Last week I was lucky enough to be asked to speak at a workshop hosted by the Medieval Academy of America about Podcasting, and how I go about trying to craft engaging episodes of Ælfgif-who?.
My ten minute long discussion of the topic, in which I talk about why I started Ælfgif-who? and how I make sure what I write is accessible, can be watched on YouTube at the link below. My part begins at 40 minutes in, but the whole session is a really interesting exploration of how to create an engaging episode of a podcast about medieval history. A transcript of my part of the workshop is available below the video link.
Thank you for inviting me to speak and thanks to everybody else who came as well. I’m going to preface this by saying I do have a bit of chest infection so if you do listen to my podcast and you’re thinking ‘that’s not your voice’ thats why, so I will try and get through this without coughing too much.
So if you’d allow me to begin with a bit of a self-indulgent story about how my Substack newsletter and podcast Ælfgif-who? came about… So at the beginning of the third year of my PhD, which as you’ve just heard takes a pretty specialist angle on the liturgical documents surrounding early medieval queenship and coronations, I experienced a bout of unexpected chronic illness and that left me basically housebound and mostly bedbound, unable to put any thoughts into a straight line at all, and obviously I had to take some time off the thesis.
So when I returned to my academic work after some slight health improvements, we were now slap bang in the middle of a pandemic and – not to be dramatic but - my entire philosophy on academic work had changed in that period.
I think there’s something about constant existential threat that is weirdly clarifying. So I was simply no longer content to pour my now extremely limited energy into my work, to only have two already very expert people read it. My thinking now was basically that if everything I spend my time doing is now a negotiation with my own health, that my research needs to feel more worthwhile than it was. And also I think 15 months of being housebound and then locked down had left me feeling desperate for community, so I was ready to reach out.
So from the beginning of Ælfgif-who?, basically the entire point was accessibility. In every sense of that word. It emerged out of a health crisis, both a personal health crisis and also a global health crisis. Disability access was very acutely in my mind when I started it. But it also emerged from the desire to make the information I was able to gather about history, as a historian, through my own privilege of having had an academic education and perhaps even more importantly having institutional access to academic publications – that most people would not even know where to begin looking for this information.
These aspirations probably sound quite lofty – at the time they really. weren’t I started a newsletter/podcast about medieval women in the period and area I work on – England in the early medieval period. The biographies are free to access, and they will remain free though I do provide some paywalled content just to pay the bills, but it’s set at the lowest price possible so I’m thinking about accessibility with that. My aim was to make it to 100 subscribers. That’s not 100 people from my academic field (I think there’s probably not 100 people in my academic field!) but that’s 100 people who otherwise wouldn’t know much about early medieval women if they hadn’t heard my podcast. I set that goal two years ago when I started the publication, and today my subscriber list now stands at precisely 29,191 people.
I’m not just telling you that because I’m bragging although I am very very proud of those numbers, but I believe that the popularity of Ælfgif-who? is directly due to setting accessibility as my main goal from Day 1. And so I guess accessibility is what I want to focus on today.
“Ælfgif-who?”, the name of the podcast, is a pun on the fact that in the eleventh century just about every single English woman was called Ælfgifu, they had no imagination whatsoever, every woman was called this. I remember when I was doing my undergraduate degree feeling distinctly like I just never wanted to ever research this period ever again because all the Old English names, the Ælfgifus, the Ælfwyns, the Æthelstans, Æethelreds, etc etc, were very confusing and I didn’t get what was going on. I suppose when I started the newsletter I was attempting to tap into that feeling of coming to the period afresh, confused and scared. So when I created the name that’s what I was channelling. And I also think it was a pretty good pun.
So once I had my concept, which was short biographies of women who lived in England in this period, or groups of women as well, I had to choose a platform. From the off I was pretty set on using Substack, specifically because this platform gave you the ability to write a post and then attach a podcast to that post. So I really wanted every instalment of the newsletter to have a text and an audio component which were as identical as possible, so that each one would be equally accessible to people with visual impairments, people who are hard of hearing, people who experience auditory processing issues. I’d just spent months lying in a dark room struggling to look at anything for a very long period to fatigue so having the combination of text and audio was really important to me. That means that my podcast episodes for the most part are scripted, which means they’re not off-the-cuff, relaxed or free-flowing. Which is a compromise, obviously I think both approaches have their good points and bad points, but I think the compromise is worth it for what I want to achieve specificially.
I think that considering who your audience is, which we’ve touched on already, is probably the most important factor in crafting a good podcast episode. I wanted to aim my podcast at intelligent, curious adults, who are interested in history, but who probably have little to no academic history training and who might not know anything about the period in question. Luckily I do know a lot of people who fit that demographic, so I often write with a particular person in mind – like a friend or family member. What I was very careful not to do is to fall into the trap of talking down to my audience. Never ever assume your audience is unintelligent just because they don’t have the same knowledge as you.
I have turned off many a history documentary in the past because I’ve felt the presenter was trying to trick me into finding history interesting by contriving to make it cool or relatable. My philosophy is that anyone I have to persuade that learning about history or women in history is interesting, they have not signed up to my publication in the first place. They are not there, they are not my audience. You can assume that your audience has a certain degree of enthusiasm built in already, I think.
But at the same time I think you need to be constantly aware of what knowledge base your audience might have. I ask myself when writing every single sentence, and I’m not exaggerating here, will my audience have the knowledge to understand this? If I talk about for example hagiography as a genre, a form of literature about the lives of saints, do I have to define that term? Can I use another term that’s less specialist, less off-putting? Can I assume my audience know who Charlemagne is for example. What about Alfred the Great? If I quote a primary source from the period, will I need to find a modern translation? If I do find a translation, is it from the late Victorian period and too archaic, so can I provide a better one. Etc etc etc. I do this with every sentence I write and these are questions that I am constantly asking as I prepare my script. I think of my audience, imagining that subscriber who I feel represents my audience, and I try to tap into what I knew when I approached the topic for the first time – or even just imagining that I am approaching somebody else’s specialism and what I would know about that and then trying to create the equivalent.
I think that the best advice I have ever come across, and I can’t remember exactly who said it so I do apologise but it was probably a tweet actually, is never to write with a bad faith reader in mind (I have now found the tweet, click to see it). You always need to write for your most enthusiastic, most interested subscriber, who loves what you do. The minute you start writing for this reader in your head who will tear apart everything you say, or god forbid you’re writing for the most respected expert in your field who might be looking to disagree with you or catch you out, you’re not gonna produce good writing, you’re not gonna produce a good podcast. You will tie yourself in knots hedging every sentence and including far too much reasoning and information - and let’s be honest that’s what academic writing is for, that’s not what the podcast is for. By all means cite the scholars whose work you use, provide reading suggestions if you want, quote other authorities, give credit where credit is due definitely. But if you are speaking or writing for a public audience you have to trust yourself that the way you’ve processed the information is reasoned and valid and is coming from a knowledgeable, sensible perspective. If you don’t trust your own expertise, how can you expect your readers to trust your expertise?
I think that once you have produced something that your audience is capable of understanding, they know why you’ve said what you’ve said, you’ve provided your reasoning, you’ve argued it out, they trust your judgement, it’s kind of in their hands. You can’t make someone fall in love with your obscure specialism. You can only hand people the ingredients to understand your obscure specialism. If you can do this, I guarantee some people with fall in love with it, and you’ll end up with a community of dozens, hundreds, in my case even thousands of people who are all enthusiastic about what you’re enthusiastic about. But they have to be able to access it in the first place is what I will say.
Sorry that wasn’t too specific, that was more of a philosophical treatise on public history but that’s what I have to say. Thanks.
There is so much excellent wisdom here. The section about not writing for bad-faith readers - that is so easy to forget, and I think there's a point when I am writing every single newsletter of mine where I forget it and have a "oh goddddd" moment and have to fight the urge to immediately go camping and sit in a tent for three days, rocking back and forth & screaming. So important. So, thank you for the reminder there. I might get it as a tattoo.
Also: 29k subscribers is absolutely mad in the best of ways. Richly deserved, and also *bonkers*. Wild applause.
Thank you for these words of wisdom! As a budding medievalist who just started graduate school, I'm neck deep in the academic world of historical jargon that is unfamiliar to me and arguments in journals I can't seem to follow. I've loved your newsletter because its expertly and professionally done, but in a way that I can understand and learn from. I appreciate your intentions and dedication to ensure your research and writing is accessible to your audience. Thank you!