On Popular History: Kellie Jackson, Nicole Hemmer, and Jody Avirgan
Welcome to the last week of Popular History Month! Here’s the schedule:
April 24: Introduction
May 1: Rebecca Traister
May 8: Jamelle Bouie
May 15: Rebecca Onion
May 19: T.J. Stiles
May 22: Pamela Newkirk
May 26: Brian Wolly
May 29: Kellie Jackson, Nicole Hemmer, and Jody Avirgan
Three hosts, three closets, 90 minutes. That’s what it takes for Jody Avirgan, Kellie Carter Jackson, and Nicole Hemmer, hosts of This Day in Esoteric History, to record a week’s worth of episodes. Well, that and a researcher, time to prep, compelling guests, humility, reflection, and admiration for each other. What’s next? Recording in the same room without clothes [on hangers].
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Let’s start with the least important question. Do y’all have a shorthand for this podcast? I’m guessing TDIEPH isn’t it!
Jody Avirgan: If someone doesn’t use the entire name in full, every time, I get very offended.
Kellie Carter Jackson: LOL, “This Day..” is how I refer to it.
Nicole Hemmer: TDIEPH is an excellent acronym (pronounced tee-die-f).
What’s your favorite episode?
Kellie: We’ve done a lot of episodes, but for me the best ones are when I learn a lot or laugh a lot! Talking about the USS Sequoia was a lot of fun! Who doesn’t love a good boat story? I might also say that I learned so much when Peniel Joseph was discussing MLK’s 1967 Vietnam Speech at Riverside. Peniel is brilliant and he gave me a context for the speech that I was not previously aware of.
Jody: I love that we can invite such smart people on as guests like, as Kellie mentions, Peniel Joseph. And hey, what’s the point of having a podcast if you can’t use it as an excuse to talk to people you admire. So, I really loved having Sam Anderson on to talk about the Oklahoma City land run, the building of OKC, and how that reflects some very fundamental and dangerous American ideas. It also just felt like a perfect distillation of how we try to find small moments that tell a bigger story, especially one that still resonates today.
Nicole: I love the genuinely esoteric episodes: Know-Nothings stealing the Pope’s Stone from the Washington Monument, the war that broke out between Michigan and Ohio over a tiny strip of land, the New York representative who killed his wife’s lover and walked free after submitting the first insanity defense. Stories I probably wouldn’t know if I weren’t hosting the show!
If an aspiring history podcaster asked you to break down an episode that worked particularly well, which one would you choose, and why?
Jody: The general goal of each episode is to relate a specific story, then layer in the context of the time, and then draw some lessons. Those are the three big goals. And the fourth goal is to try and do it in about 15 minutes! So, to me, one continual lesson is that you can do a lot, very efficiently, if you prep well and edit smartly.
Kellie: Sometimes I think the best episodes are the ones we can all remember or make some sort of personal connection to in our lives or our research. We can riff off of each other really well. For instance, I loved the Oprah Mad Cow episode. It was fun, but mostly it reminded me of how we shape stories and narratives. The discussion of Oprah moving her show to Texas for the trial was a masterclass in PR. I think each listener was reminded of why Oprah is the Queen of TV.
Nicole: Our recent episode with Sam Anderson on the Oklahoma land grab worked well because we were able to have a real conversation with the guest about this fascinating moment in US history. It worked not only because he was a great storyteller, but because it had so many evocative moments that tied to hugely consequential issues: the forced removal of Indigenous people, urbanization, independence rooted in land ownership. For me that’s the perfect combination: small, vivid stories that lead you to ponder big, abstract ideas.
We all have bad episodes. There’s a technical issue. A grumpy co-host. A dull guest. Or perhaps nothing out of the ordinary happened, but the episode just doesn’t sound right. Beyond pickups and rewrites, what have you learned from your most challenging episodes?
Jody: At some point last summer, I was feeling a little down on myself for not really bringing enough insight or creativity to the show. I felt like I was just going through the paces of conveying the basic information and moving through the bullet points. You know what I realized? I was reading the prep way too late. What a simple lesson, but an important one -- read a lot, and give yourself time to process it. Now I try to read up on everything a day before, then mull it as I walk around and do other stuff. If I have given the basic information time to sink in, then when I come back to write the intro and prepare for the interview, I can (hopefully) be a little more insightful.
Kellie: There’s only been one episode where I was at a loss and that was Reagan and Honduras. I just couldn’t seem to connect with it which makes discussion tough. For me, having a connection to an idea or an event allows me to speak with more fluency. Is it bad that for that episode I felt like I was the flake?!
Nicole: I learned the hard way that if I haven’t taken the time to really mull over the topics — to fall down at least one research rabbit hole — that I tend to be a little flat. Once I’ve immersed myself in a topic, I can’t help but be excited to talk about it. That enthusiasm (and the deep thinking that inspires it) is hard to fake.
What makes a guest good?
Jody: Sometimes with a guest you can fall into a rut of guest-host-guest-host… but I love it when I get cut out of the equation!
Kellie: A good story and a compelling storyteller. We had Tim Hartford on to talk about Florence Nightingale and it was clear that he was so passionate about the history surrounding her life. I also enjoyed Sam Anderson talking about Oklahoma City. He took so many things that on the surface seemed unrelated and showed us how Oklahoma is a microcosm of the nation. I loved it.
Nicole: A good guest picks up on the flow of the show — the back-and-forth chatter, the humor — and adds a new level of energy and insight. They don’t have to have dissertation-level knowledge of the topic — that’s why we have in-house historians! — but bring curiosity and charisma that add a special spark to the episode.
Jody, you’ve worked on a lot of sports and politics podcasts—all of which seem to consider power and leadership and national events—but nothing explicitly about history. So, how does it compare? Are there any differences in terms of approach? Is the audience the same?
Jody: Well, one of the reasons I wanted to do this podcast was because in many of my previous projects (FiveThirtyEight, 30for30) the stories that stuck with me the most were often the times we talked about a historical moment that connected to today. And I don’t think I’m alone. History is having a bit of a moment. People are looking for context, and more importantly realizing that where we are is a product of the past. So, this in many ways feels like it’s just honing in on something I always liked doing. As for the audience, I largely think it’s the same. I suppose there are some people (in sports and politics) who just want takes on the latest news, but I suspect the vast majority of folks who are engaged with the present also appreciate the past!
Nicole and Kellie, you’re historians working with a nonhistorian on a history podcast. In my experience, that’s the ideal combination, but there are inherent challenges. What have you learned, and what advice would you give to historians working with nonhistorians for the first time?
Nicole: I agree that it’s the ideal combination (and I say that as someone who hosts another podcast with two other historians!). Jody is smart and curious, and has an ear for good storytelling and episode structure. He not only knows the right questions to ask but always has insights that I don’t. So I guess the advice is to not think too strictly in terms of historian/non-historian. Kellie and I aren’t lecturing Jody on the history of a topic, but rather the three of us (or four when there’s a guest!) are having a conversation about a fascinating moment from the past. That’s the magic of the show, and why I think it works so well.
Kellie: Sometimes I think scholars or historians can get too deep into the ideological weeds. I think Jody is great at getting us to answer the “So what?” question. While some topics may feel random, nearly everything can be connected back to our current moment. My advice is to make history relevant and thereby useful. I like to think of podcasting as a tree, tree,tree, forest approach. That’s what I want listeners to take away, the bigger picture. You need people who can really tease that out, Jody is great at that.
Okay, now let’s say something nice about each other! Is there something you particularly like or admire about your co-hosts?
Jody: First off, I’ll say that I hope that my answer gets conveyed every episode. If I sound enthusiastic and in awe of Kellie and Niki, it’s because I am. But: Kellie is incredibly good at being herself. Which is a weird thing to say! But, at some level this is artifice, we’re performing a conversation. Kellie somehow closes the gap between her podcast self and real self, and it means that she’s able to make the stuff we’re talking about so relatable, because she’s just experiencing it as we all are. Niki is incredible at the “next layer of the onion” analysis. Either going one step deeper or, more often, taking half a step back and providing really important context and connections. She’ll also drop a pun every few episodes that blows me away.
Kellie: I love Jody’s energy, generosity, and wealth of knowledge. It’s funny how many times he’ll say something and I’m like, “Who are you!??!?!” He’s really a global citizen and yet relatable in a way that makes me and I think all of our guests feel comfortable. Nicole is a word master and the ultimate storyteller! I admire her ability to explain the most complex things with accessibility. She’s brilliant, and funny and made for media! I love this podcast. Jody and Nicole are awesome to work with and recording doesn’t feel like work. As a newbie to the group I was a little intimidated by the task of podcasting, but I enjoy what we do. I feel like I get to expand my classroom. It’s the gratification of teaching minus the grading! It really is,”my pleasure.”
Nicole: Ah, so much!! Kellie is brilliant — so smart and clever — but also warm and authentic. When she joined the team it added this extra layer of joy to every episode. And Jody — what can’t he do? He not only grasps the essence of each episode but can quickly construct a roadmap to guide us through. He always comes armed with funny set-ups, smart insights, and a deep understanding of how to do deep storytelling in a bite-sized episode. And the whole show was his idea! It’s a privilege to work with both of them, and I’m always eager to sit down at the mic to record with them.
The podcast is a year old, but it sounds a little different now. You started with two hosts, and now there are three. What prompted the change? Have there been others we may not have noticed?
Jody: Nothing super specific prompted the decision to bring on Kellie as a third host. The main one was that she’s really good. But I also have come to realize that I feel most comfortable (and am at my best, I think) when I’m one of three or four, and am surrounded by experts. What a luxury! But, that allows me to prompt and probe and nudge in a way that I like. As for other changes, we’re constantly tweaking, but mostly I try to not let things drift too long. We’ve probably gone from an average length of 13 to 18, which is fine. I just don’t ever want to be much past 20 mins.
Nicole: Bringing Kellie on was such a great call. There wasn’t one precipitating event, but the episodes with a guest showed how dynamic and well-paced an episode with three guests could be — so it made sense to have three be the default! Otherwise the show is mostly the same: we had a clear concept and approach from the start, and it’s worked so well! And we launched during the pandemic, so we avoided the jarring studio-to-closet transition other shows had to make.
Let’s back up. Where do you find the episode topics? Is this something that happens at the beginning of the month or week, or do you respond to the headlines? How do you organize all of the ideas? A shared spreadsheet?
Jody: As with most things in life, it comes down to a google doc. Our researcher Jacob Feldman has a master doc that has every day of the year on it, with (at this point) 5-6 bullet items for each day. We’re now circling around past last year, so it’s only getting longer as we discover more stuff. So, generally speaking, I look at that master list a week or two ahead of time, then suggest 2-3 favorites for each day in Slack. Then Kellie and Niki help me figure out which one we want to do. Then Jacob does a prep. On that same doc we also have slots where we can suggest topics we want to do but don’t have a date for yet (we can always retrofit a date hook), and guests we want to find a way to have on the show. Other than that, we do try to mix up time periods, not get into a rut of lots of shows from the middle of the 20th century in a row, for instance.
Nicole: We also sometimes get suggestions from listeners, and those are fantastic. Listeners, send ideas! Newsletter readers, send them too!
I’ve recorded two episodes in a row with you in well under an hour, niceties included. How long does each episode take you?
Jody: We are pretty efficient! We record once a week and usually get through 3-4 episodes in under 90 mins. We maybe record 20-25mins for each one, then it gets cut down to 15-20. Part of this is because we have a sense of the basic structure I outlined above, but we also huddle before we tape and strategize -- we’ll start here, then go to this, then end with this… I’m a big believer in being efficient in your taping so that you’re not fighting to get it down to time. But Brittani Brown also does a fantastic job doing the rough cut for each episode, and then I give it a quick one-over before I post. Honestly, this process is one of the things I’m most proud of. We’ve got a pretty efficient machine, and it’s the culmination of a lot of lessons I’ve learned about podcast production over the years.
Nicole: The efficiency of this show is a godsend. Jody’s given all the details, but knowing that every week I can go into my closet and emerge 90 minutes later with a week’s worth of episodes in the can speaks to the efficiency and discipline that Jody and our producers bring to the show.
Magic closet! There’s more than enough esoteric history to make this into a legacy podcast hosted by your great-grandchildren, so I assume you’ll keep giving us the good stuff for a while. What can we look forward to this summer, and far past it?
Jody: I want to do more crossovers with other podcasts, I want to do live shows now that that’s a thing -- and I can’t wait to actually record the episode in person with my co-hosts, which is something that still hasn’t happened!
Niki: Live-shows! Hosts all in one room! While we were so fortunate to be able to adapt to the pandemic, I am ready for the return of the social side of podcasting.