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To Sound Education, With Love

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

I suspected I was in a good place last month when I attended the Sound Education conference at Harvard University immediately after I entered Andover Hall. I was greeted by two faces only familiar to me through their twitter personas, Ryan Stitt of The History of Ancient Greece and Aven McMaster of The Endless Knot. They swept me up into their cohort and any worries I had about spending the day alone were put to rest. As audio podcasters, we spend a lot of our time hidden behind microphones, appearing as disembodied voices in the ears of our listeners. It has never been lost on me that a good portion of Footnoting History's listeners quite possibly do not know, or care, what I look like. This is a comforting thought when I am recording in my pajamas, but not so much when I am attending an event where I am meant to socialize with people I only know by voice, so I was incredibly relieved to meet up with online friends so quickly.

It was cemented in my mind that Sound Education was a special conference during the opening talks. They filled me with pride about being a longstanding part of this community of people who educate through podcasting, but one idea from a specific talk has remained etched into my mind:

Education should not be about indoctrination, it should be about inspiration.

This was spoken by Diane Moore, director of the Religious Literacy Project at the Harvard School of Divinity. It summed up so much about my personal podcasting philosophy that I could have interrupted the talk and hugged her right then. I have been rather outspoken about my belief that you reach more people when you don't preach at them. There is room for every kind of podcasting approach out there, and an audience for everything, but the audience I want to reach is a broad one, and I believe in doing it by presenting them the information in a (hopefully) entertaining, clear-cut fashion is the best way to make them want to learn more. If the feedback I have received over the last 5+ years is any indication, I have not been wrong.

That one sentiment stuck with me so much I text Elizabeth (Footnoting History's producer, who was to present with me the next day) to tell her how excited I was for her to join me and be immersed in a place where podcasting for the betterment of listeners was everyone's goal. The remainder of the first day was spent attending panels on topics like audience growth, forming community, and tactics for teaching history, and punctuated by a hearty meal at a local pub with other hosts. Then I was off to pick up Elizabeth, prepare for the second day, and sort out all I had absorbed in just twenty-four hours.

Dining with the hosts of Endless Knot, History of English, History of Ancient Greek, and Scientific Odyssey at Sound Education

Presenting at Sound Education was a wonderful experience. Elizabeth and I talked to a room of current podcasters, podcast enthusiasts, and potential podcasters about why we use current events to bring attention to historical ones through connections that might not initially be apparent. (We specifically focused on the influx of listeners we had when we released an episode tying American Meghan Markle marrying British Prince Harry to the time future American President John Quincy Adams married English-born Louisa Johnson. You can find the episode and notes from our talk here.) It was as much a conversation as it was a presentation, and we were happy when attendees lingered long enough to talk to us that we had to take our discussions into the hall to allow the room to be used by others.

Of course Sound Education was not some sort of podcasting nirvana. It raised myriad questions which every podcaster answered differently, and although I never even saw people nearly argue, you could tell how far apart their perspectives were just by listening. Some of the questions that caused disparate answers (pertaining mostly to history, my main interest) included:

  • Who is qualified to educate through podcasting history?

  • How long should a podcast be?

  • Do you need to release a podcast regularly?

  • Who is the audience for a history podcast, and what level of knowledge should you expect them to have?

  • What are the benefits and drawbacks to accepting advertisers?

  • Can a podcast's "community" exist solely on the internet?

  • How do you measure success and what constitutes a large listener base?

I still find myself mulling over these. They pop into my mind in no particular order on any given night. Some of my answers have changed over time, but admittedly not many of them. As I have said here, I believe consistency is important, in duration as well as release schedule. I believe you should view your audience as smart, but not necessarily in the topic about which you are talking: give them the background, but don't be condescending when you do. I have mixed feelings about advertising, but a firm belief that someone with a PhD might be a horrible history podcaster where someone with a BA might be brilliant, or the reverse. Being educated and being a good storyteller (as that is what podcasters are, at heart) are two different things. The ideal podcaster, in my opinion, is someone who both does their best to master their topic before presenting it to the world and is then able to do the presenting in an entertaining fashion. Not everyone agrees with me on this, and maybe it isn't important that they do.

This is why an event like Sound Education is so important. If you accept you are an educator, you are welcome there. PhDs and BAs and people without degrees mingle as much as independent podcasters and those with institutional or corporate backing. Some people are fortunate enough to work with entire teams and have a salary while others dream of that and still more have no interest in being full-time podcasters. Questions were raised, personalities mixed, and there was not a person there who could not benefit from listening to the others in the room.

I am certain I left the conference a better podcaster than I was when I went in. For example, without Audioboom's panel on audience growth, I never would have thought to add a page to Footnoting History's website teaching people How to Listen to a podcast. There is always room to grow, and I am thankful that Sound Education is seeking to provide a vibrant space for this to happen.

Being in the Cambridge area for Sound Education was not just enjoyable because it gave me an opportunity to attend a stimulating conference and spend face-to-face time with Elizabeth. It was also delightful because it enabled Elizabeth and I to further our understanding of the lives of John Quincy and Louisa Adams. The day after Sound Education ended, we took the short drive to Quincy, Massachusetts to visit Adams National Historical Park. In what was a trend this weekend, we immediately found delightful people: please consider this my shout out to the employees at the Visitor Center (particularly the gentleman who bonded with us over our mutual love of JQA and Louisa, he was the best!) and the tour guides at the John and John Quincy birthplaces as well as at Peacefield.

Elizabeth and I looking toward the future with John Adams in Quincy, MA

I am a big proponent of visiting historical sites when the opportunity arises. It is all well and good to read about people and places, or to hear about them on podcasts (two things which you should, of course, do) but there is truly something special about standing in the same spot as a historical figure. There was a gentleman on our tour who informed me that he had waited twenty years to be able to come to Quincy and visit these locations. My historian heart grew ten sizes knowing how much this visit meant to him. (I may have put him on the spot by asking if he was there more for John or JQA, and he looked at me as though this was Sophie's Choice and could not marry himself to a preference, which I understood.) Taking the tour as someone who podcasted on one of the very people who lived within the walls where we stood was exciting, because I was there as much as a "fan" as I was as a historian. Meeting this gentleman sparked in me the hope that people are visiting historical sites because their interest was raised by an episode of Footnoting History. If our episodes awaken something in a listener, or even make them think more about a topic hitherto unfamiliar to them, we have done our job.

The only negative thing I could possibly say about our visit to Quincy is that it was too short, much like the conference. Alas, we were unable to tour the beautiful church where John and Abigail, and JQA and Louisa are interred because Elizabeth had a flight to catch. Yet, in some respects even this is a good thing, because as we drove to the airport Elizabeth and I were already planning the things we would do there on our next trip to Massachusetts, since if Sound Education will have us again in 2019, you can bet we will be there...and I hope you will, too.


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