History podcasting is something I can't imagine being without. It's a huge part of my life, perhaps a larger part than it really should be considering the fact that - on paper at least - it's only a hobby. Yet the act of making a history podcast; of creating something that is unique and my own from the ground up - I can't imagine anything comparing to that experience, especially once the reactions of my lovely listeners are added to the mix. I have leagues of history friends (the name I give to my listeners) from all across the world, and When Diplomacy Fails is fast approaching 3 million downloads, while we recently celebrated our fifth birthday in typically crazy fashion. All these things considered, it may surprise you to learn that I wasn't always this professional. Haha, no seriously, hear me out.
History podcasting and podcasting in general requires intense amounts of preparation, patience and willpower - these were things I thought I could appreciate when I began this journey in May 2012, but even I couldn't have imagined what was in store either for me or my baby. In light of this, and how far we have come at WDF, I'd like to present this article to you guys. Perhaps you're thinking of starting up a history podcast yourself; maybe you have all the tools, all the books and you just need that extra push to get going? Maybe you don't really want to produce your own podcast at all, but you're just curious as to what my experiences have been? Whatever the reason you're here, you're most welcome to our blog, and I hope you'll enjoy the read.
This is Five Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting A History Podcast...
5) It takes up a lot of time...
No, seriously, like, A LOT. And no, there aren't enough hours in the day.
Something that has always fascinated me whenever I talk to other podcasters is how long it takes them to release a new episode. This is because in my case at least, the entire act of researching, note taking, typing up the script, recording the script, editing the audio, uploading the episode, setting in place promotion tools and everything else beyond takes - all in all - anywhere between 10 and 20 hours. Now I know what you're thinking "ten whole hours is a big grey area; how can some episodes take so long and others not so long?" Well, let me give you a suitably long answer to that question...
One thing that struck me about what I learned from asking other history podcasters that eternal question - 'how long does it take you?' - was how much the answers varied. Depending on who the podcaster was in question, were they working on alternative history served in immersive episodic bundles a-la Jordan Harbour from the Twilight Histories? Did they have a load of background work to do in some seriously dry etymological stuff, a-la Kevin Stroud from the History of English? Do they have a whole collection of other history podcasts on the go at the same time, a-la Travis J. Dow from the History of Germany, Alchemy, Africa and so many other shows besides? One man's insane workload can seem like a regular day at the podcast office for another. The depth and range of the podcast will always have an impact on how long the process takes - it sounds obvious, but arguably a history of the Second World War will provide far more sources and thus (one would imagine) take less time to produce than a history podcast on the Papacy. So the availability of sources makes it easier to make a podcast, just as it would a book - right? Well, actually, not always...
As I am currently researching about three different projects at once - the Long War in Europe for WDF 30, the Polish Miniseries on that state in the 18th century and the Thirty Years War for the upcoming book and remastered series on that conflict, I can testify to the fact that sometimes a plethora of sources is worse than too few. The best situation is when you have a few quality general surveys to get you into the swing of things, and can accompany these by several specialist articles on particular figures or events in that timeline. Some of the most fascinating but unknown stories and studies can be found in academic articles which the average person will never have seen, and my podcast has been greatly enriched by these articles, particularly during my recent studies on Louis XIV. I am immensely fortunate in that I have been able to avail of my old access to the journal database JSTOR thanks to my University's alumni package. At least I think that's why I still have access to it...
History podcasting will take up a lot of your time then, but this is dependent upon your style as a podcaster. Do you want to share the load, share the expertise or even share the microphone? If you want to go solo you can expect the pros and cons to once again be ever present, but this is the formula which I believe most history podcasters do follow, and they would tell you firsthand that they don't regret it. There's something intensely satisfying about creating something all by yourself. That, and for the reason that I've always been an unsociable bean anyway, meant that solo history podcasting lent itself to who I was as a person. But podcasting alone doesn't have to mean all alone. Most of us will have friends, family and other swell people around you, who would always be willing to chip in and offer some advice. More often than not, I've found that people want to be included, especially because they've heard you talk so much about your baby in the past.
Another interesting thing Jordan Harbour pointed out to me was the fact that, as creators, we are always thinking, at least in some way, about our podcasts. It's true! How many times have I found myself day dreaming about a particular character or event or ambition I have for the podcast? How many hours have I spent nattering away with Anna (Mrs WDF) about the latest plan or project which WDF wants to take on next? This is something you can't really measure, unless you're organised enough to carry a stopwatch at all times, yet it is a really important part of the process, because whether you're thinking to yourself or spit-balling with others, you'll often draw great inspiration and ideas from the people you respect.
Of course too much talking about what you do gives the impression that you don't do much of anything else, and as someone who can be a bit all or nothing with my pod, that impression can sometimes be a bit accurate. So you got a script done before noon - so what? Don't forget that there is a world out there, and that you can't use the podcast to replace the more important things in life. It sounds obvious, but the personal sense of reward and constant feedback can get addictive, and I have had to learn to distance myself from the podcast from time to time when things get a bit too intense.
This is something I never even imagined being a problem.
Too obsessed with your podcast? Seriously? The formula of production, reaction, reward can be both an addictive and lonely one though, as I learned the hard way before. Your listeners won't thank you if you burn out, and a good lesson I learned relatively early on was to put yourself and your life first. This is especially true with podcasters that are blessed with children - editing out the wailing screams of little Jimmy isn't a load of fun, and sometimes it's better to just podcast when you can rather than force an episode because because you feel like you should.
History podcasting takes a long time. That is an irrefutable fact no matter how long you precisely take. Quality is worth the wait though, and the skies won't fall in if you have to postpone your release for a day or even a week. Something I learned over the last few years is that we have a responsibility to history podcasting as a discipline to make a quality product - you will regret it in a year's time if that shoddy episode is still in your feed making everyone annoyed by its lower than normal quality. I know that from experience. When you hold yourself to a certain standard, the time it takes is part of the process, and so long as you're not doing a Dan Carlin and releasing three shows a year, your listeners won't abandon you.
History podcasting will consume far more of your life than you anticipate. Your first episode will take far longer than you expect. You'll probably spend too long on details nobody except you will even notice. You'll probably hate your first episode, your second and your third. Yet for some reason, you'll still tell all your friends, acquaintances and even people you don't normally talk to about what you've done. You'll bring it up unprovoked in conversation, and for the first few months at least, people may avoid you a bit for fear of getting trapped alone with you and that strange glint you get in your eye when you start talking about your podcast. These are the teething months - for me there were teething years - but all this was worth it, because now I have a podcast I am proud to call my own.
As someone who talks endlessly about their history podcast to others, I have learned firsthand the value of talking to friends, parents and now my wife about what I do. Look at it just like any other hobby - football, playing an instrument or cooking - if it is important to you then other people should have to suffer throu...errr, I mean lovingly endure, such conversations with you. Are you worth it? Yes you are, which brings me to my next point...
4) You have to be willing to share...
You should share what you do with those that you love, and you should learn to rely on them too!
While we have established that nobody wants to be stuck in a corner with you all evening while you rant and rave about your history podcast, there is a certain value in including people close to when things begin to heat up with your baby, or when you simply feel as though you need some advice. By including them, you show that history podcasting is not some elitist activity you only do for the smart fellows - it's an accessible and rewarding hobby, and all opinions are valuable.
Over the last five years I've really learned to ask for help in history podcasting. Initially I asked for help from my listeners, BEFIT I called it, that acronym through which they could remember how to best spread the word, since I couldn't do all that myself. Then, I talked to parents. I talked to them when I was stressed about meeting deadlines for the July Crisis Anniversary Project, and I asked them for their advice on traversing the more controversial subjects. Of course, I also asked my wonderful Dad if he had seen any useful books in his travels, and generally, he had.
More recently, I have come to rely on Mrs WDF for support and advice. She is of course a wonderful support base, but I appreciate that not everyone can be so lucky when they start out. I did find that those in University were disappointingly disinterested in what I was doing behind my microphone, even though I was reaching thousands of people a week with my history podcast. Surely, I reasoned, they would get a kick out of that? Not so, unfortunately, as history podcasting has still yet to shed that stigma which seems attached to it. Actually, the more I've podcasted and studied, the more I have realised that, for the most part, no stigma exists, because most history academics don't even know what a history podcast is.
I recently bonded with Jamie Redfern over how little university lecturers seemed to care about what we were doing organically for the cause of history in our podcasts. Were they not proud of us going our own way and breaking this ground? In addition, it was Danielle Bolelli [collab to follow in September!] who told me that no one in his history department had even heard of Dan Carlin. That, for me, speaks volumes. If you want support, make sure you look for it in the right places. People who cared about you first, will be more likely to care about your podcast afterwards.
In line with the lesson I have learned that you can in fact rely on people from time to time, I have had a few offers by esteemed podcast editors to edit my work for me for a small fee. Now you're not just sharing your burdens with those close to you, you're sharing your actual workload with professionals. This opens up a whole range of possibilities - not only are there people out there you can talk to and ask for advice, but some will even do some of the work for you! I know from their reputation that they do a stellar job, but there's some element of pride within me that won't let me relinquish any element of control or production to any third party.
From this I've learned that my ego is actually bigger than I initially thought it was, most likely because the importance of the podcast has grown to me over the years. I want to be seen as doing all the legwork, so that there's no asterisk beside my work, and so that I know personally that I had a hand in every part of it. This of course means I had a hand in every mistake and whoopsy that gets left in, but I never said I was perfect! That's not to say there's anything wrong with getting an editor if you'd rather free up some time for the less tedious tasks, and I vote editing to be the most tedious task of all by a mile. Perhaps I will eventually have to get over myself in this regard, but if you're considering history podcasting yourself, it's worth also asking whether the technological aspects of it will hold you back or not. Actually, that brings us handily to our next point...
3) Do not fear technology...
Overcoming the technological hurdles is honestly not that hard (honest!)
RSS feeds are something I will never fully understand. I will never care or appreciate how the internet manages to get my podcast out to people, or how the whole process of recording actually works. The simple fact is that, thanks to the advances made in technology - I don't need to know these things. In a recent conversation I had with Anne is a Man - history podcast reviewer extraordinaire - Anne reminisced on how the technology has changed over the years to the point that history podcasters now have it far easier when it comes time to make their podcast and get it out there. This is truth I can attest to, but is it really that easy?
The months before stating podcasting in May 2012 were ones of learning. Despite my looming college exams, I was busy versing myself in how the podcast system worked. What an RSS feed was, how I made one, what a hosting site was, how I would choose one, where iTunes came into all this, what iTunes actually was. Eventually I settled on a fab hosting site called Liberated Syndication, who do pretty much all of the technological stuff for you in return for a small fee every month. Gone are the days - at least they should be in my view with all the options out there - where podcasters have to worry about limits on the number of downloads they can have, or whether their host can handle high levels of traffic.
Thankfully, I was able to neatly avoid these concerns, and transfer my podcast onto Acast in November 2015 which saved me further monies. All the while I was able to go through these processes, send the necessary emails and fumble my way through the terminology with the limited computer expertise I had. I am constantly working on my website through Squarespace, which, though expensive enough at about $300 a year, solves so many of my problems by having a safe, secure and consolidated base from which everything WDF can be enjoyed - including this blog you're reading right now! These things I did have to learn in a sense, but they were by no means impossibly difficult once I got the hang of them.
Had I not feared so much the grapples with technology that were to come, I may well have started WDF the previous year instead of May 2012. All things worked out for good in the end, but I must emphasise the fact that no history podcasters I know of are especially technologically literate. Most do everything by themselves, and most probably have older computers than you do. Yet they do it, by hook or by crook, because they love bringing history to people that want to nom nom nom on it - not because they are particularly skilled in the realm of computers or because they have an impossibly expensive microphone.
It would be a real shame if a potentially brilliant history podcaster refrained from tackling his subject in the podsphere because he feared the grapples with technology or the learning curves which were to come. All history podcasts are not born equal, yet all will make efforts to improve themselves as time goes on. If you, as I was, are put off by technology as you stare into the history podcasting abyss, then I hope you'll consider getting in touch with the scores of history podcasters who would love to help out - including me! Every quality history podcast that is born is a victory for the realm of history podcasting, as much as it is for independent creators and historians of a passionate persuasion who happen to not have a degree. Never mind a university degree, you don't need to spend a whole load on hosting or equipment either. Speaking of expenses...
2) Money is not a problem...
It won't cost a bomb, and you may even make a bit of money on the side!
The only resource you should be spending a lot of, as we've seen in point 5), is time. Well, time and a large helping of patience. History podcasting will not make you broke, but it will take a bit of initial investment to get your baby off the ground. Most of us are fortunate enough to have a computer, but if this is the family PC or you feel like you'd benefit from an upgrade then by all means go for it. Personally, I have been using the same Samsung laptop I got in my first year of college - it is now over six years old, and still going strong. The microphone I had up to the end of 2015 was the Blue Snowball, which seems to average at about £50 on Amazon; recently I upgraded to the Blue Yeti, which is about double the price.
Aside from these expenses, there's the aforementioned annual website fee with Squarespace, and the monthly subscription I have to Liberated Syndication so that they keep my old download details after I moved to Acast. Other than that, well I spend far too much money on books that's for sure, but honestly, I make a fairly solid amount off podcasting, thanks in part to Acast, but above all to Patreon. Anyone who has listened to the podcast knows we're on Patreon and that it has been amazing for us in spreading our wings and setting our sights on incredible goals. Thanks to the money I get from it, I can pay WDF the attention it deserves, and I can focus my energies on bringing WDF to previously unforeseen heights.
This would not have been possible without the support of my Patrons, who themselves give a small amount (or in some cases a whopper amount) to the podcast each month in return for earlier access to ad-free episodes [$2 a month], an hour of additional content and exclusive miniseries [$5 a month] and even the chance to have their say in what I cover next [$7 a month]. Like you would pay for your Netflix or Spotify, now you can effectively pay me for access to additional content and experiences you wouldn't get anywhere else. It's like you're investing in my podcast, and signifying that you are confident that it is worthy of your hard earned money - what a concept. It's one that still leaves me amazed.
But enough about the barrels of cash I make on a regular basis. I didn't start WDF to make money, I started it up to bring history to people, to satisfy my need to teach and to scratch my creative itch. These things do not cost, and should not cost, a bomb. Since paying for the microphone, I have no real expenses - my audio software is free [Audacity], and nobody is charging me (yet!) to use my own computer, though of course you do need an internet connection, and a relatively good one, if you don't want to lose your mind. Again, much like with the technology, I resigned myself in the early days to paying more and learning needlessly complicated acronyms so that I could remember how podcasting worked. Because of these issues I took longer to get into history podcasting, and fussed longer than I should have over these details. Thankfully, I have since learned that history podcasting won't break the bank, and that it will instead provide you with riches - perhaps not the cold hard cash variety - but the kind that money cannot buy.
1) You are going to love it...
History podcasting is worth it, and so are you!
Part of the reason I am never bored is because my brain is always switched onto history podcasting. I am honestly thinking about it most of the day; if I'm not actively doing some work on an episode, I am reading about said episode's content in a book/article, or catching with my oodles of fan mail, or updating my status on the Facebook and Twitter sphere. These processes all take a lot of time and energy, as well as ingenuity, to make work. Hopefully though, it's clear from this post that I believe the whole entire process - whether it's reading an email at 4AM or incessantly begging other podcasters to talk to me on Skype - everything - I believe it all to be worth it.
When you start listening to a history podcast for the first time, and you have that feeling where you know that this is one you'll want to come back to again - that's a feeling I love to have. It's one that is possible because people across the board have decided that no, they're not content to wait for that 'series' to begin on the History Channel; they're not willing to wait for the book to come out on that subject, and perhaps more recently, they're not willing to wait for some other history podcaster to do it first. History podcasters are normal people who are literally beside themselves with the fact that you can access their content and enjoy what they have made. It is something that never gets old, and the excitement is evident from the tone in their voice when they greet you at the beginning of the show. This of course true for me as well. Every time a new episode of WDF begins, I am not parroting an old greeting, I'm genuinely flattered and excited that you would consider my work worth your time enough to join me for the episode.
Even Dan Carlin, probably the most popular history podcaster in the world right now, has such feels. He's said so on many occasions. For all intents and purposes, Dan is just a normal guy, except he isn't, because he ventures into your ears every now and then and you feel like you know him. Such a connection is not just a valuable thing in history podcasting - it is part of the reason why it is so great and unique as a medium. It's also a big part of why so many individuals, be they sports people or talk show hosts, have come to podcast medium as a way of getting their views and personalities across. Thankfully, you don't listen to WDF for my personality, you listen because of the unique take I bring to history, just like I listen to Carlin for the soap opera coverage he brought to the First World War.
So where do you come into all this, and where does this fit into 'things I wish I knew'? Well, first and foremost, what I wanted to communicate is that many people, whether they realise it or not, if they come to history podcasting already interested in history, they can probably make a good history podcast. What I wish I knew before I began is that people like me as much as Dan Carlin are capable of doing great work, and that I shouldn't refrain from getting stuck in just because I fear someone else may have done it before, or done it better.
I suppose you could recast 1) as simply self-belief, because when it comes down to it, I have to believe in myself, and when it comes time to research and write, I have to believe that people will care enough to justify what I do; when it comes times to record and edit, I have to believe that the audience size will justify the effort. For every time I have to awkwardly introduce the podcast, I have to believe that one day someone will come to me and offer me my name in lights for the chance to teach history - or...something like that.
My point is, I wish I knew before I started history podcasting that the medium needs people like me. People who want to produce well-researched, considered and accessible history podcasts on topics in history they didn't get to learn about in college or school. Having said that, history podcasting needs people like you as well. Whether you're fascinated enough by history to start your own podcast here, or you're just interested enough in the discipline to only listen to the odd Dan Carlin episode, everyone has a part to play. The end goal is bringing history out of its box, making it current, accessible, interesting and approachable to people who otherwise wouldn't think of talking about it.
I wish I knew beforehand what I was getting myself into, not because I regret my decision, but because I didn't realise how important a decision it was at the time. I am now irreversibly tied to history podcasting, for better or worse, hopefully for the rest of my life. Had I known what I was getting into, what memories and fascinating facts awaited me, what friends were waiting to be discovered, what passions were waiting to be unearthed and what fires were soon to be lit within me - I would have jumped in far earlier than I did. I never imagined that this amount of work could be worth so much - that I think is the most important lesson I've learned, that quality work takes quality time, but that the end result is more than worth it, and sometimes stays with you for good.
Now I am part of this, this incredible community, and I challenge anyone to say that all of us history podcasters - from the towering Mike Duncan, to the quietly successful Robin Pierson, to the stunningly brave Soren Krarup - have not done our bit not merely for history podcasting, but for history as a school, as an art form, or as something to enjoy. This metaphorical plain of history is far from full - many huts remain, ready to welcome you and your budding idea into this crazy world.
History, for sure, could use people just like you.
Zack Twamley is an author, masters graduate and podcaster at When Diplomacy Fails. If this is your first time visiting our blog - welcome! - we release a new blog post each week, so I hope you'll come back again next week and have a read again! Other than that, be sure to check out the aforementioned podcast here, since our back catalog is immense, and will hopefully have something for you. Thankssss for reading history friend, and I hope to see you around soon!