When to Kill Your Darlings

When we started Consolation Prize, it was an experiment. We didn’t know what the dickens we were doing. But it was a sort of test balloon, to see if we could make audio stories about history. Without being overly conceited, I think I can say that from a technical and storytelling perspective, we succeeded. We got better and better over the course of the season, and we found more and more interesting stories to tell. In Season 2, we’ve come out swinging with some of our best episodes yet.

Now, I’d stack Consolation Prize up against some of the best history podcasts out there in terms of its story and sound. I think it sounds way better than many. I think we tell more interesting stories, in a more ethical and compelling way, than many.

We got a great write-up in The Public Historian and on World History Commons. We were short-listed for an award.

We proved that we could make a good show, so now we have another show in the studio, The Green Tunnel, which is doing really well. We have a number of other shows in development, all based on the success of Consolation Prize.

And yet.

Very few people listen to Consolation Prize.

So few, in fact, that it’s really hard to justify continuing to make it.

In my job as head of R2 Studios, I’m the one who decides what shows we make. Along with the mission of democratizing access to information (the Center’s mission), the studio exists as a way to raise money to make our work sustainable outside the grant-making apparatus that we’ve depended on for 27 years. So the shows we create need to be, to put it crassly, money makers.

Podcasts make money in a couple of ways:

  • Advertising sales. We aren’t prioritizing ads at the studio right now for a lot of reasons, but we know that we could go that way in the future.
  • Memberships. We are running a Patreon-like system through GMU’s fundraising platform, where people can give money once or more than once. Many podcasts use this approach with a lot of success.

The brutal reality is that Consolation Prize doesn’t have enough listeners to even be attractive to advertisers, by a long shot. And so far we’ve had only three people become members (THANK YOU SO MUCH, the three of you: you know who you are).

We’re getting just over 100 listens on Day 1, and only a slow trickle on days subsequent. We’ve been going for over a year and we’re not even close to 10,000 downloads.

Metrics are only one way of measuring a podcast’s success. From one perspective, they’re the least compelling way, in fact. But the bottom line is that more listeners = more members. And more members = a more stable bottom line. So everything that happens in R2 Studios has to confront that reality.

So even though I love Consolation Prize more than almost anything I’ve ever worked on, I have to decide now: is this project worth my time and effort, and more importantly, is it worth my team’s time and effort?

And the answer is: no.

Our listenership has grown a little bit in Season 2, which is fantastic. But it hasn’t grown exponentially, which is what we’d need in order to justify our continued existence.

We’ve estimated that it takes about 30-40 hours to create our 30-40 minute episodes, which we release every 3 weeks (give or take). That’s a lot of time for me and my team to make something that no one listens to.

For academics, of course, this idea that you only make things that a lot of people will use is rather foreign. We all write books and articles and such without much expectation that we’ll get past a single printing. We do the work for the work’s sake. (This is a simplification, obviously.)

And some podcasts are like that too—many podcasters make their podcasts just because they want to. I’m not saying that podcasts aren’t worth doing unless you get a big audience.

But for this podcast, in this space, it can’t just be about doing it for its own sake. If the podcast isn’t contributing to the democratizing mission of the center (by being heard) or its fiscal goals, then it’s time for it to go.

This knowledge occupies my thoughts a lot these days. At the end of this season, unless something drastic changes, Consolation Prize will be over. (That’s the end of the academic year; don’t worry, we’ve got great stuff planned for next semester.) That makes me so very sad.

Of course, our back catalog will be available in perpetuity, so if you want to listen in the future, you will still be able to.

What won’t get made

At the risk of being macabre, I want to list out some of the ideas that the team has come up with over the past 18 months that we won’t be making.

  • Horace Lee Washington, Alexandretta, Syria, 1890s, who assisted a number of Armenians in getting out of the country ahead of the Ottoman genocide
  • James Church McCook, Dawson, Yukon Territory, 1880s/1890s: what happens when a consul gets caught up in a gold rush?
  • John Singleton Mosby, Hong Kong: An ex-Confederate (and one of Fairfax’s favorite sons) who repudiated the Confederacy and received an appointment as consul
  • Horace Conger, Hong Kong, an African-American politician who went to the mattresses for Abraham Lincoln and in return received a consulship
  • Bret Harte, Krefeld, Germany, 1878: After Mark Twain tried to block Harte from getting a consular appointment, he got one anyway and happened to be in Germany just after German unification.
  • Luigi Palma di Cesnola, Cyprus, who shares the distinction with numerous other consuls of being an archaeologist and a consul simultaneously; in his case, he excavated the Tomb of the Kings on Cyprus.
  • The many depictions of consuls in pop culture, from Giancarlo Menotti’s The Consul, an opera, to silent films from the 1910s, and many others
  • Archibald Grimké: His half-sisters Sarah and Angelina are more famous, but Archibald was a Black newspaperman and politician who was vital to the founding of the NAACP but also served as the consul to the Dominican Republic in the 1890s.

Tear her tattered ensign down

(Do I think that Consolation Prize is like unto the USS Constitution? No, no, I do not. But I’m a naval historian. I have to throw one naval history allusion in here.)

I didn’t want to write this post. Over the past month, I’ve written four different versions of it saved as drafts, none of which (obviously) ever saw the light of day. It feels really terrible. I regard Consolation Prize as some of the best work I’ve ever done and so it really really sucks to pull the plug on it. Though we’ve made some mistakes along the way, I feel like I’ve done everything I could to make it succeed. I talk about the show so much online that I’m sure everyone is sick to death of it.

But it’s not about me. It’s about honoring these stories, and the experts who help us tell them, and my team. We’ve all worked so hard. So I don’t see Consolation Prize itself as a failure—far from it. And that’s why it sucks so much to let it go, and why it feels like a failure to have to.

There is a way that we can keep the show going. It’s simple. If we see a drastic increase in listeners, we’ll keep making it. That’s all there is to it.

Just like the USS Constitution was saved by the people when it was destined for the scrap heap, Consolation Prize can also be saved. So, if you want us to tell more consular stories, you know what to do.

Tell your friends. ALL of them.

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