Podcasting in 2022 is a booming multibillion-dollar industry bankrolled by media conglomerates, attracting megastar talent and featuring in the strategies of the biggest content franchises. But back in 2011, anyone with passion and some time on their hands could set up behind a microphone, publish to iTunes, and build their skills, an audience and, eventually, an income. That might all sound like ancient history, but it’s current events for Jamie Jeffers and his wife and collaborator Zee, producers of the popular British History Podcast, which just concluded its eighth season by finally arriving at a long-anticipated milestone.
Jeffers estimates that the listening audience for BHP numbers in the hundreds of thousand, possibly as high as half a million, noting that precision is difficult considering how fragmented industry metrics are. The venture derives income from a percentage of listeners supporting the site through $5 monthly/$60 annual subscriptions (“the price of a latte per month,” as Jeffers is fond of reminding fans). That’s propelled BHP from a hobby to a full-time business, entirely free of sponsorships or corporate support.
To put those numbers in perspective, keep in mind BHP is not a true crime thriller or celebrity-driven chat-fest. It is a painstakingly detailed chronological history of the British Isles from prehistory onwards, examining the social and cultural mores of the changing society in addition to the standard tales of kings and battles, examining contemporary sources and recent archeology, and fleshing out hundreds of key figures from sketchy historical information. Its pace is… deliberate. After more than 10 years and nearly 400 episodes, BHP arrived at the pivotal Battle of Hastings (which took place in 1066), just last month.
In other words, though Jeffers modestly describes his endeavor as “popular history,” this is a deep, deep dive into the misty past. It does not pander, and it is “popular” only in the sense that neither Jeffers is an academically trained historian. And yet, listeners keep coming back for more because Jeffers brings the story to life with his compelling narration and his human-centric approach to history, which reminds listeners that people in the past were pretty much the same as people today. It’s not hard to draw present-day parallels from events like the Norman Conquest, when a belligerent foreign despot looked to a neighboring state, decided that those lands and people actually belonged to him and he’d take every brutal measure to bring them to heel. Or the career of notorious tenth century British monarch Aethelred Unraed (“the unready”), whose narcissism, incompetence, corruption and disdain for established norms unraveled more than a century’s progress toward good government and relative prosperity. Building a mass audience for this level of detail is quite an achievement.
Jeffers says when he began the BHP back in 2011, it was a leap of faith born from desperation. He had been working as a lawyer – a job he mistakenly believed was recession-proof – when the fallout from the financial crash finally caught up with his firm. He had inherited his love of British history and storytelling from his grandfather, and was disheartened that the only podcast he could find on the subject was someone reading a bunch of error-filled Wikipedia pages. Jeffers, who is British despite his Portland, Oregon address and his all-American Pacific Northwest accent, wanted to summon up that joy of oral history done with care for accuracy, so he scripted and recorded a few episodes and put them up on iTunes as a way to occupy himself until something else presented itself.
In those early days, it was relatively easy for podcasts to get featured placement and build momentum. “We picked up 500 subscriptions in the first week,” Jeffers says. “That put us in the top 5 or 10 trending podcasts, which made us more discoverable, which led to more people checking it out.”
Because iTunes ranked podcasts by cumulative views, the early momentum translated into a serious first-mover advantage and kept BHP in the top rankings. Jeffers cobbled together a website and began offering subscriptions at a low monthly cost as a way to generate an income without selling advertising. Eventually Zee, who was working on her doctorate in sociology, came on board as collaborator and producer.
By 2015, BHP was generating enough revenue to sustain the couple, despite having to handle some bumps in the road like transitioning to new payment processing systems and relying on the vagaries of platforms and algorithms. Zee says that the success of the true crime podcast Serial helped kick the industry into a higher gear. “A lot of businesses discovered podcasting and there’s been a rush to monetize it,” she said. “We’ve seen a lot of service providers come into the space offering to help with things like membership and transaction processing, but they take a very big chunk of revenue in exchange.”
One biproduct of the boom is that it’s easier to attract advertisers and sponsors to niche podcasts with respectable audience metrics, but Jeffers is determined to remain independent. “Podcasting was all about advertising for Blue Apron and Audible.com and I didn’t want to go that way,” he said. “I didn’t want advertisers to impact the way I do the show because, even if advertisers aren’t telling you what to do, there’s a kind of self censorship where, to get the best advertising dollar, you need to be as broadly accessible as possible. If I wanted to do this show to attract advertisers I would be talking about Stonehenge and I would be talking about the Tudors on a constant loop.”
Jeffers regrets that changes in the industry have made it more difficult for shows with such a specialized focus to reach a wider audience. “Unfortunately, no one starting today is going to have the same experience we did back in the ‘punk rock’ days of podcasting,” he said. “It’s so hard for someone making something new now, when you’re competing with all these slick, corporate produced podcasts and there are predatory service providers waiting to take advantage of people who don’t have all the pieces in place.”
Zee and Jamie Jeffers count themselves lucky to have beaten the rush, and hope to continue taking British history up until World War II if support for their efforts continues. Podcasts like BHP may not represent the future of the industry, but Jeffers – and his audience – are all too happy to live in the past.