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I had a chance to interview Deblina Chakraborty and Sarah Dowdey about their fantastic podcasts.
HT: As you know, I’m a big fan of your history podcasts. The two of you keep me company nearly every morning while I’m on the treadmill. Could you tell me more about how the show first came together and a sense of who your listeners are?
SD: The podcast started back in 2008 as a way to repurpose all the history articles being written at the time at HowStuffWorks.com. Since then, it’s changed titles, formats and hosts. I joined the show in 2009 and paired up with Deblina the next year. Our listeners are a diverse group! We hear from history professionals and students, of course, but also from enthusiastic history buffs of all ages. There’s a large international listenership made up of Peace Corps volunteers, military, people who are interested in hearing a different take on their own country’s history, and folks who listen to practice their English. Most are probably a bit like you, though: They like to listen while they run, drive, or work.
HT: Sarah, I can tell in the podcasts that you’re a Francophile. (Who else would do an entire series on the Bourbon kings!) Tell me more about your French interests.
SD: Funny enough, Deblina actually kicked off the Bourbon series due to a fascination with Henri IV’s recently identified head. But I do love covering French history, probably for a similar reason — it seems to combine glamour with unrest, fashion with the macabre. There’s an appealing contradiction that interests me and engages different types of listeners — people who love queens and missing jewels, as well as those who love poisons and missing heads.
Holly Tucker: Deblina, what are you most fascinated by?
Deblina Chakraborty: I’m fascinated by so many things — it’s probably no secret that I have a thing for spies and true crime stories. Lately, though, I can’t seem to get enough of science-related history. That probably stems from the fact that I come from a family of science nerds, and that the stories are often so deliciously unexpected. We tend to think of science as this really rational, empirical subject, but its history is often filled with mystery, intrigue and adventure, as well as characters who are passionate, quirky and at the end of the day, devastatingly human.
HT: If you had to pick your favorite episode or series of episodes, which would it be? And why?
Sarah Dowdey: My favorite episodes are the ones where I got completely caught up in the research process. “The Shipwreck that Saved Jamestown” is an old-time favorite: a harrowing shipwreck, early American colonists, a Shakespeare connection, and money with wild pigs on it! More recently, I really enjoyed putting together “The Rite of Spring Riot.” It was all about one night — the 1913 premiere of the ballet — but it featured three different biographies and a whole lot of background on the Ballets Russes. Plus, how often do you get to insert a bassoon clip into a podcast?
DC: One of the first episodes I researched — “Who was the real Sherlock Holmes?” — is still one of my favorites, probably because I love uncovering the real stories behind fictional characters and events (which are often even more fascinating than the works they inspired). I also got a bit of a research high while putting together “A Tale of False Dmitry,” a podcast about a 17th century Russian imposter. False Dmitry’s story of pretending to be the long-lost son of Ivan the Terrible and actually managing to usurp the Russian throne is so outrageous and implausible by today’s standards, it’s hard not to get hooked.
HT: I’m always so impressed by the research and preparation that has to go into every episode. How do you decide what to cover? And once you decide, how do you go about putting the show together?
SD: We draw very heavily from listener suggestions. Sometimes it’s just one person with a really compelling pitch; other times, there’s such a demand for a particular topic (Lizzie Borden!), we feel we have to cover it. We also draw on what we’re reading and watching, and we try to tie into anniversaries and things going on the world. To work, though, the topic has to be interesting to us — something we’ve realized really comes across in our research and even our voices. It also has to be accessible. We don’t have a research budget, so we rely on our public libraries and online sources (especially Galileo, with its subscriptions to databases like ProQuest and EBSCOhost). I think people are sometimes surprised by how quickly we choose a topic and start researching, but with two episodes a week, it’s important we don’t have too many false starts. Finally, a topic has to be contained. We can’t handle an episode like “How the Civil War Worked,” so we hone in on 20-minute stories, like “The Death of Stonewall Jackson.” Once we’ve picked a topic and gathered sources, we make a really detailed outline. That allows us to remember the names, dates and story arc we’re going for but still have some flexibility and room for tangents when we record with our producer Lizzy. After we’re done, we experience “podcast relief” and quickly get back to our day-to-day work: editing articles!
HT: So inquiring minds want to know…what’s on tap for upcoming shows? And how can readers get in touch with you for show ideas?
SD: Though they’re always ongoing, we’ll certainly crank up topics for Black History Month and Women’s History Month. To mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, we’ve already featured series on wartime spies, as well as Civil War doctors and nurses, so we’ll probably look for a new angle there. Listeners can find us on Twitter @MissedinHistory and on Facebook, or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.