Final Report Transmission
After two seasons, we have a lot to reflect on! We wanted you to hear the voices of the team, who have been working mostly behind the scenes for the past two seasons, and hear about their experiences working on Consolation Prize. Here, we have the honor to transmit to you our final report on our show about consuls.
MULLEN: Hey y’all. I’m Abby Mullen, and this is Consolation Prize. A few weeks ago, we wrapped on our second and final Season of Consolation Prize. This marked the end of our first attempt at this kind of podcast here at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. A whole lot has changed about the show and its environment since we created it, so I wanted to sit down with some of my team and talk to them about their memories of the show and what it’s meant to RRCHNM.
MULLEN: I don’t mean this to be too sappy, and it’s certainly not meant to be self-indulgent. But I do think it’s worth talking about our process, and our results, not just to ourselves, but to you, our listeners. Individual memory is short. But institutional memory is, in some ways, even shorter. So marking our accomplishments–and our failures– in public is a service not just to us but to those who will come after us.
MULLEN: So let’s start with my conversation with producer Megan Brett.
BRETT: So in the summer of 2020, which was already pretty weird, because we were in the pandemic. But you and me and Jessica Otis had a three person Slack chat, where we were regularly checking in – well, I’m gonna put “regularly” in air quotes here. We were [cross talk] we were semi periodically checking in with each other about progress on our writing projects. And, and also just sharing interesting things. And you shared something, I don’t even remember what it was. And, and you said something about, like, my next book is going to be about all of these consuls who were so cranky, about about being consuls and everything that’s wrong with them. And I was like “That sounds like an amazing book. It could totally be a collection”. And then you were like “I could do a podcast” and I was like, “Oh, my God, you should totally do a podcast, that would be hilarious.” And then you were like, “I think I’m serious.” And I was like, “oh, yeah, that sounds fun.” Because I was thinking, there’s gotta be consuls, and there gotta be consuls like all over the history of this. And, um, because, you know, I was also working on a consuls who interacted with other consuls. And I was like, yes, they are very cranky people. And then all sudden, it was like, oh, yeah, Abby’s totally doing this. Abby’s making a podcast. And I was like, Well, that sounds like fun. And so I finagled my way into helping you produce the first couple of episodes and snuck onto the team.
MULLEN: A little bit more to the backstory here: A few of us at the Center had been considering doing a podcast project with an external collaborator. But when it came time to write the grant, we concluded that we didn’t have the necessary experience to be make the grant competitivel. So I figured, how can we get podcasting experience except, to make a podcast? So then my sort-of joking idea about consuls and a podcast became a real idea.
MURALI: I remember when I was, when I started at Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason in the fall of 2020. That was, that I was hired, partly maybe to work on Abby’s podcast, I had a little bit of experience with podcasting. I was self taught. And, and I was so excited that I was like, Oh, my God, I actually – we get to work on a History podcast with a team of people and an actual historian.
MULLEN: This is Deepthi Murali, who came into the project with more podcasting experience than any of the rest of us–which wasn’t saying much!
[trill of music]
MULLEN: It took us a little while to figure out what we were doing. I read a lot of books, I listened to a lot of podcasts about podcasting, and slowly but surely our ideas began to coalesce. After two seasons, I’m really happy that all of the team, when asked to describe the show, said almost exactly the same thing:
KRIS STINSON: A podcast about the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. Because that’s what we tell everyone every time.
MULLEN: That’s Kris Stinson, by the way, one of our producers.
MULLEN: Even though we can all quote the tagline by heart, our approach–and our goals–changed over time.
BRETT: I think one of the things that came along was we realized, as we, as we started to dig in, the way we were telling the stories changed. We shifted from always trying to focus on a consul to sort of focusing on the people the consul were dealing with, and trying to broaden that story. Both because, you know, we wanted to tell bigger stories. And also sometimes the most interesting story or the story with the best historical record wasn’t necessarily that of the consul, it was one where the consul kind of had a cameo role. And, you know, I think if we’d been trying to stay really strictly to the original idea, we never would have gotten to tell those stories. But doing that was like, fabulous.
MULLEN: Jeanette Patrick, who joined the team mid-way through Season 2, noted that we had a lot of things to figure out all at once!
PATRICK: Within each episode, like you can see, like, notable improvements. And so I think because it was learning, like all of the like the technology side and all of the showrunning side and then teaching students how to do all of this in tandem. And then that you all are also, like, that everyone is stepping outside their research area frequently. And so I feel, like, because of how much of it was new and different than what most people are used to working on. It has all been a learning process.
MULLEN: And Kris noted that our style has changed quite a bit over the life of the show, in favor of more clarity in our stories, done with more panache–and a better setup.
STINSON: I think we’ve gotten simpler as the show has progressed. Thinking back to the even the first half this season we did, we were trying to juggle so much. Like I’m thinking there were a couple of episodes, we were trying to do like the whole lives of consuls, and kind of where their consulate fell in their general biography. And I think as time has gone on, we’ve been able to narrow that focus to make sure that it’s interesting and also easy to follow. And kind of hitting home the same point over and over again, and saying, instead of trying to get points A, B, C, D, E, F, G, across in a single episode. So that, and I think, I mean, just the behind the scenes thing, we did not have a studio that we’re sitting in right now when we first started.
MULLEN: Just jumping in here to say, in case you didn’t know, nearly all of Season 1 was recorded in my very small closet at my house, and much of it was recorded on a mic that I bought off Amazon for like $35. To say that our new setup, in a real studio with professional-grade mics and sound panels and a mixer, is better … is an understatement.
MULLEN: Our marketing coordinator, Bridget Bukovich, mentioned another way we’ve changed over the life of the show.
BUKOVICH: How Consolation Prize has grown is in its storytelling, but also in the sound mixing as well. I think it’s shifted. I think the first few episodes to me sounded a lot more academic. And I think we still maintain that scholarly integrity throughout the seasons and throughout the episodes. But I do think it’s developed into something that is really accessible for a much more wider audience.
[Slow chiming music]
MULLEN: One of the things I love most about Consolation Prize is how many people came together to make it.
BRETT: I have been a producer on Consolation Prize. I, I got to be a guest once, that was pretty awesome. I’ve worked on the show notes a lot and helped you – Abby – set up the protocols for figuring out show notes and putting together transcripts. And did some research. Sat in on a couple, as a quality assurance, on a couple of interviews. Yeah. I think all of which falls under the heading of “Producer” – it’s a much broader title than people realize. [Laughs]
MULLEN: In particular, I’m proud of how we integrated our students, both undergraduate and graduate, onto the team. In retrospect, thought, it might have been a little like throwing them in the deep end with sharks. Here’s what Frankie Bjork told me. She was our graduate intern during Spring 2022.
BJORK: It was easy coming onto this team. Like, I feel like I came into the first meeting. And it was like, here’s our new intern. Okay, and then on the next episode, we’re gonna be talking about this, it was like, very, there wasn’t a big deal about here’s your role, like, here’s what you should be doing. It was just kind of like, if you have any questions ask us. But otherwise, we’re just here. We’re here to help.
MULLEN: It’s worth noting that Consolation Prize had a lot of educational diversity (I don’t know if that’s the right term): There’s me, a non-tenure-track faculty member, plus a postdoc, two graduate students (one of whom is now a graduated student, more on that in a minute), two classified staff members, an adjunct, and two interns, one undergraduate and one graduate. In a male-dominated industry of podcasting, it’s also worth noting that our team was almost completely not male.
[Active piano music]
MULLEN: But that was just the core team. In total, we produced 31 distinct episodes, and in those 31 episodes, you hear more than 100 different voices. Of course, you hear experts on each episode, and we’re so thankful that they gave us their time and expertise. We talked to a lot of different types of experts. Lots of historians, of course, but we also talked to religious studies folks, English literature scholars, and even a volcanologist. Consuls get into a lot of different stuff, so we needed the expertise of a huge variety of scholars! And it was so fun to talk to them!
MULLEN: Our voice actors are the other voices that you hear on the show. Many of those voices are students, faculty, and staff from the Center, more than a few are my family whom I dragooned into helping, and several are friends of the show who just wanted to help out. I truly cannot express adequately my gratitude for the mostly volunteer help of all of our voice actors.
MULLEN: When I talked to her, Bridget mentioned our most actor-intensive episode was one of her favorite moments.
BUKOVICH: My favorite moment was when we did the table read for Hawaii 4-3.
MULLEN: For this episode, we wanted to do a dramatic retelling of a murder that we found in the consular dispatches. I recruited some of our male faculty members from the department of History and Art History to do the voice acting, but first I wanted to test out the script to see if the whole concept was even going to work. So I recruited a bunch of graduate students and staff from the Center to read through the script around one of our conference tables.
BUKOVICH: That episode incorporated so many voices and it was so different. And it was really fun to get a lot of people in and just read around the table. And as we got more into the table read, people started, like, getting into their character and getting excited and putting on voices. So that was really fun. It was also really great, too, because we were able to incorporate some more of the students from the Center as a whole, outside of R2 studios. And so it was really fun to see them like sort of get into what we’re doing here.
[Gentle piano music]
MULLEN: I’m proud of all our episodes, of course, but I will admit to having a few favorite moments. I really enjoyed the table read from Hawaii 4-3 just like Bridget, but here’s a few other things people told me about their experiences working on the show.
BRETT: There was something pretty awesome about being able to cite a podcast episode that I was a guest in and that I had sat in on the other interview for in my dissertation. And one of those footnotes is “conversation with Denver Brunsman,” because it’s something he said, in the conversation that didn’t make it into the final episode. And it just felt so, like, fancy to be able to say “conversation with Denver Brunsman on, you know, X date 2020”, you know, in my footnotes, that was a lot of fun.
MULLEN (in Brett): Nice.
MULLEN: Frankie’s favorite moment, I’ll confess, is also one of my favorites. When we went into the interview she’s talking about, we had a completely different idea for how this episode was going to turn out.
BJORK: My favorite, like, behind the scenes was finding, like, finding Irena Wiley and then narrowing down to like that’s who we’re going to talk about. But one of my other favorites was like, during our interview with Bill Adair was him being like, “yeah, I have 90 pieces.” And then at the end, we’re like, Wow, we had to reframe the entire thing. Because it was so interesting, because I was like, I had all this background research on her. But really, I feel like at that time, our direction was kind of scattered. We didn’t, we had an idea of, that if we couldn’t get the interview where we were gonna go. But the interview really helped hone it down. And then we finished and I was like, we’ve got it. This is it. This is perfect. We know what we’re doing. And that was like, kind of where I felt like that biggest sense of accomplishment, like this is coming into something. It’s finally happening.
MULLEN (in Bjork): Yeah, and I remember messaging you on Slack while we were talking to him being like “okay, we’re going completely back to the drawing board here!”
BJORK: Totally different. And I think part of it was, he was so compassionate about it. He talked, what, 45 minutes without interruption. And it made you passionate about it just by hearing about it. And I think that really helped us kind of figure out, yeah it would be much better for us to go in the direction of art instead of personal versus diplomatic life.
MULLEN: One of the things we learned early on is to not be so wedded to our ideas that we couldn’t let them go – and this Irena Wiley story is one that definitely transformed after our interview with Bill Adair. Kris tells a similar story about our episode on Alexander Russell Webb.
MULLEN: He also mentioned the work that he and our other producer, Deepthi Murali, did over the summer in 2021, When they pulled together some food history about consuls and what they might have eaten.
STINSON: That was a fun combination of different types of history so I’d never done food history so that was new, but we were doing it for audio. So trying to capture this – I think this was the first time we tried to do live sounds from locations so we didn’t, we went to a fish market and a coffee house. It was a whole bunch of new things for me at once that made for a really fun episode.
MURALI: Chris and I went around, trying to, trying recipes, historical recipes, of the food that some of the consuls ate, or, you know, we approximated what they might have eaten in some cases. And we, we did like a huge two episodes of food. Now, now, personally, those two episodes were the hardest podcast episodes that I’ve ever produced myself. The audio was all over the place partly because Chris and I decided to do some outdoor recording without like a boom mic. We also did a re-recorded in like echoey rooms with a split space for 40 people, but there were only four of us, but even with all those audio troubles and sort of production difficulties, like, of course I learned a lot but also Chris and I had so much fun producing those shows
MULLEN: It’s true that most of our episodes didn’t include ambient recordings, since our topics were mostly from the 19th century. This was a new, challenging, but ultimately memorable experience for both Deepthi and Kris–and all the rest of us who got to eat mesquite beans and drink lapsang souchong tea, among other things.
[Active piano music with telegraph beeps underneath ]
MULLEN: In my conversations with the team, I asked them what we could have done better, or what challenges they encountered in the creation of the show. I’ll summarize that many of the things we talked about revolved around our not knowing how to publicize a show like this, and how to keep on brand without going stale.
BUKOVICH: It’s something that’s a really hard question when you’re trying to create something that has that scholarly integrity but also reach general audiences. And I think there’s a tension point there within the field in general, like, I don’t think that’s just a unique Consolation Prize issue. I think that’s always going to be an issue whenever you have a historian who’s doing a podcast: who is it really for?
BRETT: There’s some part of me that thinks that we could have found a way to really get an audience that would be engaged, somehow. Even though I think the audiences that would be most interested in this are the ones that are particularly hard to track down.
PATRICK: While there might be a theme that is running through the seasons, they’re not, it is not a specific arc that really is the entire season. And so I think, to me, that’s been really interesting to think about, like how do shows fit, like, like that fit within, like the scholarly narrative and how do you, you know, figure out like. At what point have you like done enough episodes that it is a complete show and that you should then stop and not make another season of The Office that no one actually wants to watch? Like, so I think it’s thinking it’s been it’s because there isn’t a like definite like this story arc is over.
STINSON: Some of our more fun stories were ones that we kind of went beyond the purviews we set for ourselves. Like they’re not, we weren’t actually talking about consuls, we weren’t really interested in the like, we were interested in the United States in the world kind of a thing and those stories there. But then I think that pushes us back to the tagline we say at the beginning of every episode, if we say it’s through the eyes of the United States consuls, what if it’s not? Like, what if, in order to tell the good stories or the stories we want to, we don’t actually abide by that anymore? So what is it? What is it with that, that we’re actually interested in? And how would we then rethink our tagline or our intro to make sure that they reflect? And even, I mean, you’ve, I’m sure you’ve come across this even a lot outside of Consolation Prize, it turns out, like, you can say, like, oh, we talk about the history of consuls, maybe two people are like really excited about that. Everyone else is just kind of like “Ah, I see.” And then that’s the end of that conversation. So how is it, like, it’s almost, perhaps that shouldn’t have been the, the foot forward in that regard? Like you get them with another thing that they think they’re learning, but then they realized by episode three, that we’re just talking about consuls all the time, and that they’re really important.
MULLEN (in Stinson): No, I think you’re right. I think, we did not, we put this lens on because I was interested in consuls and Megan, who was another person sort of there at the beginning, was interested in consuls. And so I don’t think we ever had any illusions that the whole world would be interested in consuls. I don’t think we ever quite thought that. But I don’t think, I don’t think we quite realized what a heavy lift it was going to be to get people interested. Because I don’t know, maybe this is my overly optimistic personality or something. But I sort of assumed that, like, people who like history would just listen to a History podcast. Yeah. And it turns out, that’s not the case.
[Slow melancholic strings]
MULLEN: From a “commercial” perspective, Consolation Prize wasn’t that successful. We put thousands of hours into the show, and we just didn’t see the listenership we were hoping for. But Consolation Prize spawned a really exciting new moment for the Center for History and New Media. We started Consolation Prize in fall of 2020; then we started The Green Tunnel, a show about the history of the Appalachian Trail, in fall 2021 when it was clear that we could actually make a good podcast. Now, as of October 2021, thanks to the generosity of the Mellon Foundation, we’ve got a studio and a lot of plans for new audio projects at the Center.
[upbeat piano music]
MULLEN: I’d like to think that the team learned some stuff about our own historical practice from working on Consolation Prize. I know I did–I learned how to distill really complicated things into a short amount of time. I learned how to manage a team, though you can ask the team how well I actually did at that. I certainly didn’t do great at it all the time. I learned about telling stories and bringing historical characters to life. And yeah, I learned an awful lot about audio engineering. But I want you to hear from the team about what they’ve learned from the show, and also how they see it impacting the life of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media in the future.
STINSON: It really has pushed me to think about the whole idea of the way you tell a story is just as important the story itself. So I’ve carried that I think I hope back into what I write and what I research and realizing that if I’m going to ask you to sit through something, either audio or read, that I hope you enjoy it, that it, it won’t be, it won’t be a sludge through. And which, going to a thing where holding fast to the line that even though it has pushed me to write differently, hopefully in a more clear way. I think there, but I still think there’s a difference between when you’re – and it’s an okay difference – if I’m writing something to be read versus writing something to be heard. But that distinction, I think the heard part is what I’ve been continuing to grow.
MURALI: I’ve learned so, so much about running a podcast team, you know, sort of watching Abby do it so gracefully, and so generously and kind heartedly, but also to see how what you can actually produce when there is that kind of labor that you can put into a History podcast. Like the quality of work that can come out, both technically, but also in terms of content. And in the course, it has also made me think about podcasting, and the role of podcasting in, in sort of scholarship. And, and that’s been so rewarding for me personally. But I think, I think we’ve also had a lot of fun. I am going to miss some of our team lunches, where we could bring in Indian food and eat together. And you know, Abby spontaneously bursting into laughter even before she starts talking, because she’s found something that’s some consul did as very funny. [laughs] So, there are moments that that made this podcast really, really special for all of us, I think.
BJORK: The final progress report for the internship asks the question “what did you learn about the work of professional historians.” And it’s, some of my response was like, the technical stuff, like, I learned some marketing skills. I learned, you know, where to find source pools and how to narrow down content when you don’t know where you’re starting from. And the, you know, how to reach out to, how to reach out to an expert in the field, and, like, maintain that contact. Because now like, look, we went to Bill’s studio and like, we’ve got big plans in the future for it. So you know, things like how to maintain contact as a professional, but still keep it friendly, you know, so that they want to come back and they want to continue to help you. But then my response was also stuff like, how to work on a team and like how to do independent research, but then switch immediately into co-research with somebody that as a student, you’re really used to doing the independent stuff. And I mean, for a lot of hours in this internship, I was at my desk at my house, just researching, but then there were times that like, we would start on a project together or like, when I I met with Megan and learned about show notes. Like then it was like doing stuff together as a team that I think is the biggest takeaway, because you got to, you have to know how to really switch into that really quick. Without being like, this is my research, mine only, it’s like, no, this is like it’s a team effort.
PATRICK: I think it will always be incredibly important, because it will be R2 studios like original show, and it is a great jumping off point. And it is because it was so well conceived and done, like funding was secured, that R2 studios could exist and become a thing. So I think it’s something that like, I’m sure moments, looking back, you’re like, ooh, and like parts of it make you cringe. But I think that it’s something that like, it is a very good first show for the studio to have produced. And so I think it’s going to be something that we continue to, like, look at and point back to and are excited to, you know, show donors that like, this is where we started. This is like our first grade show. And based on what we learned here, we’ve made Green Tunnel. And a lot of it looks and feel similarly but there have been some changes. And so I think that it will forever be like a very good starting point.
BRETT: I’m gonna miss this! Gonna miss this group of people. And I’m going to, you know, but I’m really proud of what we did, like, on the one hand, I’m sad that it’s wrapping up. But on the other hand, I think we made something really awesome. And we sort of learned a lot of stuff in a really productive way. And I, I don’t know if it’s that, like, there’s a phrase for the “once you start to notice something, you start to see it everywhere.” Lifting profile of early and 19th century consular work in terms of separate from political diplomacy, but the sort of more boring day to day, it’s not really boring, but the sort of, you know, less overtly political foreign service work that was done by consular agents. You know, there were people out there doing cool things, and we got to sort of dip our toe in that water. And some of us might continue in that, hopefully, and, but I think we also contributed something to it, and maybe gave people an in to realizing that there’s more to the history of Americans overseas than just guns and politicians.
[Strong piano chords]
MULLEN: And one more shout-out I want to give: Our amazing, amazing composer, Andrew Cote, whose original music you’ve heard for the last two seasons. In this episode, you’re hearing some of my favorite moments from his work. His music truly made our narrative sparkle–or brood–or tremble–or whatever other mood we were trying to strike. Consolation Prize absolutely would not be the same without Andrew’s work.
MULLEN: So that’s the end for Consolation Prize. I hope you’ll continue to listen to the shows coming out of R2 Studios. I can confidently say that the new shows that are coming on the heels of Consolation Prize are going to be worth your time. And if I can be so crass as to end on a plea for donations, your donations to Consolation Prize go to the studio, and they will continue to fund great audio. So if you liked what you heard on our show, please consider donating to the studio in order to keep that audio content coming.
MULLEN: It’s been a pleasure to bring you consular stories for the past two years. And with that, I’ll say, for the final time, thanks for listening.
This episode was produced by Abby Mullen. This episode features Abby Mullen, Megan Brett, Deepthi Murali, Kris Stinson, Jeanette Partick, Bridget Bukovich, and Frankie Bjork. Music by the amazing Andrew Cote. Show notes by Megan Brett.