The Why and How of Asking for Help, by Christopher Fernandez-Packenham [HPP III]

When fellow history podcasting peer Christopher Fernandez-Packenham reached out TO yours truly about a blog post idea that he had for the History Podcasting Platform, I was all ears!

Responsible for the Age of Victoria podcast, Chris knows what he's talking about, and he also knows that sometimes the hardest thing can be something as simple as asking for help. Surprising though it may sound, there is a knack to asking for said help. What do I mean? Well I'm so glad you asked! Take it away Christopher...


Like so many others here, I’m on a podcast journey. I was a listener for years. I was thrilled by new episodes of the History of Rome, the History of Byzantium, the British History Podcast, and of course When Diplomacy Fails. Still, much as I enjoyed them, I was sad that no one was covering the topic I loved. Victorian history. Eventually I decided that actually I wanted to get behind the mic and do my own show. The Age of Victoria Podcast was born.

Wait, I’ve missed a few steps there. I didn’t just wake up one day, buy a microphone and Lo a podcast came into being. I had to figure out a lot of things. What was my goal? Which microphone to choose? What was hosting and who should do it? Did I need a website? What was a Tweet?

Naturally I read the books, hit Google and I asked for help. Lots of help arrived. The thing is though, asking for help isn’t actually as easy as it sounds. That’s because when we don’t know about a topic, often we don’t know what we should be asking. Instead we ask vague questions, or we focus on micro detail.

I thought it might be a good exercise to dig into how to actually ask for help and information in a way that the community can work with.

As an example, here are a couple of the top questions we podcasters see being asked by potential podcasters. They both have a problem in common.

Q1 “I want to podcast? What do I do?”

This is definitely a very common question. It is also huge. When someone asks this, there’s no background. No goal. No budget. No subject. These things make a big difference. If you are a hobby caster, well then you probably have a smaller budget and more restrictions than a company that is setting up a podcast. Your chosen subject makes a big difference too.

You will get fairly general advice to this. “You just need a mic and a computer. You will do great, just be passionate.” Honestly that advice is right but not very helpful. You might wonder why you ask this question and none of your favourite hosts answer. Well often, it is because we see this question hundreds of times and it is just too broad to get into...

Ask instead:

“Hi. I’m interested in running my own history podcast. It will just be me, perhaps with an occasional guest. I’ve got a 4 year old computer, a desk in the lounge, and I am thinking about buying a mic. What practical advice can you give me for the next steps? My goal is to release a 20 minute show on a random historical topic every week with a little background music. Money is tight, but I can spend $200 dollars on a mic.”

This gives the person answering much better information to work with. They know you have a realistic goal, you wouldn’t need a lot of complicated equipment and you have a potentially difficult recording environment. The answers can then be much more helpful, like

“Don’t worry. A short weekly show should be fine. You have a computer, so getting started won’t be difficult. You can get going with a nice quality USB mic (see link here for some great reviews). This will allow you to plug a mic directly into a computer and get recording. Background noise could be an issue so you might want to think about room layout and recording times. You can record onto your computer using free software like Audacity. Once you’ve done that, you can edit it to add a little music, and then you need to load it up to a hosting site. Don’t forget to give yourself time for editing and research.”

Q2 “What’s the best mic for podcasting”

This is absolutely the next most common question. Again, think about the phrasing here. The people answering have no way of knowing anything about you or your needs. The best mic for podcasting is the one that works for the individual in their circumstances. There’s tons to consider when thinking about mics. Not just price, but also your set up, the method of connection, dynamic or condenser, portability and ruggedness, how many you need, and what your other equipment is like. Also there’s the issue of nailing your tone. If you want an intimate coffee house feel, with clinks of spoons and light jazz in the background, you need a different mic to the clean and crisp perfection of a high end studio.

Ask instead

“My show is me and my buddy talking about the history of coffee (actually no, that’s my next podcast – paws off). We want to be able to go to a different coffee shop each week and record the two of us chatting. What kind of mic and recording equipment can we use? What options have we got in the £300 range? We want good clarity, but we don’t mind a bit of background noise. We will have to carry it all in a backpack so nothing too heavy.”

That gives people with experience the chance to chip in. No one will be saying you should choose the Neumann TLM-102 with a nice preamp’d rack and run it through… You will get more sensible suggestions for your specific needs. Or people will just tell you to buy the Blue Yeti. Because everyone tells everyone to buy the Blue Yeti.

What these two examples show is the best way for us podcasters to help potential podcasters is to have plenty of information in the question. If you don’t know in your head roughly what you want your show to be about or to sound like, no one else can guess. When you ask for help and advice, ask with the goal in mind.

So here are your new rules for asking questions

1. Know you overall goal

2. Keep the question focused.

3. Keep it reasonably short.

4. Outline your goal to people reading your question.

5. Set out your situation and limits.

6. Spell and grammar check your questions.

This is good practice for being a podcaster. You need to get information from sources, and you need to communicate complex information succinctly (or so I’m told!)

Anything else?

Ask lots. I did. There are so many great podcasters out there, with plenty of experience. Talk to podcast editors in their groups – you will learn lots. Talk to the SEO media experts. Take lots of notes, and toss round ideas. Just bare in mind that you are asking people to help for free. That’s fine. We are a community, and happy to help, but it means there are limits, so be realistic! You won’t get a podcast editor to do an edit for you for free for your first couple of shows. This is their job, not their hobby, and they expect to be paid.

It’ll all be worth it. You will finally get some gear together, a script, and record a show. It’ll suck and sound nothing like you wanted in your head. That’s ok. We all sucked when we started. I’m only 20 shows in and I’m just beginning to see improvements. I still ask questions. I try to remember that the person I’m asking usually won’t have listened to my show and has no idea what my goal is, or what my circumstances are. You will get better though. You will have fun, and make new friends. Riches will rain from the heavens and great crowds will gather around to admire you. Well maybe not, but it is fun.


Christopher Fernandez-Packenham won't tell you so himself, but he is responsible for an absolutely sublime history podcast that you should definitely check out. Christopher very kindly agreed to write a blog post for us here, as we continue working through the History Podcasting Platform guide to history podcasters old and new. Why did he do this? Not because he's crazy, but because he is crazy about history, and believes in history podcasting.

If you are a history podcaster and you think you have some advice for your peers, and that YOU would also like to post your blog here and get a bit of publicity in return, why not get in touch with Zack via email or on virtually any social media where you can find When Diplomacy Fails. Together, let's make history THRIVE!