A Difficult (Podcast) Undertaking

Eric Nuzum, whose podcasting work I greatly admire, wrote recently that he thinks that episode narrative podcasting might be on its way out. He means narrative podcasts that have a clear beginning and end, like a miniseries, rather than a series like Consolation Prize, which could theoretically go on indefinitely. He made some very compelling arguments for why these types of shows have a hard time getting off the ground, and why only a few of them succeed. We can’t all be Serial, after all.

Eric listed a series of statements about why these kinds of shows succeed and why they fail. This read was tough for me because I’m in the very, very early planning stages of a show just like the ones he described. So I guess now’s the time for me to justify to myself why I want to make my show, and how I’m going to make it work.

For starters, it’s important that you know that I’m an academic. (If you read this blog on the regular, you already know that.) I approach podcasting from the perspective of an academic. This means that I never expect anything I do to “make money,” for example. It also means that podcasting is only a part of my job; I also teach, research, write, and administer grant-funded projects.

To be more specific, I’m a historian—a historian who studies the First Barbary War. And that’s going to be the focus of the show I want to create. I’m going to take a risk here and spec it out so you know where I’m going with it, but I really am in the very, very early stages (like, still in the focus sentence stage), so it’s subject to change a lot.

The show

If you know one thing about the First Barbary War, it’s either (1) the burning of the USS Philadelphia in February 1804, or (2) William Eaton’s march across the desert in the spring of 1805 that has been immortalized in the Marine Hymn (yes, that “shores of Tripoli”). It’s this march that is the topic of the show I’m beginning to develop. The current focus sentence is this:

William Eaton documented every part of his scheme to reseat Hamet Karamanli on the throne of his usurping younger brother Yusuf Karamanli because he understood the historicity of what he was doing, but his journals reveal a richer and more complex history than even he knew.

William Eaton, by Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin. 1808. National Portrait Gallery.

In other words, the jumping-off point for this series is the journals of William Eaton, which are basically our only source for much of his historic journey. By layering on the history of the people and places Eaton encounters, we can accomplish two main goals:

  1. We can de-Americanize this story. This story is often told with a hefty dose of American exceptionalism (see previous note about the Marine Hymn). But Americans were actually a very small part of this story, and the other folks have received almost no focus in the past.
  2. We can explain how and why this whole journey could even happen. The response I have every time I think about this story is “How in the WORLD did he pull this off?” Not surprisingly, it’s not all about the triumph of the human spirit (though it is a little bit about that). It’s about politics, economics, geography, imperialism, and so much more.

I’m not going to go into detail here about the structure of the show or how I intend to pull this off, but it’s not going to be as straightforward as it might seem.

There’s a lot more to say about my ideas for the show, but suffice to say, I’ve done a lot of thinking about this. It’s not a true crime story (everyone’s favorite podcast genre); it’s not a hero’s journey, despite the fact that some people in the story thought it was; if it fits into any genre, it’s really a tragedy. You’ll have to wait for the show to see why.

I already have some of the research done (this project is an offshoot of my book), but I also just got a new set of documents that I was planning to read today instead of writing this blog post. So this is happening, by hook or by crook, and I’m already off to the races.

So that’s the show. Now here’s why I think it’s worth doing, and why I’m going to do it, even though the episodic narrative is a real challenge.

Eric argues that these kinds of shows most likely succeed if they come from an established podcast shop. This show will likely be under the aegis of the studio at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, which is not an established shop. Yet. But I do already have a show there, and we’ve got several more in development. So by the time I’m ready to launch this Eaton story, I hope RRCHNM will indeed be an established shop.

Eric also argues that these shows only work if their revenue is established already. This is where my academic side kicks in. Money-making isn’t the goal here; if we generate any money at all, we need it before release, in order to fund the making of the show. Where does that kind of money come from? In academia, it comes from grants, which fund research trips and course releases and stuff like that. I’m very familiar with this process. RRCHNM is almost entirely grant-funded already.

Ideally, a show like mine wouldn’t have ads at all. To be honest, this kind of show isn’t one that a lot of advertisers would even be interested in, I’m guessing. So I know straight out of the gate that the standard revenue streams aren’t going to work anyway. I produced Consolation Prize only through the good graces of my boss, who gave me some time from a number of folks at the Center, and by using part of my “administrative” time. I don’t want to do that for this show, but I will be looking for funders who fund academic work, not normal ad-type funding.

I realize that this is going to be a hard sell for some funders. Many fellowships, grants, etc., for scholars are meant to lead to a monograph or a journal article. Funders for digital projects often expect results in the first year of work. I think this project is going to take me at least three years of solid research (hence I’ll need the traditional funding streams), and two full years to actually produce the show (at which time I’ll need the digital project funding). These two timeframes overlap, though. So I don’t know where I’m going to get the money. But I’m going to get it somehow.

Eric’s next marker of success is “They took the time to make it right.” I would like to release the first episode of this show in March 2025, and I imagine that it will be a significant part of my research work from now until then. I’ve got a lot of research to do—even though this story is one I’m very, very familiar with already. I also want to push the form in interesting ways, and some of those ideas are going to require some experimentation. So while I’m doing the research, I’ll also be playing with the method. I’m hoping that I’ll have some help in both of these arenas—if I get grants, I’ll be writing in both undergraduate and graduate students as research assistants and producers.

Eric’s final marker of success is that they understood their audience. This is something that I intend to spend a lot of time figuring out. We did a bad job of this with Consolation Prize, but we’re going to do better in future shows. And I think there is an audience out there for this show. People like early America. People like underdog stories. People like the Marines (ha). So the audience is out there—and I will figure out how to get this show into their ears.

Now, Eric also has a few ideas about what makes episodic narrative podcasts fail. The first one is the biggest one, I think. He says that these podcasts fail because it’s not clear why they exist as an audio story.

This is something I’ve thought about a lot. I happen to think that audio is the perfect form for historical stories (and thousands of storytellers across the millennia agree with me, for what it’s worth 😉 ). Audio is an intimate, story-driven medium, able to connect an audience to something that’s completely foreign to them. History is foreign. And it’s important for people to feel both connected and disconnected from the past—connected because it helps us to understand ourselves better, but disconnected because the lessons of the past do not inherently shape the future.

At its heart, history is a story. It’s a story that can be told from dozens of perspectives; it’s a story that can be told from an earth-sized view, or from the view of one person, or even one aspect of one person’s life. Of course, most historians write their stories down in books, articles, or some other written medium. I’m not here to knock that. But I think people sometimes connect to someone telling them a story better than they connect to reading it. (And let’s face it, most people don’t go around picking up historical monographs.) Podcasting is meant for a non-academic audience, which is the audience I like talking to.

In addition, podcasting is a brilliant way to tell historical stories because podcasting can be immersive–but not TOO immersive. It can be hard to really communicate the vibe or atmosphere of the historical story in a monograph. But in a podcast, you can use sound and music to help the listener feel like they’re there, or at least they’re in a similar place. However, done well, podcasts give off a vibe without being too specific, too pedantic. (Every historian has their love-to-hate documentary/movie/TV show that takes on their historical area and does a very bad job of setting the scene or doing things with historical verisimilitude.)

For my own show, and others that deal with any historical period that’s before, say, 1920, there’s no audio on tape. There’s no video that can give us a glimpse into what things looked like and sounded like. There’s only written sources, and in my case, really there’s only one man’s recollections. That means that setting the scene and telling the story will require imagination, creativity—and lots of judgment calls. But no more so than any other historian who decides what to leave in, and what to leave out.

I want to tell William Eaton’s story in audio because I want it to feel like we’re traveling along with him. I want to follow Eaton’s progress temporally, releasing an episode every day starting in March 2025 until the 220th anniversary of the Battle of Derna. I want the listeners feeling the chaos and frustrations all around him, hearing the many voices that clamored for his attention, and imagining the endless drudgery of marching across a dry and inhospitable desert toward a goal that may or may not actually succeed. There’s a lot of tension in this story; there’s a lot of twists and turns. I don’t want you to be able to read ahead to see what happens. (Kidding…sort of…since you could actually just go read a book about this event.) But I want to play up the tension. I want to slow down the story and make it impossible to skip the stuff that doesn’t seem important. I want you to feel, not just learn.

Eric’s next reason for failure is that these shows have attempted an “if you build it they will come” approach. I hope I’ve already demonstrated that that’s not what I plan to do. But I’ll also say that in the academic setting, isn’t that pretty much exactly what most people do with all of their work? We do the work and then we just hope people will read it. To be honest, if more than 500 people listen to this show, that will probably dwarf the number of people who read my book. So while I hope people will listen, and I’m going to do my darnedest to get my work in front of the right people so they do listen, at the end of the day this is a piece of scholarship for me. It’s worth doing even if not that many people listen.

In terms of my academic career, doing a podcast instead of a monograph is a huge risk. However, I would argue that the amount of work that I intend to put into this show, and the creativity that will be required in order to pull it off with scholarly integrity while also making it interesting, should put it right up there with a scholarly monograph.

From a podcasting perspective, this is also a risk. Episodic narratives are hard and maybe don’t get the rewards that other types of shows do. Making a show without being able to interview ANYONE who was there or has personal knowledge is tough. I don’t want this show to sound like all the other shows out there, either. This is a unique story and I want it to sound unique.

The bottom line is, this is going to be a ton of work. I’m going to do much of the research on my own, but I’m going to be assembling a team to do the production because there’s no way I can do this alone. But that’s also part of why this is worth doing even if it doesn’t “pay off” financially: working on a show like this teaches students so much about narrative, research, audience, and approach. So even if there’s no other reason to do this, the pure pedagogy of it is enough.

So, while I share Eric’s concern about episodic narratives, I’m going to do it anyway. If you want to follow along as I work on the show, feel free to follow me on Twitter @abbymullen; I’m sure I’ll be tweeting about it. 🙂


One response to “A Difficult (Podcast) Undertaking”

  1. This isn’t *exactly* what’s being discussed here, but certainly if I were asked to give advice to a burgeoning history podcaster, it would be to make their new show episodic (where each episode or group of episodes tell a self-contained story) rather than serialized. The audience for episodic content is clearly much, much larger than the audience for serialized content, though the latter exists and can be quite passionate (I am among them!).

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