'No, you don't need a history degree to be a history podcaster' part 1. HPP I

A History degree is not a necessity if you plan on starting a history podcast, so don't let that stop you. Instead, some principles and good habits need to be adopted right away, and some things ought to be avoided from the get go as well. Follow these tips in the first part of this installment, pick up your lesson in the next installment, and you'll make a fine history podcaster.

Welcome back! I hope you're as excited as I am to watch the History Podcasting Platform develop - I've already received some great feedback from some very excited and encouraged history enthusiasts, so that's brilliant! A reminder that you can find the HPP section of the website here, so make sure and bookmark that if this project sounds like your kinda thing. I'd also point you to a useful resource to anyone starting out - here's a guide on referencing history style! Finally, here's a link to our fabulous newsletter, which you'd be crazy to miss out on!

Now then, let's get down to business...


When I began podcasting in May 2012 I didn’t have a history degree.

Sure, I was enmeshed in University College Dublin’s Bachelor of Arts degree process, but I was only in the second semester of my first year. In every respect, I was a history noob. I was an enthusiast for sure, but also a massive noob. Since I began that podcast nearly six years ago, I have accumulated two degrees in history, with plans for further academic study; I have acquired a book deal from a much appreciated listener over at Winged Hussar Publishing, and I have surpassed four million downloads while I was at it.

How did I do all that? Well let me assure you, it wasn’t easy, but it also wasn’t impossible. I had to learn new things, get used to the terminology and spend a great deal of my free time building When Diplomacy Fails up to the point that I could begin to call it a brand. Now, when I use my exclusive WDF bottle opener to crack open a beer and contemplate on how far I’ve come, do you know what stands out? The fact that anyone, degree or not, can do what I have done here.

Am I happy I got my Bachelor of Arts in History and Politics? Absolutely! But did it make history podcasting infinitesimally easier? Nope. If anything, history podcasting made university easier! 

Am I happy I got my Bachelor of Arts in History and Politics? Absolutely! But did it make history podcasting infinitesimally easier? Nope. If anything, history podcasting made university easier! 

It seems that there are two groups of people in this world. Those that forge ahead with a history podcast regardless of qualifications, because they feel they don’t need them, and then make a score of mistakes along the way. Or, there are those folks that say ‘I can’t establish a history podcast, I have no qualifications to speak of!’ In our last introductory post where I told you what the History Podcasting Platform was and why you should be excited, I reminded you guys that Dan Carlin and Mike Duncan don’t or didn’t at the time have super-duper history degrees. Mr Carlin had what I believe was akin to a Bachelor’s degree in history, while Mr Duncan had a political science degree – though I could be wrong on the specifics there.

My point is, they did not have the typical qualifications necessary to begin history podcasting. And yet, look at them now. Both men are at the top of their field, having effectively pioneered long form (Carlin) and solo-script (Duncan) forms of history podcasting. I’m not saying that you are going to be a pioneer, or that you will enjoy their levels of success. What I am saying is that their passions and enthusiasm shone through and pushed them forward above all, and helped them to connect with an audience that nobody even imagined existed.

If they can set themselves up, stare into that empty void and say ‘I’m going to just do this’, then why not you?

Every Mike Duncan or Dan Carlin started at zero downloads, zero fans, zero exposure. They didn’t let the difficulties in getting the word out there slow them down – they persevered and said 'to heck with it, what I have to do is worthwhile, and I want people to know about it.' They didn’t necessarily possess degrees in the ‘required’ field, but what they did possess was a degree (see what I did there) of self-confidence, enough for them to push through that glass ceiling and start something incredible.

I cannot emphasise this enough, but when you’re starting out with your new history podcast, your mood can fluctuate between feeling excited and feeling very depressed about the task ahead of you. As another scion of history podcasting, Jamie Jeffers from the British History Podcast wrote though, ‘the truth is that to start a podcast, what you need is to know in your heart that you suck.  And that you are going to suck for a long time.’ However, as Jeffers then reassures us, ‘But here’s the good news. Everyone is awful when they start something new.  Not just in podcasting, but in all creative works.’

You will find it hard, you will find history podcasting an occasionally thankless and difficult task. Now let me add this nugget of wisdom: having a history degree will not significantly reduce this difficulty, it will not make the self-doubt any less prominent, and will not cause you to become an instant sensation overnight. A history degree in any format does not equal instant history podcasting success, and there’s a very good reason for that. It’s one thing to write a thesis, write several essays, and even to lecture at third level, which is one of my major career goals.

However, when you’re presenting your history podcast to the world, you have to do so based on several assumptions:

  • a) that whoever is listening has only the most basic understanding of what you’re talking about, if any at all
  • b) that your listener may have stumbled upon your show, and never made any more of a conscious decision to engage with your material than clicking on a link
  • c) you have about a minute to impress them, or make a good impression upon them, or they’re gone.
Just because I added four letters to my name, and just because I hope to add 'Dr' in the future, does not automatically make me a wonderful history podcaster. Degree does not = success, even though I do look like the swankiest of nerds if I do say so myself!

Just because I added four letters to my name, and just because I hope to add 'Dr' in the future, does not automatically make me a wonderful history podcaster. Degree does not = success, even though I do look like the swankiest of nerds if I do say so myself!

No history degree in the world, as far as I know, prepares you for this process. On the other hand, this is something you can learn whether you have a history degree or not - the fact that the playing field is thus so open, in that sense, is terribly exciting. 

It is something I would be very happy and eager to help you with as part of the History Podcast Platform. A history podcast, strictly speaking, involves you teaching the listener about a given issue in history, whatever the topic or subject matter at hand, right? While that is true, history podcasting is so much more than a free license to teach randomers about history.

History podcast provides a chance for people to get to know you, to engage with you, to go on this journey with you, in a way that a student never will experience with a teacher. Listeners learn to like you and enjoy your company, while they also learn new things – few better combinations exist on the internet today than that. It is wholesome, useful and of course, it is free.

The crux of the appeal in history podcasting isn’t that you’ll be read a dry lecture by a boring bespectacled weirdo – although I understand that the Great Courses series is making great strides in the ‘academic’ area of podcasting. Instead, a large amount of the appeal of history podcasting comes from the person doing the podding, and the connection which can be made between your product and the person listening to it.

It is learning on an immensely personal level, and a great deal depends upon whether people like you or not. Don’t be worried though – there’s no reason why people wouldn’t like you, unless you come across deliberately as a dick, or you try to get on people’s nerves. All you need to do is be yourself, and craft your show with some key principles in mind. We’ll look at the more academic, technical side of the question in part 2 of this topic, but for now, I want to talk to you about FAD. Is your history podcast FAD? 'What is FAD', you may be wondering; well FAD is:

  • Fun
  • Accessible
  • Digestible

Your history podcast should aim to be FAD at all times. If it isn’t FAD, then it’s highly unlikely people will stick around. Let’s run through each one of the aspects of FAD so that you know what I mean.

Make sure your history podcast is FUN.

This cannot be emphasised enough. You need to be enjoying yourself - you need to clearly be getting across the fact that you are passionate about your subject matter, for this to work. Now, I am aware that some people hate their voice (and we’ll get to that!) but what I mean in this case is that you shouldn’t be audibly bored by your subject matter – if you are, then for crying out loud change your subject matter! It should come across in your voice that you are excited about what you’re covering. If you’re not excited, then why should your audience be even interested in what you have to say?

Nobody is going to care about your podcast for you.

You have to be the wind in people’s sails, you have to talk them through the juicy bits, and find ways to make the ‘dull’ parts of the story interesting too. All the while, you shouldn’t be taking yourself too seriously. Nobody likes a stuffy, pompous host. To put it another way; if your podcast has a rake of problems, but you’re a likeable, attentive host who clearly cares, then people are more likely to stick around than if you’re a dick, but your research is top notch.

It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice.

Your show MUST be accessible.

Unpacking the sardine-like details of history can sometimes be a chore, and other times it can be a satisfying delight.

It is not necessarily up to you how hard this process is, but what is up to you is how difficult the end result is for your listeners to traverse.

Going back to what we said a little while ago, a big part of history podcasting is assuming that the person at the other end of the earbuds, speakers etc. doesn’t have a particularly large grasp of what you’re talking about. For that reason, as well as many others, it is critical that you plan your episodes out, so that you’re not bombarding your listeners with too many names, too many new concepts or simply too much information. We'll examine this idea more in Part 2 of this article.

This can be reflected in the time each podcast runs for as well. Contrary to what Mr Carlin may tell you, we can’t all get away with five hour extravaganzas. If you will be following Carlin’s style – what I like to call the ‘imagine’ method, because he always asks us to place ourselves in certain situations – then maybe you will need a longer run time. However, assuming that you’ll be following the more common history podcasting style – ‘solo-script’ as I like to call it, made popular by Mike Duncan at the History of Rome, then anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes should be your lot.

Accessibility isn’t just presenting large chunks of information in a way that people can understand, it’s also about accepting that everyone’s attention spans do not always last the amount of time we’d like. Again, don’t worry – the art of planning and structuring a podcast so that this accessibility level is achieved is something we will absolutely be running through. But now for the last part:

Your podcast has to be digestible.

This is pretty much a continuation of accessibility, but it’s a handy way to connect the three important points. A fun podcast draws a listener in; an accessible podcast makes them enjoy themselves; a digestible podcast shows you’ve done your homework, and will keep them coming back for me. Planning and structuring again come into this process. Every history podcast topic requires some kind of timescale, a degree of note-taking and a certain amount of tangents.

For something to be digestible, your thought process should be clearly realised, the end goal should be well-known to your audience, and the rough trajectory of your story plotted out in advance. You shouldn't be caught out by any surprises in the production process - you shouldn't miss key characters or events etc. You should know your subject as well as you possibly can - that is your responsibility. And once you know it, the skill is condensing that knowledge down into bite-size, digestible chunks, for each episode.

But Zack, you may be wondering, how do I plan for something so far in advance? Well that comes down to the next part of our blog series, and in the spirit of not bombarding you with too much detail – keeping it FAD here people – we’ll return with the section part of ‘You don’t need a history degree to be a history podcaster’ next week!

I hope you’ll be ready for that, but if you’d like to read ahead, here’s a handy guide to show you how to reference and footnote your shows, so that your findings will always be traceable, and your episodes will always be accountable to historical science. So thanksss for reading, and I hope you’ll join the discussion elsewhere! Make sure to sign up for our newsletter in the meantime, since we deliver some great content to your inbox every Saturday!