'How Many Is Too Many?'
This was a question I was asked recently by a listener via email, and it compelled me to incorporate my advice to him in this latest installment of the HPP, since I believe it may be useful to those contemplating releasing a podcast, beginning a series or starting some other new venture, only to be confronted with the problem: it's already been done before. The question that the listener in question had for me was to the effect of Should I continue with my project, even when someone else has already done something similar? My answer is a resounding yes, and in this installment, I'm going to tell you why.
I want to start with a personal anecdote to get the mood going. In late June 2014, I started what was arguably my most successful series to date, the July Crisis Project, which marked 100 years to the day that the First World War broke out. I examined the diplomacy of that conflict, the twists and turns, the surprising revelations and the personalities involved. All in all, it was an exhaustive experience which I have never really shut up about, because of all that it taught me and what it did for WDF. Essentially, it put us on the map.
Now, those of you in the know about history podcasting may be aware that another history podcaster of some note did something similar, except his name was Dan Carlin, and his series Blueprint for Armageddon is probably the best thing which Hardcore History has ever done, and is certainly 100X more successful, in terms of exposure, than my project of a similar vein will ever be. Do you want to know something else? By the time I began my July Crisis Project in late June 2014, Carlin had already belted out the first three parts of this series.
Fortunately for myself and for WDF, I persevered even when I learned in October 2013 what Dan Carlin had just released - the first of a six part series examining what I planned to look at in great detail. If you listened to the July Crisis Project you'll know that I said in the Introduction episode that I'd planned to tackle the outbreak of the First World War in a special centenary series since I first launched WDF back in May 2012. In other words, it was a project many years in the making, and many more hours in the imagining.
Was it disheartening to see Dan's series gain so much traction? Was it hard to watch him release several episodes and dominate the history podcasting debate on WW1? Of course it was, but at the same time, it was something I tried to look at positively for two reasons. First, the reaction to Dan's series showed that people were hungry for WW1 related content, and especially content which explained the outbreak of the war in a way which was easier to understand than the conventional explanation. Second, after listening to Dan's take, I could then set myself the task of tackling my project safe in the knowledge of what Dan had done and what he had not done.
I could make the July Crisis Project my own, and I could do things which Dan had not been able to do. I could make my little project stand out from the giants, even while I accepted early on that Blueprint was always going to be the more famous series. Around the same time I started, history friend Wesley Livesay from a History of the Great War began his epic journey recounting the events of WW1. Was he put off by my attempts? Not at all, because he understood that his project - being a four plus endeavour - was different to mine. What was more, we were able to help and learn from each other. Thanks for that Wesley.
Plenty of room in the inn
My point here is probably a bit obvious by now. Dan Carlin dominated and still dominates the history podcast genre, but this should not prevent anyone from delving into topics he has covered, and giving their own take on events. If I had been scared off from attempting the July Crisis Project in October 2013, then WDF would never have grown the way it has. In addition, if Dan does decide in his next series (and he has hinted at it being a series and something people have been asking for for some time) to cover either the Thirty Years War or the Treaty of Versailles, then I will be a tad peeved, but I will then rationalise it in the way I had to before - that it'll be a great way to gauge interest for what I do, and that I can ensure my own take is different, and, perhaps even better!
That latter point may appear spiteful, and sometimes it is easy to be spiteful if you feel like someone has 'stolen' your idea. Of course, the reality is you can't 'steal' anything - nobody, least of all Dan Carlin or myself - would claim to own any of these topics. While you shouldn't be bitter, you should be challenged. How can I do a better job shouldn't be your immediate thought, and it shouldn't guide ever decision you make, but quality should always be at the centre of your podcast, and if you want to compete with someone else, you will have to release a quality product.
In a sense, this challenge compelled me to work on and release the most polished, complete product I ever had, and it has stood the test of time as a result. Like with everything else I've done in WDF, it serves as a lesson - Dan may have beaten me to the punch, and he may well beat me again, but it doesn't mean he has beaten me, because he never intended to in the first place. While I sometimes give him flak for not really engaging with the history podcast community, Dan would be the first to tell you that he wants to see the medium grow, and that individuals like myself are responsible for that growth, so we shouldn't be put off.
The comparison doesn't quite work, since history podcasting isn't necessarily a competition, but it is worth asking the question of why different companies that sell similar products exist, when they do essentially the same thing. Wordpress, Squarespace and Wix will all make the process of website building easier, but each have built sustainable business plans and built audiences based on the unique things they offer. Similarly, social media is saturated by all the different ways you can get in touch with your friends. If you had proposed the idea that a micro blogging site could become the runaway success that it has become, then you would had to have been some kind of genius. While we cannot imagine life without Twitter these days, if its creators had decided not to bother, because other mediums of social media already existed, then imagine what kind of world we'd live in today? (it'd probably be a lot quieter...)
So, in sum...
There is no such thing as too many podcasters covering the same topic. To continue my analogy from before - consider all the hundreds of podcasts which are literally just conversational, but which manage to cultivate audiences based on what makes them unique. What makes them unique, you may wonder, well it's the simplest of things - the host. The host determines the style, the structure, everything, and in a history podcast, the host also determines the pre-conceived ideas or biases, and therefore affect the narrative.
They also impact whether or not people will stick around. If you are 'umming' and 'ahhing' every few seconds, that's me outta there. If you try to tell me that the Holocaust didn't happen, goodbye and good riddance. If, however, I feel a connection with you that I didn't feel with another podcaster, then hey presto, you have my attention, my loyalty and perhaps even my money if we get serious enough.
This is how success stories happen. They don't happen by you taking a look at the landscape and feeling too intimidated even to begin. They happen by you stating firmly what you like, what you want to look at, what makes you special, and then how you go about doing that. Why do you think Our Fake History has become so successful in about three years of podcasting? It's not because Sebastian Major is a dick, and won't listen to his fans, or because he was too afraid to begin his show since there was already some mythbusting shows out there when he began. Heck no, he's a success because he worked hard at it, and he worked to make his show unique and of such a high quality that listeners couldn't help but feel compelled to listen.
As you can see, there is a pattern here. Decide what show you want to make. Look over the history podcasting landscape to see if anyone else has done it before. See how they've gone about doing it. Forge ahead with your project (unless it's yet another show on the American Revolution - this is perhaps the only exception to this entire message ;) ) and commit yourself to releasing a product which is as high in quality as you can possibly reach. Do not compromise, do not retreat, and your cream will rise to the top. Don't let someone tell you that you can't do something, simply because it's been done before. You can do it as well, and you can stand out, simply by doing it differently, but also by doing it better.
I hope this installment of the History Podcasting Platform was a help to you guys. If you have any questions, as usual, do not hesitate to get in touch with me! Why not subscribe to our newsletter while you're at it? We release one of these handy pieces every single Saturday! Your history friend, Zack.