History podcasters do an incredible thing. On a fairly regular basis, they investigate often tangled periods of history, simplify and condense these periods, and present them to the listener. All the while, obviously, they go through the usual processes followed by all other podcasters – they write notes, (generally) write a script, record that script, feel unhappy with that script, re-approach the script, re-record the script, edit the recording, publish the episode, promote the episode and so on. It is an exhaustive, total process that is impossible to calculate – some podcasters spend mind-bendingly long stretches of time hunched over their desk, working through source material that is drier than the Sahara, all for the sake of the finished product which they believe you’ll enjoy. All of this, it has to be said, and history podcasting tends not to be the history podcaster’s job. It is simply their hobby – a time-consuming, ridiculously meticulous and exhaustive hobby, but one which they faithfully tackle week in and week out for countless reasons too numerous to state here.
With all that in mind, it can seem a tad unfair, bordering on ungrateful, when some randomer comes along with criticisms in mind. ‘How can the listener judge or throw shade on what a history podcaster does’, comes the gasp from around the room, ‘when they don’t know what being a history podcaster is truly like?’ Thankfully, yours truly is positioned in the best of both worlds. I am both a listener of history podcasts and a proud father to my own podbaby – When Diplomacy Fails. Over the last five and a half years I’ve been doing this, I’ve noticed a few things that some history podcasters do which, speaking objectively, they really should stop doing. Some of these points are a bit critical, others have a somewhat more defiant, inspiring tone, so I hope you will bear with me as we count down the five things history podcasters need to stop doing.
#5: STOP releasing substandard audio – you have no excuse!
I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve come across a particular history podcast with much excitement, only to be immensely disappointed. The quality is there, the podder knows their stuff, but the whole experience is impossible to persevere with owing to the poor quality audio. The crinkling of papers, the repeated lip smacking or deep, phlegm filled coughing (I wish I was joking) all combine to really put one off. You have to have a real patience, a real love for the subject, if you’re willing to put aside these problems that the podcaster evidently struggles with. As listeners, we’re expected to put up with some issues. I would wager that very few podcasters enjoy the luxury of a recording studio or a sound team on hand, so it is possible to miss the odd glitch, background noise or repeated sentence. That, I will admit, comes with the territory – we are only human after all, and some errors will inevitably slip through for various reasons.
I’m not talking about those small oopsies then; I’m talking about an inherent and on-going problem with the audio quality of your work. I’m talking about a set of problems which you have probably been told about, politely, by your listeners, but which you haven’t bothered to change. I’m talking about a constant and demonstrated refusal to improve your product, and a resulting refusal to accept responsibility for your show. If this sounds like you, then you need to change. You need to stop what you’re doing, revaluate your podcast and get with the times. Yes, I am a little peeved about your consistently low audio standard. Why? Because if people listen to you having never listened to a history podcast before, they may come away with the impression that all history podcasts sound like you!
By letting the side down, you’re letting all of us down, and you’re preventing history podcasting as a whole from hitting the next level and being seen as a real alternative to TV, or published works etc. Above all though, you’re being disingenuous not only to yourself but to your listeners. Many listeners may even want to like you, but because of your regularly flagged problems, they can’t bring themselves to recommend your show, or history podcasting as a whole, to others. Like I said though, you’re also being disingenuous to yourself, because what are you hoping to gain with a substandard product? I feel really strongly about the idea that we history podcasters are producing the show that we would like to find and listen to – it’s why Ray Harris started his History of World War 2 podcast; why I started When Diplomacy Fails. Heck, it’s even why Mike Duncan started the History of Rome.
So pull your socks up. Believe that your product can be good and is worth people’s time, or you may as well ‘podfade’ yourself right now. There is so many quality history podcasts out there, created by passionate and enthusiastic authors that deserve people’s time, so if you can’t be bothered to get with the program, stop what you are doing right now. We don’t want a rambling, badly produced, tangent-filled mess – we want something organised, well-structured and tightly written, so that you hit your main points and save the rabbit holes for later. Plan ahead, with quality in mind, and your listeners – and When Diplomacy Fails – will thank you for it.
I refuse to name names of course, but out of some perhaps misplaced sense of optimism or belief in my own ability to influence others, I feel it’s worth a shot, from one history podcaster to another, to put some steel into you laggards. Hopefully in the process I’ll be able to demonstrate to you hard working, quality podders out there how important a consistent level of quality is. What’s more, as most of us know when we work on something we care about, quality is not hard to achieve, it merely takes time, patience and…ok I guess it is a little bit hard, but anything worth doing is worth doing right, so do it right, pretty please. I’m watching (and listening to) you!
With that rant of sorts over, you could be forgiven for thinking that I’m here to just give out about my history podcasting peers. But actually, that’s not the only reason I chose to write this post. While there are several history podcasters that need to pull their socks up, there are thankfully far more that do a stellar job, so with that in mind, let’s look at point #4…
#4: STOP taking crap from listeners.
So we’ve gone from one extreme to the other, wonderful! Hear me out though.
History podcasting is an art of profound value. Like we established at the start, it is one of those rare hobbies out there where you can bring something of real utility to people absolutely free of charge, all because you have a passion for history and bringing it to people. Therefore, you are deserving of respect, not only by your fellow podders, but also by your listeners. I should clarify that 95% of all feedback I have ever got has been positive, and that even goes for my *shudder* early days, when I didn’t really have much of a handle on WDF’s exact formula or where we were really going with it. This 95% will sustain and encourage you through some of the best creative periods of your life, and they will give you some really useful feedback, generated to spur you onwards to bigger and better things. They will rally around you when the knives come out, and will sing your praises if asked. These listeners – what I like to call history friends – are priceless, and WDF would be totally lost without them. Unfortunately, as general mathematical rules would stipulate, there is a remaining 5% of your listenership which, hmmm how do I put this…they can be somewhat insufferable.
As a history podcaster with two degrees in history, as well as an award for my dissertation, a book deal and a very proud granny, I like to think of myself as somewhat qualified to do this. I am qualified to do this, it’s that simple, and I would challenge anyone who says I am not. Unfortunately, on occasion I do have to challenge people that would seek to undermine me or my credentials. Maybe they don’t like my opinions on a subject; maybe they have more degrees than me; maybe they just don’t like that a 25 year old can know so much trivia about such obscure events in history, and it makes them uneasy. Either way, I, like many of my peers, have been unfortunate at times to come under attack by a listener. Now, I should stipulate that these are very rare occasions, but darn if it doesn’t bring you down a whole load of pegs. Suddenly with those biting or direct words that 5% of negative press seems more like 500%, and you can’t even remember where your history friends have gone.
If you’ve been in this position before, it can be tough to get back to where you were. It still amazes me how much power words still have these days – I mean you’d think that after all these years I would have thicker skin, but I am a sensitive soul deep down, and I think because I would always make a point of trying to be good to people, I can never understand when they’re something a weapon to me. So here’s the thing – turn that frown upside down. Go and hit your podcast up on iTunes and read all those nice things people said about your show.
Then, if possible, find a way to let your listeners know what a certain someone said, without sounding like a desperate soul yourself or compromising that individual’s identity. Observe as your history friends rally around you and remind you why you do this thing. Not so that Smarmy McAsshat can sneer at you for ‘still being a student’ (still bitter at that guy) or so that some University professor can question your conclusions in a mean-spirited way, but so that you can bring history to the people that matter. On occasion, it can seem like that 5% is bigger than they have any right to be, but remember how powerful and good those 95% have made you feel over the years, and you’ll be alright. Take solace from the fact that you are bringing history out there and doing your bit to make it thrive. Unless of course, your show is pants, and you can’t find any positive reviews, in which case see #5…
#3: STOP comparing your podcast to others.
WDF is never going to be Hardcore History. I am never going to make like Dan Carlin and be on the tip of everyone’s tongue on Reddit whenever history podcasts are mentioned (seriously it’s like the only history podcast they seem to know), and I am never going to get the insane amount of monthly downloads that he enjoys, but that’s ok. I am still me, and I am still doing a great service to history podcasting with WDF, because I am filling a niche that nobody else is looking into. Sure, it’d be nice to have over 3 million downloads a month and be asked to speak at podcast conferences – maybe someday I will…maybe. But I have to be realistic, I have to accept that I am what I am and not let the success of other podcasters get me down. I can of course secretly cringe whenever another history podcaster is mentioned, but as long as I keep it to myself, it’s fine. That was a joke.
History needs people like Dan Carlin, but it also needs people like you, so stop comparing your show to his, and stop pining for his success. Will it come? Perhaps, but you won’t get anywhere trying to be the ‘next Dan Carlin’. Instead of being the next Hardcore History, be the next YOU. You have something unique and good which people will enjoy, so believe that and get out there. Which brings us to #2…
#2: STOP trying to be everything to everyone.
I would be lost if I didn’t read from a script. I would forget my main points, I’d never be able to deliver the attention to detail that my listeners appreciate, and overall the quality of the show would definitely suffer. Reading from a script has its own problems of course – trawl the relevant forums and you’ll find a whole host of people claiming that they just can’t keep pace with scripted podcasts, as the reading feels wooden and keeping up with everything feels impossible. Reading from a script while sounding like you’re not reading from a script is an art, no question about that, and in my opinion I have gotten better at it, but I still haven’t mastered it.
That said, I would never remove the script from WDF’s process, even if I could possible manage it. I would never do it because then I wouldn’t be holding true to the WDF formula or to the aspects of history podcasting that I love. I know that there are those out there that, like me, want to drink in all those details, yet I also know that there are those out there that I put to sleep, and not in a good way! How do I cope with this situation? Simple – I rationalise that I may have some things to learn where script reading is concerned, but I accept that this is the way the podcast is, and that it cannot be changed without changing everything else about it. WDF will not be an informally hosted show, as a collection of history enthusiasts shoot the breeze about something that happened in the past. Although we have been known to collaborate with other history podcasters, the show will always take this approach, because it suits my style of storytelling and my style of history podcasting.
I am under no illusions that this style is universally popular – I know if I ditched the script I would perhaps adapt and bring some newbies in, but then we’d cease being WDF, and in my view drift into being WDF-lite – something, for the record, I never want to be. If you enjoy WDF then you enjoy your history laden with detail, intrigue and full of complex process and motives that we break down together. This is what makes it all so fun, and it is what makes WDF unique. I can’t tell the amount of times I’ve been asked to cover the technology, or the battles or the societal aspects of history in more detail, and while we have dabbled in that a bit, at the end of the day that is not us. You don’t come to WDF for that, but you do come to us for the diplomacy, the scheming and the massive international misjudgements that so shaped our world.
I don’t want to be anything other than this, and I know what my target market is. I can’t be everything to everyone because it would dilute our niche and make us as bland as a rice cake; we’d lose our identity without really gaining anything in return. In short, I have thought about making changes, but after some consultation with the WDF Executive Board (my wife and I), we determined that WDF isn’t broken, so there’s no need to fix it. No matter what you do in history podcasting (or in life!) there will always be those that feel left out. You simply cannot be everything to everyone, unless of course you have several podcasts with different approaches, and you somehow manage to balance your time between all. Your product is fine just the way it is (unless it isn’t, in which case see point #5…), and on that note, I’d like to take you to our final point…
#1: STOP letting self-doubt hold you back. In other words, BELIEVE in yourself!
I know I may have just railed on you inadvertently for being not as good as you could be, but I really believe that in all of us lies an immense potential to better the lives of others. Some people chose to do this in a number of ways, but I, and perhaps you, have chosen to do it through the medium of history podcasting. It is obviously an incredible platform, from which we have the privilege of bringing people the history they love, in a format they can access without hassle or a high cost. You, like me, are doing these people a solid – you are educating them and making it fun at the same time. You would do well teaching to a school, or a university, and maybe you will someday, but for now, you just keep doing what do and do it well.
History podcasting needs passionate, articulate and professional people that are willing to take the steps necessary to make this platform grow and grow. The best thing we as a group can do is keep working hard to improve our craft and spread the word about it, but if you do this, you cannot let your own self-doubt hold you back. Think back to Smarmy McAsshat, and imagine that he is just one person, amidst a sea of other people, who collectively appreciate what you do and want to see you succeed. He (or maybe she) doesn’t have power over you – you are the one with the power, since you are the one with the microphone and all these plans. The only thing holding your show back from being up there with the best, from reaching more history friends and from putting history on the audio map, is your lack of confidence (well that, and a lack of time).
Both of these can of course be worked on, but never forget that that act of releasing a history podcast is an immensely valuable one, and you deserve to be applauded for your art even if your friends think you’re a weirdo and your family wish you’d stop talking to yourself so much. You’ve got this, so go out there and get it. I’ll be waiting for you alongside my passionate group of history friends, as we make history thrive together. This point is #1 because it’s the most important on the list. A firm belief in yourself will push you to improve your podcast (#5), it’ll give you the confidence to stand your ground in the face of criticism (#4), you’ll be more secure in your niche (#3) and you won’t feel the need to pander to every whim of a greedy listener (#2), since you know you’ve got your podcast formula down.
It’s all connected, and since we like to end on a positive note here at WDF, we’re going to leave it there. Thanksss for reading history friends, patrons all, and make sure to check out some of the older posts if you want to keep reading on. We release a new post to this blog (The Vassal State) every Wednesday, so you’d be wise to check on over here each week and especially like the Facebook page if you want more. Other than that, make sure to listen to the podcast if you’re curious about where Zack and his crazy ideas (and strong opinions) on podcasting came from!