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How Mike Duncan turned a passion for history into a podcasting career

John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

With no graduate training in history and no background in broadcasting, Mike Duncan might seem like an unlikely candidate for the role of professional history podcaster. Indeed, the idea that one might make a living as a professional history podcaster at all is pretty unlikely. But Duncan's done it. Many of us at Vox are fans of his shows — The History of Rome, which covers, well, the history of Rome, and Revolutions, whose first three seasons depict the English Civil War, the American War of Independence, and the French Revolution, with a fourth season on the Haitian Revolution coming soon — but the more I listened, the more I also became fascinated by the underlying business. How do you go from being a fishmonger recording yourself talking about Roman history to a businessman with sponsors, superior sound quality, and a fan base eagerly awaiting the release of the next season?

To find out, I spoke with Duncan by phone during the hiatus between seasons three and four to help people understand how to turn a hobby into a vocation. Below you'll find a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Matthew Yglesias: Is your career something you came to with a plan? You decided, "I'm going to tackle the history podcast industry, disrupt it, and make fun, fame, and fortune?"

Mike Duncan: No, I started History of Rome in 2007 as a hobby. Podcasting had been around for a while, and I felt at the time I was actually a little late getting into it. Now people think I was at the very beginning. I'd heard some podcasts that were really great, and I heard a few that were really not very great, and I just said, "Hey, I'm looking for some kind of outlet." I was reading a ton of Roman history at the time, so I thought maybe I'll just start a podcast, because apparently you can do that.

Then I just did it for two years without really making any money at all; there was no advertising at the time. I didn't even have a link on my website for people to donate to me. I think I was in the show for two years before I even put up a link to allow people to give me money.

MY: What was your real job at the time?

MD: For most of the time that I was doing The History of Rome, I was fishmonger. I cut and sold fish for high-end retail supermarkets. Then on the weekends I would write my "history of Rome."

MY: Did you have a formal background in Roman history?

MD: No, my background is in political science. That is what I studied in school. Then my concentration was in political theory, but I had really fallen into reading the old Latin historians, the old Greek historians just for fun. I sort of stumbled into it, so I was reading a ton of Livy at the time, and a ton of Suetonius, and then I had just gotten into Tacitus. There were all of these stories that were buried inside this really, really dry text. Nobody likes to sit and just read Polybius for fun, because it's very, very dry.

But I was reading it for fun; it was like everything that everybody knows about Roman history basically runs from about 50 BC, which is when Caesar shows up, to about 70 AD, which is when Nero dies. There's about a century in there where that's kind of everything that everybody knows about Roman history. If you'd ask them, "What do you know about Roman history?" the answers would come from that 100-year span. Stuff that was going on like the Samnite Wars is fascinating. The Punic Wars are fascinating. It was a way to get these stories out there into the world. That was really where it came from. I didn't do Roman history in college except to study there for political theory, for which I had a professor to tell me that their political theory was building roads and having a good inventory.

MY: Were there similar podcasts out there that you liked that inspired you?

MD: One that I listened to that really knocked my socks off was 12 Byzantine Rulers by Lars Brownworth. I was like, this is fantastic; this is all new information to me. That was the one that really got the wheels churning. I was listening to 12 Byzantine Rulers and reading these old history texts and thought it would be so easy to write these up and record them and put them out there.

MY: What kind of set up did you have early on?

MD: Early on, it was me, an iMac, GarageBand, and then the microphone that is built into iMac. Just that crappy external mic that sits on top of the monitor. That's what I was using for the first 10 episodes. Then I went ahead and got a decent microphone. All I have used ever since is a MacBook, a USB mic and GarageBand.

I encourage people not to make a huge monetary investment. If you are just starting a podcast there's no reason for you to get a soundproof room, a mixing board, or all these high-end microphones. You can do that down the road, but there is a lot of leeway with how great the sound is. I've done the entire show with a USB mic and a laptop and have never needed anything more.

MY: How did you find an audience initially?

MD: I think part of it is I got lucky. I never did anything to promote the show besides just posting it on iTunes and having it go out into various podcast cache systems. I don't know anything about search engine optimization. I don't have a marketing budget. Mostly, I think, what got me an audience to begin with was there was a persistent audience for Roman history. A thousand years from now people are still going to be interested in Roman history. People are interested in it today. So people went looking for a podcast about Roman history the same way I did, but instead of finding nothing they found my show. Ever since then it's just been word of mouth. I've just been hanging on the quality of the show, and having friends tell other friends tell other friends.

MY: How did you move into selling sponsorships?

MD: There is great a hosting site I use to this day called Libsyn. There is a guy who works at Libsyn who also does broker ads, and at some point in the spring of 2009 — about two years into the show — he wrote me an email. He probably saw the traffic the show was doing. He said, "Hey, look, would you be interested in doing ads for the show?" At the time I was pretty reticent about doing it.

I didn't want ads to wreck the integrity of the content. I didn't want it to be Mike's Plumbing or Crazy Al's Used Car Lot suddenly having ads tacked onto the front of the show. But the people selling the podcast ads are pretty bright. So for me, it was all Audible initially. This is a service that is very close to what I'm doing anyway. Then they have you do the host read ads. That's the standard now for podcasts — you have the host actually read the ad copy. Which is great. That's really how you want to do it, rather than slapping on somebody else's idea of what an ad is.

So they came to me and said, "Would you like to do this?" For the rest of The History of Rome, I had two episodes a month sponsored by Audible, and that plus the donations (eventually I put up a donation button) was enough to let me cut down to part time at my job. So the rest of The History of Rome, I was doing the podcast part time and working part time.

MY: By the time you ended The History of Rome and wanted to launch something new, were you thinking more with a professional lens on what you were going to tackle next?

MD: I ended The History of Rome because it had run its course, and then my son was born within a couple of weeks of The History of Rome ending. My plan was then to go to grad school and get a graduate degree in history and try to pivot that into some kind of professional job.

I took a year off, and I went to grad school in Texas; I was living in Austin at the time. My plan was to get the grad degree and then go looking for a job. Instead, what happened was my wife got an awesome job in Madison, Wisconsin. I left school and came up here. Part of the deal with that move was that instead of looking for a job I was going to try to make podcasting my full-time job.

By the time I wrapped up The History of Rome, I knew that if I did another show it would be this show about various great political revolutions. And since that launched, I have been trying to pay a lot more attention to how to make money being a podcaster as opposed to just doing it and not really caring. Now I have a second kid, so I have to.

One of the things about leaving The History of Rome that was really scary is that I had built up this whole audience, and, like I said, a lot of that is because people were just naturally interested in Roman history. It was nerve-racking whether anybody was going to follow me to a new show, whether or not ... they would go, "Oh well I loved The History of Rome, but this new thing is just stupid."

MY: Why revolutions?

MD: A big part of it is that was another great love of mine. When I was really getting into history when I was a teenager, the American Revolution was my favorite period of American history. I spent a whole period of time being really into the Russian Revolution. I was hoping my level of interest in these periods would be enough to carry people along with me. Of course, when I started I had no idea whether this was actually going to work or if this was just some crazy idea that was going to fall flat on its face.

MY: So what you've done so far is English Civil War, the American Revolution, and the French Revolution.

MD: I started with the English Revolution, which is a period in history I think I'm probably the person who is the most interested in that period. The American Revolution ... there would be interest in a show on the American Revolution.

MY: Did the success with the English Revolution series teach you anything about what topics you can move on to next?

MD: One of the things when I was thinking about a new show, I had different ideas about where I could go. One of them that was fairly close to happening would have been the Peloponnesian War. But I didn't want to get pigeonholed as just the ancient history guy. So I did actively look for something that was not in the ancient world. I figured if I could make that successful, then from here on out I could do whatever I want. Hopefully that will be the case.

MY: What's next?

MD: The plan for Revolutions is really to run it. I got five or six more that I want to do. We are about to do the Haitian Revolution. I am about to do the Mexican Revolution and the Russian Revolution. I would probably now do the Iranian Revolution because I think that is probably important now to explain that to people — what exactly happened and why. I got revolutions for two or three more years. I don't know what comes after this, except my great history and political parties, which I would like to do at some point.

MY: So you might take a break from Revolutions?

MD: I would take a break when I am done with Revolutions. It's so far out there. I am going to be doing Revolutions for years, it looks like.

MY: One thing you don't really talk about the Revolution series, but that happens to be the subject of a class I took in college, is this question of what constitutes a revolution, as opposed to a revolt or a civil war. Do you have an opinion on that?

MD: It's not super significant to me. I have a very broad definition of what constitutes a revolution. I called it the English Revolution, and I'm happy to call it the English Revolution. Most scholars in the period these days after the revisionism of the '60s and '70s now just want to call it a civil war. But you do have the king ultimately being overthrown, beheaded. Britain becomes a republic for 10 years. I think as long as a couple of factors are met, it’s okay to call it a revolution.

MY: As we get through the French Revolution series, we hear some very detectable skepticism in your tone about the general revolutionary enterprise.

MD: I've become significantly less revolution-minded both as I've gotten older and as I've studied them in depth, for sure.

MY: What would you say to someone who is a fan of your shows and is thinking to himself, "This is a subject I am passionate about; I would like to record a podcast."

MD: It is a weird place right now. When I got into it, podcasts were not a known quantity. Really, podcasts have not even been a mainstream thing until last year. Whatever went on with Serial really pushed podcasts into the mainstream in a way they had never been before. But there are still no barriers to entry, and I feel like the quality of your product is really what determines whether your podcasts succeeds or fails. There's now money and corporate umbrellas out there that are going to take up a lot of the market, but there's still room for independent podcasters who put out a good show, who know their stuff, are passionate about it, and put it out every week or whenever you say you are going to do it. I still think there is room for people to get into it, for sure.