be two years from now. And starting now would give historians the opportunity to help shape the order content providers and networks are applying to the digital media landscape.

Over the last six months or so, I have felt like I am standing at a crossroads with my work, but I couldn’t articulate why. The idea of starting a network has forced me to figure out why I have this feeling. It’s because I need to make a choice about the type of scholarship I want to produce over the long term.

Do I want to be a historian who dabbles in digital media and researches and writes books and articles that contribute to the historiography?

Or do I want to be a historian who uses their training to shape the way historians utilize new media to present their scholarship to the world?

I have been podcasting long enough, and I see the landscape well enough, to know that I have to make this choice and I must make it soon. If I wait too long, I will miss this opportune moment.

Ben-Franklin-at-a-Crossroads

Digital Projects Income Report, December 2015 & January 2016

In an effort to help historians who wish to practice history online, here are my digital project income reports for December 2015 and January 2016. My apologies for being a bit late.

Earnings Report Color

December 2015 & January 2016 Income Reports

In December and January, I attempted to earn income from my digital projects in two ways: Amazon affiliate income and crowdfunding donations.

Amazon Affiliate Income

Affiliate income from linked books on this blog, the Ben Franklin’s World website, and within the Ben Franklin’s World apps increased in December.

In November 2015, affiliate income from Amazon totaled $6.26.

Total Amazon Affiliate Income for December 2015: $31.86

***

Affiliate income decreased in January 2016.

In December 2015, affiliate income from Amazon totaled $31.86.

Total Amazon Affiliate Income for January 2016: $16.08

 

Crowdfunding

The Ben Franklin’s World Movement crowdfunding campaign continues.

I increased in-show mention of the campaign in December 2015 and January 2016. I also moved most of the mentions of the campaign to the pre-roll spot—the place in the show that occurs before the main content, which in the case of Ben Franklin’s World is the interview.

 

Crowdfunding Stats: December 1, 2015-January 31, 2016

Donors

New One-Time Donations: 1 New Monthly Recurring Donations: 2 New Annual Recurring Donations: 2 Total Number of New Donors: 5

Total Number of Campaign Donors: 46

 

Funds Raised to Date

Total Amount Donated: $2775 Total pledged for recurring monthly contributions: $140 Total pledged for recurring annual contributions (monthly contributions excluded): $500

 

 

Conclusion

I still have a lot of work to do with this campaign. There are more ways I could increase its visibility, I just want for time to do it. However, I am still pleased with how the campaign has progressed.

The $140 that comes in each month covers the final engineering costs of one episode. Three months ago, I paid for the engineering costs for all episodes.

***

I have two big projects that I intend to work on part-time: a media kit and a swag store.

Media kits outline program information for potential sponsors. They include details about the program, the demographics of its audience, and ad packages potential sponsors/advertisers can purchase. I intend to experiment with seeking sponsors among publishers and other groups, organizations, and companies who have products, events, and sites that would interest my audience.

Believe it or not, there might be demand for a Ben Franklin's World Swag Store.

Prior to placing an order for t-shirts to fulfill crowdfunding pledges, I posted two possible designs on both Twitter and Facebook. Much to my surprise, listeners started requesting the ability to buy t-shirts outside of the crowdfunding campaign and to purchase additional forms of Ben Franklin’s World merchandise. It seems as though people want to help the show by purchasing items that will both yield a small profit and advertise the podcast.