Wrapping Up Season 1

Today we released the final episode of Season 1 of Consolation Prize. The whole team is going to have a debrief session sometime later this summer, but I figured I should get my thoughts down while they’re still fresh. So here’s a few random thoughts about this first foray into narrative podcasting, for me and for the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

I’m a better writer because of podcasting.

I was a decent writer before starting this project. But I’ve thought about the *craft* of writing more in the past 10 months than perhaps in my whole previous life as an academic, because writing for a narrative podcast is a whole different beast than dashing off a conference paper or even writing a book. Writing for podcasts is a skill that takes a lot of practice, but the work I’ve done to learn this new skill has actually improved my for-reading writing.

The host of a podcast is only as good as her team.

I have an awesome team. Have I said that before? I have an awesome team. Without them, Consolation Prize would never have made it off the ground. Having people to bounce ideas off, letting other folks do quite a lot of the research, relying on other folks to edit and clarify your work—it’s all what makes a good podcast run. I love that our team for this season was made up of a faculty member (me), a postdoc, an advanced graduate student, a less-advanced graduate student, and an undergraduate student, along with a former adjunct. We’re all in different places; we study different things; we have different ideas. This diversity makes the show so much better.

Podcasting takes a ton of work.

Anyone who says “Podcasting is easy, just pick up a mic and talk into it” is going to make a bad podcast. We spent about an hour of work for every minute in our show, and we could easily have doubled that (but everyone on my team, including me, has a full-time job in addition to working on the show).

Metrics are dumb.

I don’t make any claims that Consolation Prize is the best at anything, but I would say it’s in the top half of history podcasts in terms of its content and its production. It’s definitely NOT in the top half in terms of listenership. This has been an area of intense frustration for me. I never had any illusions that we’d be Throughline or anything like that—but I do think that a lot more people (even historians) ought to be listening. This isn’t because I want people to hear my voice. It’s in part because we work super hard on every single episode, and it feels like our investment isn’t paying off. But more importantly, it’s because I think the content is worth knowing. I think we do a super job of connecting these obscure public servants’ stories to larger themes in American history, and our episodes are a great way to learn about those themes.

It’s also frustrating that so few people interact with the show on the socials. There are a handful of folks who retweet us, like our posts on Facebook, and comment on things on Instagram (and we appreciate you all!!). But the vast majority don’t. So it feels like we’re flying in the dark a lot of the time. We WANT to know what people think of our show, positive or negative. But podcasting kind of feels like Zoom teaching sometimes: just talking into the void, with anonymous black boxes as an audience, instead of a conversation, which is what we were hoping for.

I didn’t do a good job of audience research before we started the show, so that’s part of the problem. We’re hoping to rectify some of these issues in Season 2, but some of the people who would actually enjoy our show don’t listen to it (or others like it) because they don’t see it as real scholarship. (I’m not making this up; people have said this exact thing in my presence.) That’s a real bummer.

This is only the beginning.

Season 2 of Consolation Prize is already under development. I’m excited. I also have a million other podcast ideas bumping around in my brain, and now the job is to figure out which one to pursue. Now that my book manuscript is under peer review and nearing completion(ish), I can turn my attention to my next long-form scholarly project. I’ve already decided that I don’t have another book in me right now—but I do have a podcast. So I’m really excited to get started on a new idea that’s pretty different from Consolation Prize that will, by its completion, have easily as much research and writing in it as a monograph.

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