Podcasting Revolution: An Interview with Liz Covart

I wanted to delve a little deeper into the podcasting world to get a better sense of its inner workings. To do so, I interviewed Liz Covart whose excellent podcast Ben Franklin’s World turns two years old this year.

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How did you come to the podcast world?

I came to the podcast world as a listener. I started listening to one or two podcasts about writing and productivity and within a month of listening, I became a “podcast junkie.” I fell in love with podcasts because they allow me to learn something new and feel productive during times I can’t be productive, such as when I walk my dogs, cook dinner, clean my house, and run errands.

I became a history podcaster because I couldn’t find a history podcast I wanted to listen to. In 2012, I wanted a show with well-researched history and with professional historians who offered either a story or conversation about early American history. After lamenting how my dream podcast didn’t exist, I decided to create it.

What virtues does podcasting have that other mediums do not?

Podcasts are the perfect medium for our digital and mobile twenty-first century. They offer on-demand, specialized content that we can listen to wherever and whenever we find it convenient. They enrich essential, non-productive times such as work commutes. And they offer intimacy.

Most listeners consume podcasts when they are alone, except listeners are never really alone when they listen to a podcast because when they press play, they invite their favorite podcast hosts to spend time with them. The most beloved hosts speak in a way that listeners often feel like the hosts are speaking directly to and with them. Over time, podcast listeners develop a bond with their favorite hosts. Listeners feel like they know their favorite hosts and they form a virtual, or imagined, friendship with them. That’s why podcast host-read advertisements have higher conversion rates than television, radio, and print ads.

What role does the audience play in podcasting? Who composes your audience?

Audience should be central to a podcast. Shows with the best content have producers who think deeply about their actual and target listeners. They create content that listeners want to hear and that serves listeners’ interests. 

The Ben Franklin’s World audience is large and diverse. A survey I conducted in late 2015 revealed that 50 percent of listeners are between 45 and 64 years old; 61 percent are male; 49 percent have a graduate or professional degree; And 77 percent classify themselves as non-historians. 

What are the biggest challenges associated with podcasting?

The biggest challenge would be time and the second biggest challenge would be cost.

Just as historians of the Age of Revolutions debate how radical or conservative different revolutions were, podcasters debate how conservative or involved they should be with their recording and editing. On the far “conservative” end of the podcasting spectrum you have podcasters who post unedited, raw recordings. On the opposite end of the podcasting spectrum, you have the highly produced, highly edited NPR-style shows. As I’ve come to view podcasts as another medium in which historians can write, produce, and convey serious historical scholarship in, I’ve become a podcaster who practices and advocates for highly produced and highly edited shows. 

Just as it takes many hours to write a book chapter or article, it takes many hours to produce a high-quality podcast episode. I spend anywhere from 30-50 hours working on each episode. Some episodes take more time to produce than others because of preparation time (do I need to read a book or research a historic site, exhibit, or digital project to prepare for an interview), recording length, and how well guests speak about their work to an audience of non-historians. Sometimes, guests need help in presenting their ideas. When I sense they need help, I ask as many follow-up and clarifying questions as we need to get the information my audience needs to understand and fully appreciate the historian’s ideas. When I edit, I sometimes move information around from follow-up and clarifying questions and place it within the context of the guest’s initial remarks so that the final recording clearly presents the guest’s ideas in a way that the Ben Franklin’s World audience will find intelligible and enjoyable to listen to. I work in and edit audio in many of the same ways journal and book editors work with text and words. We all want historians to sound/read as good as possible.

The second challenge is cost because there is a cost to podcasting. At minimum you need to pay for a hosting service. After that you need to decide whether you want to invest in a good microphone, recording and editing software, website hosting, a podcast-specific theme for your website, cover art and logo design, show apps, and social media apps to help you promote your episodes. You also have to decide whether you want to invest in a professional audio engineer.

Each episode of Ben Franklin’s World sounds as good as it does because I edit and I work with a fantastic audio engineer, Darrell Darnell. Darrell gives each episode a second edit and he works with his professional-grade audio software (Adobe Audition) to make sure that the whole episode sounds as close to a professional radio broadcast as it can.

All told, it costs about $700 per month, exclusive of my time, to produce Ben Franklin’s World

How do you decide what topics to discuss each episode?

Ben Franklin’s World investigates early American history between roughly 1492 and 1830. As the early America Ben Franklin lived in and contributed to was global or “vast,” the podcast strives to offer a topical and geographical depth that includes aspects of Canadian, South American, Caribbean, European, Pacific, Asian, African, and colonial/early United States history. I select topics to fulfill this goal based on a number of different factors: listener requests/questions, topical, geographical, and period balance, historiographical contribution, pitches and books received, and personal interest.

For example, the “Doing History” series (that I’ve been producing in partnership with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture came about because listeners sent me numerous questions about how historians research and write history. OI staff and I looked at the questions listeners were asking and used them to create an editorial calendar of 14 episodes; 1 episode to introduce the series, 12 episodes exploring different aspects of how historians work, and 1 episode to conclude the series. We then brainstormed ideas for guests who could speak about each topic, compared the work of potential guests with the broader Ben Franklin’s World editorial calendar, and came up with a slate of accomplished historians who offer both expertise about how historians work and period, geographical, and topical balance to the broader show. 

The editorial process for Ben Franklin’s World happens much the same way as it does for “Doing History.” I consider what questions and topics listeners have and want addressed, look for guests who can speak about each topic, ask colleagues for advice, and figure out if and when I can schedule a potential guest for an interview. 

In addition to considering and addressing listener questions, I also look for new books, exhibits, historic sites, and digital projects that offer interesting topics and are poised to make a sizable contribution to the historiography. Given the vastness of the field of early America, I rely on publishers and potential guests to send me publisher catalogs, books, and pitches that I can use in conjunction with my online and in-person research (conferences and seminars are fantastic venues to research potential guests and topics) to make the best editorial decisions I can.  

Finally, I select some topics because I want to learn more about them. My favorite topics include the American Revolution, culture, and the making of the American state. Luckily for me, the Ben Franklin’s World audience enjoys these topics too—especially topics related to the American Revolution.

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