Liz Covart is the creator and host of Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History, winner of the Best History Podcast Award in 2017. As the Digital Projects Editor at the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Liz practices a blend of scholarly history, public history, and digital humanities. While the OI’s primary focus is supporting scholars and scholarship related to early America, broadly understood, Liz experiments with social and new media to communicate scholarly history to large public audiences. She believes if granted convenient access to the work of historians, the public will take an interest in history and become interested in it. Liz earned her Ph.D. in History from the University of California, Davis.
For more information visit: lizcovart.com
Q: Tell us a little about your background.
I’m a professional historian of early America who seeks to connect people with history so they better understand who they are and how they came to be who they are. I’ve done this in several ways over the course of my career.
Between 2001 and 2005, I worked as an interpretive ranger with the Boston National Historical Park where I engaged park visitors in discussions about the American Revolution, the Battle of Bunker Hill, and how we remember both in the Bunker Hill Monument, which was the first major monument to commemorate the American Revolution.
Today, I seek to connect people with history through my Twitter account (@lizcovart) and through my weekly podcast Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History. I started the podcast independently in 2014 and today I produce it as the Digital Projects Editor for the Omohundro Institute, an organization that has led in the innovation and publication of early American historical scholarship for more than 75 years.
Q: Where did the idea for Ben Franklin’s World come from?
History tells us who we are and how we came to be who we are. I created Ben Franklin’s World because I thought podcasts seemed like a great way to communicate history. Plus, I loved listening to podcasts and I couldn’t find a history podcast I wanted to listen to regularly. I first had the idea to start my own history podcast in 2012/2013. At that time, virtually every history podcast tended to present summaries of the books hosts had read. I wanted a podcast that featured more in-depth discussions with historians. I also wanted a show that explored the historical process so I set out to create my own podcast.
In terms of the title for my show, Ben Franklin’s World, that came to me as a flash of inspiration. I needed a name for my show and I spent many weeks trying to think of a good one. Then on Christmas morning 2013, I woke up around 3 a.m. and thought “Ben Franklin’s World” or “Ben Franklin’s America.” The first idea seemed perfect. Everyone knows who Ben Franklin was and about when he lived. In fact, he evokes images of early America in people’s minds. Plus, Franklin’s worldly life and legacy allow me to guide listeners through early American history in its broadest sense. So each week, episodes cover topics that span roughly 1450 to 1820 in period and the geography of North America, South America, the Caribbean, Europe, Africa, and sometimes even the Pacific. Ben Franklin’s world was a global world and that’s the world my Omohundro Institute teammates and I want to convey to listeners.
Q: What’s the “behind the scenes” of an episode?
What may surprise people is that while they hear my voice, there are several people behind the scenes who help produce different aspects of the podcast. In May 2017, I partnered with the Omohundro Institute and joined its staff as its Digital Projects Editor. Upon my joining its staff, the organization offered me the assistance and expertise of several people: Joseph Adelman, Kim Foley, Martha Howard, Emily Sneff, Holly White, and Karin Wulf. My teammates help me plan and prepare each episode. We brainstorm topics and guests, read books, coordinate our social media and promotion strategy, and we come up with complementary blog posts and digital resources for listeners. I still edit the show and have final editorial approval over each episode, but planning and production is a real team effort.
The team and I spend about an hour of labor per minute you hear working on the podcast. So if you hear an episode that’s about 55 minutes long, we spent about 55 hours working on it. Just as with every Omohundro Institute publication, we want each episode of Ben Franklin’s World to be of the highest quality in terms of content, presentation, and sound. We think the time and effort is worth it.
Q: Who did you think your audience would be, and was this prediction accurate?
I always imagined the target audience of Ben Franklin’s World would be composed of the people I met while working for the National Park Service: People who have an interest in history and who want to know more about it. I don’t podcast for specialists, I podcast for the interested. This is why the OI’s Digital Projects team works to ensure that every episode stands alone and conveys complex ideas in an accessible way. We don’t dumb information down because we respect our listeners.
As it turns out, Ben Franklin’s World does reach the people I sought to reach, overwhelmingly so. Additionally, the podcast reaches other audiences as well. For example, lots of teachers and educators listen to the podcast to enhance their classroom lessons and assignments. Graduate students and professors of history also listen to keep up on the latest literature and scholarship.
Q: Why do you think history podcasts are so popular?
Evolution and biology have hardwired the human brain to be very receptive to oral storytelling. And what is history, but a lot of stories about who we are and how we came to be who we are. I think history and audio go really well together. Plus, podcasts convey honesty and emotion well, which can help humanize the past and historians in ways other mediums can’t do as well.
I view podcasts, books, articles, video, and digital apps as complementary tools in the historian’s toolbox. Each tool can help us convey history and spark an interest in it in different ways because each medium does something well. In the future, I think historians will discover ways they can employ all of these different mediums together. And when we do, we will create a very powerful historical experience.
Q: 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?
In short, yes, I do think podcasts can successfully speak to both popular and scholarly audiences. I offer you Ben Franklin’s World as a successful example of how this can be done.
As I mentioned above, Ben Franklin’s World reaches both an audience of people who have a keen interest in history and how historians create it, and of professional historians. The show overwhelmingly reaches the first audience because I designed it to do this work. I spent 18 months researching podcasts as a medium to learn what they do well–like convey honesty and emotion– and how I could best craft a show that would help me reach the people I wanted to speak to. That may sound a bit crazy, but the research paid off and Ben Franklin’s World has not only won a Best History Podcast award and amassed well over 5 million downloads in less than four and half years, its format and traits have served as a model for dozens of newer history podcasts since its launch in 2014.
Q: What role do you think podcasts play in scholarly communities?
Podcasts can play several roles for scholarly communities: They can foster conversation among the specialists within each community, they can help specific communities get their work out into the world where the knowledge may prove useful to non-specialists, and they can help scholars do their work in new and innovative ways. As I mentioned earlier, each form of media has strengths that other forms of media do not.
Make sure you listen and subscribe to Ben Franklin’s World on iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcasts!