Beyond Academia

Q&A: The Age of Jackson Podcast

Daniel N. Gullotta is a historian of Christianity, particularly interested in the history of North American Christianity and Biblical interpretation. He is currently a Ph.D. student in Religious Studies at Stanford University, specializing in American Religious History. His scholarship, for the most part, is focused on 18th and 19th century American Christianity. You can follow him on twitter at @DanielGullotta and The Age of Jackson Podcast at @AgeofJacksonPod 

  1. Tell us a little about your background 

I was born in Australia, on the Sunshine Coast. I did my undergraduate study of the Australian Catholic University before transferring to St. Paul’s Theological College to begin my training to become an Anglican priest. While the ministry didn’t work out for me, I was still absorbed by the study of religion and its role in shaping human history. Eventfully, I found myself dating an American woman, my future wife, and this got me into United States history with all its complex religious underpinning. Before I had been studying the ancient world, with all its gaps in the record and missing pieces from the archives, but understanding American history opened up a world of possibilities. After moving to the U.S., I was accepted into Yale University’s Divinity School in their M.A.R. program, sharpening my focus on the Jacksonian era due to my interest in the Second Great Awakening. Now, I am a Ph.D. student at Stanford University and my current research is centered on Andrew Jackson as a mythic figure, a symbol to be rallied around, and the devotion expressed by his followers.

2. Where did the idea for The Age of Jackson Podcast come from?

I am an enthusiastic devotee of audiobooks and podcasts, but I noticed a gap in the podcasting market related to the early American republic. There were so many podcasts about the American Revolution, the Civil War, and recent American history, but the late 18th and early 19th century was just completely missing. I wanted to correct this, so I figured I would throw my hat in the ring and provide a service to the public and to the profession. Additionally, thanks to the rise of Donald Trump, Andrew Jackson had found his way into the spotlight again, along with a lot of commentary on his era from people who frankly did not know what they were talking about on both sides of the political aisle. As for the name, while it is very fashionable to bash Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s The Age of Jackson (with good reason in some cases) it holds a place in my heart, so the name is a nod to that work, as well being an easy marketable catchall for the podcast’s period of interest.

3. What’s the ‘behind the scenes’ of an episode? 

Thankfully things have gotten a bit easier because publishers and authors now know about the podcast, so they are soliciting me for interviews with their forthcoming titles. But normally I go onto Amazon or Google and see what works based in the Jacksonian era are coming out, and I then send the author an email asking if they would like to do an interview with me. These are normally done over Skype or over the phone. The publishers, all of which have been wonderful and amazingly supportive, send me a publicity copy of the book in question and I try and read as much as I can to ensure a fruitful interview. I draw up about ten or so questions, sending them to my guest in advance so they can prepare. I schedule an interview for about a week or two after the book has been read and the questions are ready. It can be a bit chaotic because I am a student first and foremost, so my own work comes first. I typically do a bit of editing over the weekend and have the episodes ready for release on a Friday (apart from the ‘History of History’ episodes, which are released on a Monday). Finding someone to talk about a landmark study in the field is not always easy because you are asking someone to give up their time to talk about a book they didn’t write, which is why I am so grateful to the historians who have partaken in those episodes. While the learning curve on the production side of things was rough and the set up wasn’t exactly cheap, things are getting easier now and far more streamlined.

4. Who did you think your audience would be, and was this prediction accurate?

I wasn’t sure, to be honest, because the name “Andrew Jackson” can a really popularizing one. I figured they would be people interested in history, but who similarly wanted to know what happened after the American Revolution but before the Civil War. My biggest hope was that students would find it and that it would help them or get them more interested. What has been so gratifying so far is how many undergraduates have tuned in and emailed me, asking for more recommendations or just thanking me for an interview I did. A few high school teachers and college professors have also played parts of interviews in their classrooms, which still blows me away. It is a really humbling experience, but really exciting as well!

5. Why do you think history podcasts are so popular?

While I can’t speak for all podcasts, for me, I think the answer is twofold. For starters, the truth really is stranger than fiction at times. The amazing feats of passion, the depths of depravity, the courage under fire, the whirlwind romances, the bitter wars, and so on. History has all of that stuff and more, and it’s all true. It all actually happened. It is always a great experience telling people some a wild historical account and then smiling say, “You can’t make this stuff up.” But on a more serious note, I think it is because people want to know the through lines of history from the past to the present.  People want to know how did we get here, why do we do these things, and why does this stuff matter?

6. Do you think history podcasts can successfully bridge the gap between popular and scholarly audiences—and, if yes, what do you think is so accessible about the format?

I think podcasts are one bridge among many. Podcasts are accessible, I think, because they are more conversational, giving them a personal touch. They are often expressed in a way that allows people from all backgrounds to engage. I often tell my guests, “don’t assume the audience knows this stuff and if they do, they would probably love to hear your version of it.” But as a practical means of educational consummation, they can be enjoyed while you’re driving, cooking, exercising, or whatever. I do most of my listening on my commute to school or while I am doing chores. But podcasts are just one means, there are also the MOOCs like the ones offered by edX and Coursea, there are the Great Courses, and so many universities are recording lecture events or even whole classes like the Open Yale Courses. Also, more and more academic books are being turned into audiobooks as well, which is something I would love to see more academic utilize and promote. Not to mention all the free resources their local library or museum probably has. My friend Jason Herbert has now started Historians at the Movies on Twitter (#HATM), where we watch movies as a group and comment on their historical accuracy, their themes, offer book recommendations, or just comment on the movie from a historian’s perspective. While a podcast cannot replace a classroom, or subtle for reading a book cover to cover, I am in favor of anything that gets people engaged in learning.

7. What role do you think podcasts play in scholarly communities?

One of great things about the Age of Jackson Podcast on my end has been how supportive my colleagues have been. Everyone has been cheering on its success and participating in it by listening to the episodes. For me personally, the podcast has been a great networking tool, as I have come into direct contact with so many scholars I had admired from a distance or people who I have been delighted to learn more about. But now I am starting to get recognized as well. At one conference I had someone come up to me and ask if I was the host of the Age of Jackson Podcast. I was only about 16 episodes in, so I was just delighted anyone was listening. Ultimately, within in the scholarly community, podcasting is a service to the profession and the public, it is an expression of one’s dedicated to education.

8. What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a podcast?

Find a gap in the market that plays to your strengths. Don’t just be ‘another history podcast’ or ‘another politics podcast.’ Offer something only you can offer. For example, while I am alone in the Jacksonian period for the time being, as a historian of religion, I ask my guests a lot of questions about religious subjects that often don’t get discussed in other interviews. Do something to stand out from the crowd. But I would only recommend this to people who have the time and the resources. Podcasting can be very time consuming and very expensive in the beginning, so be prepared for that. Also, always be thinking about your audience because it’s not about you, it is about them. Besides that, something I wish I had was a bit more help, so I think finding a partner to work with would be a good idea as well. Beyond that, make sure you have fun.

Make sure you listen and subscribe to The Age of Jackson Podcast on iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcasts!