Historians participate in a lot of conversations about public engagement. Discussions revolve around questions of what it means to engage “the public,” how we should define “the public,” whether authoring op-eds, blog posts, and Twitter threads count as a public history practice, and whether historians do enough to make their work accessible to non-specialists.
These are conversations that interest me as I’m fascinated by the ways historians communicate history. As I discovered during my time working for the National Park Service, history has great power when communicated well. These are also conversations the staff at the Omohundro Institute follow with great interest. Within the office we grapple with how we can best answer the questions these discussions raise because we know it isn’t enough to just support the production of high-quality, ground-breaking scholarship, we also know we have to find effective ways to get that scholarship out into the world where it can be considered and used by society.
One aspect we consider very carefully is the question of audience. We recognize that within the larger conversation about how historians can best reach “the public” with their work, “the public” the profession refers to actually represents many publics. There are many audiences for history and each has different needs, ideas, and preferred methods for engaging with the past and historical interpretations of it. This is why every OI publication has a specific, core audience. Knowing whom we want to reach helps us craft our editorial calendars and edit our publications so we can engage with our respective audiences and stimulate thought and questions among them as effectively as possible.
Like all OI publications, we produce Ben Franklin’s World for a core audience. I designed the podcast to be public-facing. Its aim has always been to make high-quality scholarship and scholarly conversations about early American history accessible to people who have an interest in the past. The people I want to reach are the people I met when I worked as an interpretive ranger at the Boston National Historical Park and those I met when I volunteered at the New York State Museum and Albany Institute of History and Art. These are people who love history, have a keen interest in learning more about it, but aren’t specialists. They often yearn for more knowledge, but don’t know where to find it. They’re people like my fictional podcast avatar, Janet Watkins.
Janet is a 22-year-old pre-med student at the University of Buffalo. At the start of her last semester, her academic advisor informed her she would have to take a history class in order to graduate on time. Janet is very smart and she’s already been accepted to medical school, so she wants to graduate, but she’d really rather not take a history class. In fact, she groans when she discovers that the only history class she can fit into her schedule happens to be a class about early America. My goal each week is to get Janet excited about history by showing her how early America was a fascinating, complicated, and diverse time and place, that our study of it can include so much more than just the pre- and early national origins of the United States, what history can tell us about our own present day, and how historians know what they know about the past, that we have a process for developing our knowledge—as a woman who clearly values the scientific method, I know Janet would appreciate history more if she better understood how historians work.
Knowing whom we want to reach and crafting Ben Franklin’s World to reach Janet means we have become effective in reaching the “Janets” of the world and we’ve built an entire audience of them. In fact, Janet was just a starting point. Now we rely on our knowledge of real listeners to craft each episode because we know their interests and the questions they have about history.
A benefit of tailoring our publications to reach a specific audience has been that all of our publications reach multiple audiences. Ben Franklin’s World successfully reaches its core audience, it also reaches worldwide audiences of graduate students and professional historians who use the podcast to keep up with the latest scholarship, genealogists looking to contextualize their research, and K-12 teachers who use the podcast both in their classrooms and as a way to improve their lesson plans. We’ve also heard from scientists who use the podcast to help them improve and expand how their students think about method and research. We also reach a fairly large audience of podcasters given our serious study of the medium and the high-level of craft we put into each episode.
Ben Franklin’s World has become an important part of the podcast ecosystem. The Omohundro Institute has emerged as a well-respected leader and innovator in independent podcast production. We devote serious time and attention to the study of the medium. We always think about and interrogate why we do what we do, how and why podcasts have developed as an effective method of communication, and what we can do to innovate. Our high-quality production and serious study and knowledge of the “business side” of podcasting has won us a major award (the Academy of Podcasters’ Best History Podcast Award) and led to regular invitations to speak and offer keynote addresses on all facets of our production process and how our knowledge of history relates to and informs those processes at podcast conferences such as Podcast Movement, Podfest, and Sound Education. And these talks have led to great opportunities for us broaden our reach with additional interviews on other podcasts, in print and online publications, and with invitations to become initial participants in the beta tests of new podcast channels such as those offered by the music streaming companies Spotify and Pandora. Each opportunity allows us to meet and reach new audiences and introduce them to early America and our work as both publishers and historians.
I hope historians continue to participate in discussions about public engagement and grapple with the questions they raise. They’re important professional conversations. For my part, I will continue to participate in these discussions on social media and within the OI because they are an important part of helping us think through why and how we do what we do and how we can best reach different publics with early American history.