For our Podcasting Week theme, SEMrush didn't just reach out to marketing podcasters; we wanted to speak with content creators outside of our silo as well.
I spoke with Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey, co-hosts of HowStuffWorks.com's popular Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast about common challenges all podcasters face, what it's like to work with big brands, and the future of podcasting.
Phillip Brooks: Congratulations on being named one of the best History Podcasts to Delight Your Brain by Mental Floss. What do you think sets Stuff You Missed in History Class apart in a fairly crowded content stream?
Stuff You Missed in History Class: A ton of credit for our current success goes to the collection of past hosts who worked on the show between 2008 and the early part of 2013. A whole group of amazing women (plus Josh Clark of Stuff You Should Know in the very earliest episodes) broke a lot of ground in terms of figuring out how to approach the show and make it into something that a team of two could research, write and record at a rate of two episodes a week.
You don’t need to have that kind of multiyear history and back catalog to have a successful podcast, but just like revision is an important part of writing, listening to and learning from your own work is an important part of podcasting.
Part of it is that we tend to dig in and look for details on any of the historical events or figures we cover. Even if people have heard of Ethan Allen, for example, they usually don’t know that he was a very early vaccination activist, and was arrested when he had a doctor administer a controlled dose of the smallpox virus to him on the steps of the town meeting house.
PB: How much does being attached to the Discovery brand help your promotion? How much of your editorial direction is influenced by the brand? Is your show tied into any cross-channel promotion strategies?
SYMIHC: We haven’t been with Discovery for more than a year! [Ed. Note: HowStuffWorks was acquired by Blucora in the spring of 2014.]
HowStuffWorks started publishing podcasts after we were acquired by Discovery, and some of the folks who went on to host podcasts were hired as part of staffing goals that came along with that acquisition. So, being part of Discovery definitely did trickle down to being able to launch more podcasts on more subjects.
At the same time, Discovery didn’t have a ton of direct involvement with the podcasts themselves, and a lot of typical listeners never realized the podcasts were part of Discovery, even when they were branded and promoted that way.
When we look at download reports, there’s also not an obvious "That’s where we left Discovery" line in terms of numbers going up or down. So while being part of Discovery definitely shifted a lot of things at HowStuffWorks, it’s hard to quantify how it affected the podcasts specifically.
That being said, we sometimes cross-promote with other podcasts under the HowStuffWorks umbrella, when it seems like a natural fit. Holly guest hosted on Stuff Mom Never Told You when they did an episode on Queen Victoria, and we’ll share episodes, blog posts, etc. from other HSW podcasts on our social when it’s something that would connect to the history audience.
PB: Do you use an editorial calendar to plan topics out in advance? How far out do you plan your shows and subjects?
SYMIHC: Sort of. We record a couple of weeks before publish date, so sometimes we juggle things around if there’s a good fit to align with something along the lines of a historical anniversary, a history month, etc. Sometimes we plan waaaaaaaaay in advance, but there have been times when a topic gets completely thrown out a day before we record and we have to hustle to have another one ready with a short turnaround.
PB: Approximately how much time do you need to do the research and write the content for each episode?
SYMIHC: It usually takes anywhere from eight to 20 hours to prep an episode. Normally we each take the lead on research for an episode each week, so we record two per week. If we were both trying to work on both of them, it would take a lot longer.
PB: You clearly do a lot of research for each podcast. Do you have any opportunities to get first-person information from living sources?
SYMIHC: This year we’ve really been branching out into have a more interviews on the show. This gives us some great opportunities to talk with people with an intimate knowledge of a topic that far exceeds anything we could achieve with our normal research schedule. It also offers us each the opportunity to actually take time off without slowing down the schedule.
PB: You don’t normally feature guests on your podcast, but if there was anyone out there who would be your ideal "get," who would it be?
SYMIHC: Previous hosts have interviewed guests before, but it’s fairly recent for the two of us, so a "get" wishlist hasn’t gotten a whole lot of thought.
Holly would love to have any and all Disney "Imagineers" on the show.
Tracy is tinkering with the idea of interviewing people who lived through or participated in major historical events to get their first-person perspective.
PB: Describe your podcasting setup. Where do you record? Do you have a dedicated space? What are the "must-have" tools for a prospective podcaster?
SYMIHC: The HowStuffWorks offices in Atlanta have dedicated studio space, which is where Holly records. Tracy lives in Boston, so she has a duplicate setup there, and we connect via online conference while we record. For us, the true "must-have" is our amazing producer Noel, who stitches the two recordings together and smooths out the rough spots.
PB: Where do you see podcasting in five years?
SYMIHC: As more and more people start podcasting, there will be something for everyone. This is great in that it means virtually every niche will have something that fits it, but it’s also going to mean that standing out will be more difficult.
It’s likely that many ‘casts are going to start approaching things with additional content across multiple platforms. Many already do this with video, blogs, etc., but as Periscope and similar apps become more common, it’s likely that podcasters will start incorporating them to provide behind-the-mic content and fill out their branding with new ways of listener engagement.
As podcasts become more popular and more widely downloaded, we also foresee more advertisers looking for different ways to approach sponsorships than the standard ad read in the middle of the show.
Thanks to Holly and Tracy for speaking to me. Check out their irreverent (and often hysterical) take on historical events on the Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast, updated twice per week on HowStuffWorks.com.