Digital Publishing
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Lessons from award-winning podcasts: History Extra Podcast’s Dave Musgrove

The winner of the Specialist category in the 2020 Publisher Podcast Awards was the History Extra Podcast from the BBC History Magazine by Immediate Media. We asked Dave Musgrove, Content Director, Science and History at Immediate Media, to share some of his insights into what has made the History Extra Podcast so successful.

We’ll be releasing audio excerpts in a special Media Voices episode in August, as well as full transcripts from all the winners at a later date. For now, here are the edited highlights…

Launching

There was no strategy, I’ll be honest, because it was a long time ago when we launched this podcast, back in June 2007. I was editing BBC History magazine, which was the print brand from which the podcast was launched. I must have heard someone else do a podcast – obviously they weren’t the thing that they are now back then – and I thought, well, that sounds that sounds pretty good.

I knew that I was going to be interviewing a fairly famous historian in the next week or so. I thought, well surely I can just record that and make a podcast, and I didn’t really give it any further thought than that. 

Interviews

History podcasting has been a big area of podcasting; people want to be educated as much as anything else. We don’t make people work too hard when they’re listening to it, it’s just a conversation with people. It was like, well okay, this guy’s interesting, he’s done decades of research on this, he knows what he’s talking about. Let’s just let him talk.

We do need people who can really communicate well, who really can allow their subject to speak, or allow their topic to speak, in a way that’s engaging and interesting. Working in the field that we are, history media, history publishing, there has definitely been a trend in the last few years of people who are popular historians getting much more savvy about this.

Sometimes we will speak to someone who is a practising academic historian who’s not really in the popular sphere, but maybe they’ve just got a really interesting topic that they’ve been researching. We have to try and tee them up a bit and just explain a bit more about what we’re trying to do. And maybe that means there’s a bit more editing that’s required.

Workflow

If you’re starting from scratch, you can’t be suddenly saying, right, we’re going to spend a day a week producing this podcast if there’s no immediate opportunity of return. But I think there’s this idea that anyone is working in a magazine publishing environment, that they will have the contacts, they will be doing basically podcasts within the work, they just need to record it and be able to find a format that meets their audience expectations.

Episode planning

We don’t want it to be a direct reflection, or just a regurgitation, of what’s in the magazine. So if there’s someone who’s really good in the magazine, then we’ll tap them up and see if they want to have a chat with us.

I get quite a lot of leads from Twitter actually. There’s a lot of really active historians on Twitter, and if they’re on Twitter, that suggests they have a certain level of popular engagement that might be useful to us. But quite a lot is coming from book publishing as well. People have got new books, obviously they are keen to be able to talk about them, and that’s always been useful to us.

Print vs Podcast

It’s always been produced by the editorial teams, the print editorial teams, so it’s always been very closely related in style and tone to the magazines.

Its massive benefit has always been as a big marketing tool for us to reach out to new audiences as well as give our existing audiences a little bit of extra, a slightly different media source for them to enjoy our content. We drop in subscription messages every now and then. We try not to be too heavy handed about it; if there’s a really good offer or something we really want to flag up, then we’re not afraid to put it in and shout about it.

We’re quite big in the States. And a lot of our audience comes from people who’ve listened to the podcast. I get a lot of contact from people saying, ‘I listen to your podcast, this is the first time I’ve heard of your magazine, and I really like it, so I chose to subscribe, or bought in Barnes and Noble or whatever.’

Added value

There is obviously a difference between the written voice and the spoken voice, I think you can get a lot out of reading a feature, but there will be something extra that they can add to it if they are talking about it as well.

I think that is quite important to people, that they like to know that it’s not just a sort of faceless entity behind the stuff they’re reading, they like to know who it is and also, maybe we’ll ask a few more slightly flippant questions or something like that that will be a bit more revealing.

Frequency and lockdown

So here we are in the throes of corona, and obviously, that means that everyone’s trying to do stuff that’s going to appeal to the lockdown audience and give them something else. We just figured that well, the one thing that we can do is do more of these podcasts. So I’ve introduced something which is a bit different.

Most of our podcasts have just been very straight, we find an interesting historian, we chat to them and we let them speak about their research. But we’ve dropped in a much more Q&A-based one. This is culling questions from our Twitter feed – We just put a shout out saying, ‘Tomorrow I’m going to speak to this guy about Roman Britain. What do you want to know about it?’ 

It’s a bit more educational, I suppose potentially useful for people who are homeschooling, but also enabling us to put out something on a Sunday, which is quite useful.

Recording

We’ve got our own studio set up with standard recording kit in there.

Quite a lot of our podcasts are out and about so particularly for history, we’ll often be going to historian’s houses or to museums. We don’t tend to do so much by way of walking around a castle with a historian, I don’t think we’re quite good enough in terms of outside broadcast to pull that off. But we will often record our conversations in someone else’s study or something like that, so we have the portable kit to do that. 

At the moment, obviously, we’re doing things very differently. I mean we are literally under a blanket. But we’ve worked out quite a nice system – we send out mics and recorders to interviewees. We’re getting them couriered out then recording three-way; they record, I record, and then I record a conversation over the VOIP on the computer. So we’ve got three recordings that we splice together, which gives us pretty decent audio. It wasn’t my idea, it was my podcasts guys who came up with it, but it seems to work.

Evolution

I think there is scope to do a bit more season or series type material. All our podcasts tend to float around, we cover one topic and then a completely different topic. I think probably we could settle down and do a week on the Vikings or something, particularly if we could tie in with a Netflix producer or if the BBC does a big series.

I do think there is probably something in the live events idea, just gathering some interesting historians in the room, and recording something a bit more conversational. Possibly a bit more current affairs based might be interesting. So you know, what’s going on in the world, and giving the historical perspective? That’s possibly somewhere there’s a bit of a gap.

Advice on starting up

I’d definitely say just keep it simple. Come up with a format that works.

And you’ve got to commit to doing it. There’s no point just doing one and then saying, ah that didn’t really work, or it was really hard work, or it wasn’t as good as I wanted it to be. You’ve got to commit to doing it for either a season, or to say we’re definitely going to do it every week, every fortnight. Establish some frequency and commit to doing it. You need to give it some time to grow, and to find its voice.

If you come at it from the print perspective, then I think you might need to just moderate your expectations a bit about what you’re able to do, and just deliver something that fits in with your editorial brand values.

If you’ve got people who are up for doing a roundtable type thing then go with that. If you’ve got people you think you could interview then go with that. Or, if there’s an entirely different way of approaching it, then fine. But just make sure that whatever it is, you can actually do on a regular basis without it being a massive imposition on your working day.

The History Extra team at the Publisher Podcast Awards in March

Republished with kind permission of Media Voices, a weekly look at all the news and views from across the media world

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