Podcasting Revolution: An Interview with Mike Duncan

Mike Duncan, the creator of Revolutions – a political history podcast – had the following  thought-provoking answers to my questions. Enjoy!

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1) What made you want to start podcasting?

I got into podcasting after a couple of things happened at once: 1) I discovered history podcasting back in 2007 and started devouring every show I could find 2) I was simultaneously reading a ton of old Roman history just for fun (Polybius, Livy, Tacitus et al) 3) I went looking for the “Roman History Podcast” which I thought must exist and discovered that it did not. So I decided to take what I was reading and translate it into a podcast: “I’ll narrate the entire Roman Empire from beginning to end. Easy.” I have no idea why I thought I could pull it off.

I released my first episode of The History of Rome way back in July 2007. At the time I thought I was *late* to the party because there was already a pretty rich history podcasting community out there. I figured podcasting was going to be a fad that came and went, but instead it just kept getting more and more popular with each passing year. Now looking back it turns out I was actually super early to the party—like setting out chairs and running to the store for ice early.

After five years producing The History of Rome, I finally got to the end of the story and enrolled at Texas State University planning to get a Master’s Degree in Public History—but life got in the way and after a year I became a grad school dropout. Luckily ,that freed me up to start producing my new show Revolutions which explores great political revolutions. I started back in 2013 and so far I’ve covered the English Civil Wars, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, and the Haitian Revolution. Right now, I am in my fifth series covering Simon Bolivar and Gran Colombia. 

2) What sets podcasts apart from other communication technologies?

The best thing about podcasting is that it can go on top of other things. Books, TV, and online videos all require the attention of your eyes. So if you’re watching a video or reading a book that is what you are doing. But because podcasting is audio, you can listen while doing other stuff: commuting to work, exercising, doing chores, performing mundane tasks, whatever. Podcasting has allowed people to take the most tedious and brain-dead times of their lives and turn them into opportunities to learn new things. I get emails from people all the time saying they now actually look forward to their commutes because they get to listen to a new episode of the show. That’s not just good for me as a podcaster—it’s great for the listener because they’re able to convert periods of boredom into periods of education, which is fantastic!

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

I’ve gotten emails from kids in elementary school and retirees in their 80s. The one thing they all have in common is a gap in their knowledge that they want to fill. It’s a shame but many people out there have had negative experiences with history in high school and college so they mentally tune out the subject. Now they’re out there regretting how little they understand history and looking for content that will fill in the gaps. That’s what I try to give them. I write my shows so that you can come in with zero prior knowledge of the English Civil Wars or the Haitian Revolution and by they time a series is complete have a pretty good idea what happened and why.

History as a discipline has also really abandoned narrative history as a genre which I think makes it difficult for people to approach topics for the first time. The bookshelves tend to be filled with stuff that focuses narrowly one some particular topic or aspect of a historical era: there are narrow books about fashion, art, and the role of paper currency in the French Revolution, but there are surprisingly few options for people who want to find out simply what happened during the French Revolution. So my show is for people looking for an in-depth narrative of events. Hopefully a narrative they can then use as a foundation to go explore those more specialized topics with the broader context already established.

4) What are the most significant challenges you face podcasting?

It’s a never-ending grind. I release episodes on Sunday night and wake up Monday morning with a blank piece of paper. Producing a 30 minute episode takes at least 30 hours of work and there’s just no getting around it: research, write, edit, record, research, write, edit, record, research, write, edit, record. That is my life.

The particular challenge of trying to explain great political revolutions is that these are some of the most insanely chaotic and confusing periods in history. I hate it when things are dumbed down in service to the mistaken belief that people are dense and can’t handle complexity (they’re not and they can), but untangling an incomprehensible knot of events and then re-tying it all back together in a way that makes sense to someone who knows nothing about the topic is incredibly challenging. The Haitian Revolution for example is usually reduced to “It was a slave revolt that succeeded” but that gets to about 5% of what makes the Haitian Revolution so interesting. My job is to give my listeners the other 95% Then after I’ve killed myself (hopefully) explaining the roots of the conflict between the Second Commission and Gov. Galbaud that led to the Burning of Le Cap in June 1793, I have to wake up Monday morning and explain how all that led directly to the emancipation decree of Aug 1793. Research, write, edit, record, research, write, edit, record, research, write, edit, record.

5) How do you decide what topics to discuss each episode?

This thankfully is the easiest part of day. Everything I do is a chronological narrative so the eternal question that hangs over my show is: “What happened next?” 

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