History podcaster shares the value of educating through digital media

“Ben Franklin’s World” is a weekly podcast that comes out every Tuesday. Photo by Cesareo Contreras

Torn between “the two worlds” of being a historian, podcaster Elizabeth Covart said she was compelled to experiment after she graduated with her P.h.D in history from the University of California, Davis in 2011.

“I was like, ‘I don’t want to be a traditional professor and I don’t know what I want to do,’” she said. “I had been too public oriented to be a traditional academic and too academic oriented, as in I really wanted to get into the nitty-gritty history, to be a traditional public historian.”

What started as pastime of listening to podcasts to learn what she could do post-graduation, quickly became something else when Covart’s new obsession with podcasts intertwined with her love of history.

“I was listening to a lot of social media and business shows because I wasn’t sure what I could do with my history degree,” she said. Covart asked herself why she wasn’t listening to a historical podcast, and found that there wasn’t one she wanted to listen to.

So she started one herself.

Covart’s 2-year-old side project has become something bigger – as she now hosts her award-nominated history podcast, “Ben Franklin’s World.” And, it has become a full-time job.

Today, her podcast has more than 1 million downloads, according to the podcast’s Facebook page. 

She shared her journey to podcast stardom to a sizable audience in the Alumni Room on Monday, Nov. 7.

In the same format of her podcast, history professor Joseph Adelman asked Covart a series of prepared questions in a Q & A style interview.   

Covart said her podcast is “accessible” but is more geared toward a “graduate-school level” podcast listener. 

“I’ve been able to create the nerdy podcast I wanted, which is people talking about well-researched history, going into topics that I’m fascinated about, listeners are fascinated about, and doing it all on an in-depth level.”

Covart said she podcasts about the world that “gave birth to Ben Franklin.”

“It’s perfect because you say Ben Franklin and you think colonial America in your mind, [and] he’s a cosmopolitan guy,” she said. “I figured I could talk about science. I could talk about the postal service. We could talk about eating. He liked to drink. … So I feel like Ben Franklin has let me cover it all.”

Covart learned to effectively communicate history while working at the Boston National Historical Park while she was a student.

“Mostly, I learned how to interpret history and how to do it in 15 minutes. So I found a lot of what I needed to do was find out what the message I wanted to say was and base my entire Bunker Hill Battle Talk [and] Charlestown Navy Tour … around those themes and then hope that somebody would ask the questions that everybody had to leave out.”         

It was there that she also learned she wanted to go to graduate school, after she saw the monumental effect the 2001 book “John Adams,” written by David McCullough, had in generating enthusiasm about history in the people she saw entering the parks.

“Maybe I could do it, but in a more scholarly and serious way than David McCullough and get people to hear about it,” she said.

As she conducts her interview-style podcast, Covart is cognizant about making sure that her listeners feel they are a part of the conversation. Additionally, she spends a significant amount of time reading and researching about her next guest’s academic work.

In her “Doing History” segment, for example, she “is always trying to get at the process of the work historians do.”

She added, “I’d always ask questions like, ‘Well, if you are talking about the servant women in the frontier community, they probably didn’t leave a lot of records. How are you getting that?’ Or ‘Why is their story important?’”

For students who graduate with history degrees, the sky’s the limit, Covart said.

“Historians are everywhere,” she said. “You can basically do anything. We can communicate. We can do research. We frequently read and teach ourselves things. We can do a lot. So I think the only limitations on what you can do is limitations you put on yourself.”

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