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150 million and counting

Some podcasts are more successful than others. One such is the HistoryExtra Podcast which has just celebrated a couple of big milestones. James Evelegh looks at the reasons behind its success.

By James Evelegh

150 million and counting
The Tudors are a perennial favourite on the HistoryExtra podcast.

In late spring 2007, Dave Musgrove, the then editor of BBC History magazine was about to do something he’d done countless times before. He was about to interview a prominent historian for an article in the magazine – on this occasion, Professor Ian Kershaw, a leading authority on Nazi Germany.

The only difference this time was that he would also record an audio version of the interview, because “he’d heard talk of this podcast thing”.

‘Let’s put it out and see what happens’, seemed to be the strategy.

So, Kershaw’s thoughts on “Hitler’s seemingly unfathomable move to declare war on America in 1941” went out in both the June 2007 issue of the magazine and as their first ever podcast.

This first episode started with a long trailer for all the goodies in the June 2007 issue (“on sale in all good newsagents”), which in addition to the Kershaw interview, included “the real story of what went on in Roman amphitheatres” and a “consideration of the British sense of humour over the last three centuries”.

Dave then encouraged anyone who might be listening to “feel free to give us your thoughts on the interview and whether you’d like to hear more of these podcasts in the future”.

There then followed a fascinating, albeit with slightly ropey sound quality, eighteen minute interview with Kershaw.

Despite the slightly iffy audio of the first episode, audience feedback was positive, and what started out as a monthly podcast primarily to promote the contents of the next issue of the magazine has morphed into a hugely productive operation, releasing new episodes almost daily. Whilst conceived as a marketing tool to build reach for the HistoryExtra brand, it is now a monetisable platform in its own right, making money through ads, sponsorship and its participation in Apple Podcast Subscriptions.

In June, the HistoryExtra podcast celebrated twin milestones – its fifteen birthday and 150 million downloads.

So, what can other publishers learn from their success? Here are seven (history) lessons:

  1. Have an evergreen and bottomless pool of content which has global appeal. For HistoryExtra, ‘medieval’ always does well, as do the Tudors and the two world wars. But the scope is immense. When a UK publisher can put out a successful episode on medieval Ethiopia, you know they’re never going to run short of material.
  2. Get the basics right. People are lending you their ear, so it’s important to invest in the right tech and in time spent with the interviewee. A simple thing like running through an audio check list with the interviewee makes all the difference. The checklist needs to be thorough – don’t expect the interviewee to know that their squeaky chair / jangly jewellery / tendency to pen click are going to spoil the listening experience; you need to tell them.
  3. Find a formula and frequency and stick with it, but make sure it’s sustainable. Regularity is key, as the audience needs to know when to expect you. Find a format you can do; to that end it is advisable, especially in the early days, to keep it simple.
  4. Play to your strengths. For the HistoryExtra team, the podcast was an extension of what they were doing anyway: interviewing eminent historians. Adding an audio dimension to an interview was something the editorial team could easily handle and wouldn’t scare off the interviewees.
  5. Make the content the star. Celebrity and personality driven podcasts can have limited lifespans and are obviously dependent on the presenters retaining their appeal and sticking around. Scroll through the HistoryExtra catalogue of podcasts and there’s not a presenter’s name in sight, just the enticing subject matter, which when I recently checked, included, ‘Tutankhamun: Egypt in the era of the boy king’, ‘The Peasants’ Revolt: everything you wanted to know’ and ‘On the streets of 19th-century London’.
  6. Spread the load. The HistoryExtra Podcast is not one person but a range of voices. There is a small team of full-time producers and editors, but the interviewing is spread amongst the whole HistoryExtra editorial team, a roster of about ten people. Having a lot of people involved is the nub of their success. Rather than swamping one or two people, it becomes a manageable and fun part of a relatively large number of people’s jobs.
  7. Keep it fresh. Over the years, HistoryExtra has introduced new formats, for instance the popular ‘everything you want to know about…’ series which involves the audience submitting questions ahead of time about a given subject (eg the Black Death) and a panel then being assembled to answer the questions. They are also getting into multi-part narrative series and experimenting with shorter form podcasting.

Given that the HistoryExtra podcast celebrated its 100 millionth download just last year, it is clearly experiencing exponential growth.

A good episode, says Dave, who is now content director, history, at Immediate Media and still closely involved with the podcasts, will typically get between 100-200k downloads.

Since there are six or seven episodes released each week, there is a good chance of them hitting the 200 million download mark by the end of the year. What a lovely position to be in.

You can hear Dave Musgrove being interviewed by James Evelegh on a recent episode of The InPublishing Podcast, which was sponsored by Air Business, a leading supplier of distribution and subscription management services.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.