Farewell to Consolation Prize

This afternoon, we held a party at RRCHNM to celebrate the past of Consolation Prize and the future of R2 Studios. I wrote out a little speech which sums up a lot of how I feel about the show and what it has meant, so I thought I’d post it here.

Thank you all for coming to our R2 Studios open house and celebration of our OG show, Consolation Prize. As many of you know, Consolation Prize was launched in September 2020, during the first full semester of the pandemic. The Center had made a podcast many years ago called Digital Campus, doing podcasting before podcasting was cool. I remember listening to Digital Campus on a few road trips. But it had been a while since the center had been in the business of podcasting. An external partner reached out about the possibility of doing something with us, and we had the idea to make a podcast. That project eventually didn’t pan out because we were concerned that the Center’s lack of experience with podcasting would make our grant application non-competitive. How do you get the podcasting experience necessary to be competitive? Well, you make a podcast! So Mills very graciously gave me the green light—and the time of a number of people at the Center—to pilot a brand-new podcast, different from anything we’d done before. That podcast was Consolation Prize.

Consolation Prize had an ambitious goal—to be a highly produced, deeply researched narrative podcast…a thing that no one at the center had the least bit of experience with. It also had a very niche premise: that consuls, low-level diplomatic officials, were important enough to the history of the United States that they were worth making a whole show about.

Even though I read everything I could get my hands on about making a podcast, we still went into this with a lot of room to learn. Very, very few other shows exist that do what we wanted to do, and sound like we wanted to sound. So we were kind of flying blind on some things. We got some really helpful advice from a consultant after the first few episodes, which led to our now-maybe-familiar description: “Consolation Prize is a podcast about the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls.”

Over the past two seasons, a lot of things have changed and improved. For one thing, we got a real studio space, which I’d invite you to check out after the speechifying. We also got a lot more comfortable with sound and story. We learned how to find interesting stories, how to ask better questions, how to articulate our ideas in a more focused way. Over two seasons, Consolation Prize went to six continents and three centuries. We did legal history, religious history, art history, economic history, military history, gender history, and of course, diplomatic history. I also counted up the number of different voices you hear over our 33 episodes, and it’s over 100, between me, our team, our expert guests, and our voice actors. Getting to talk to so many amazing historians was definitely a highlight for me. And yeah, I definitely called in a LOT of favors to get voice actors on a shoestring budget. So shout-out to many of you in this room whose voices have been heard on Consolation Prize, whether you agreed to do it eagerly or with a significant amount of arm twisting.

I’m really proud of our core team, made up of me, Deepthi Murali, a postdoc, Megan Brett, a graduate student turned graduated student, Kris Stinson, a PhD student, Jeanette Patrick, a classified staff member, Andrew Cote, a former adjunct, and our two great interns, Brenna Reilley, an undergraduate intern on Season 1, and Frankie Bjork, a graduate intern on Season 2. Consolation Prize has truly been a team effort from Day 1, and I’m so proud of that.

But all good things must come to an end. This is my last month at GMU, so continuing the show would be complicated. But I had already decided that the show needed to come to an end. It’s time for the studio and the Center to move on to bigger and better projects, which will hopefully build on the lessons we’ve learned from Consolation Prize. It has truly been my privilege to be the showrunner for Consolation Prize, and the head of studio for R2 Studios, and I’m delighted to be leaving the studio in such capable hands.

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.

Why do podcasts like mine want more listeners?

This might seem like a really obvious question: why do I, an academic and independent podcaster, want more listeners? Of course it’s because we want our content in more ears, right? But why do we want our content in more ears?

I have two shows right now: one that’s a history podcast called Consolation Prize, made by academics but targeted more toward history-lovers who aren’t in academia (though many of our current listeners are academics); and one that’s for kids, called Big If True, about random big things in the universe. Both of these shows need listeners, and here’s why.

Minifigure with headphones and laptop

Why listener numbers don’t matter

Before I get to why we do want listeners, there are few ways in which listener numbers DON’T matter to me.

I don’t care about ad revenue.

It’s important for us to say at the outset that we don’t need listeners to drive ad revenue. Many podcasts survive only on ad revenue, and I don’t have any problems with ads in podcasts. Goodness knows I’ve bought things because of podcast ads, so they clearly work (research bears this out). However, at this moment in the life of both of my shows, no one would advertise on our show anyway because…we don’t have enough listeners! But even if we do ever hit that mark, ad revenue is never going to be a primary driver of listenership. For starters, I don’t know that we’ll ever even do ads. Certainly there are some ethical issues with placing ads on a kids’ show. And since Consolation Prize is run by an academic unit, there are likely some complicated legal issues with ad revenue there as well.

So will my shows always be ad-free? I can’t make any promises, but signs point to yes, or limited ads at most.

Listenership isn’t an ego trip.

There are some podcasters who seem to view their listener numbers as some sort of validation of their worth, or, less charitably, a trip for their ego. I won’t lie that it feels good to see the listener numbers go up, but we don’t want listeners solely so we can brag about the number of listeners.

Girl listening on her bed, with headphones on

We do need listeners, however!

Listenership numbers still matter. Here are a few reasons why.

We think our shows have value.

For both of the shows that I helm, I think we’re telling stories that people need to hear. (If I didn’t, it would be stupid for us to have a show.) I’ve become increasingly convinced that podcasting is an effective way of disseminating information, and I think our shows do a good job of it. So of course I want people to hear it. Plus, we put a TON of work into each show, and so it’s nice to see that other people value the work as well.

We want to showcase other people.

We love having guests on the shows because it gives other people a chance to show off what THEY do well. That’s why I love having junior scholars on Consolation Prize; it’s why we reach out to scientists and historians and other people. It’s so fun to spread the news about all the amazing scholarship and adventure that’s happening in the world, and we want our guests to get as much great feedback on their work as possible.

Bigger numbers breed better content.

There are a lot of ways bigger numbers breed better content.

First, bigger numbers mean more incentive for guests to come on the show. Naturally, if people are going to sit down for an interview, they want to be heard by a lot of people. So the larger audience, the more likely prospective guests will say yes. Plus, the likelihood of a guest having heard of our show and thus be more interested in coming on the show goes up if the listenership is bigger.

Second, bigger numbers mean more revenue through other means. We don’t have a Patreon or microdonation system set up yet for either podcast, but it doesn’t seem worth it right now because of the small listener numbers. The numbers just don’t support us even bothering with the setup of those accounts. But at some point, Big if True in particular is fully self-funded, so it would be nice for us to make a little bit of money in order to improve our setup and expand our outreach.

Third, bigger numbers, of course, is a self-fulfilled prophecy: the more people who listen, the more other people who listen. Right now, I know probably 75% of our listeners personally in some way. It sure would be lovely to get people to listen whom I DON’T know personally. Everyone says that word of mouth is the best advertisement for podcasts, so the more mouths words can come out of, the better.

So, what’s the conclusion?

Well, there are a few takeaways:

  • Listen to my shows. 😂
  • Actually, that’s it. Listen to my shows. 😂