Creator Download: Greg Jenner

Making history more accessible through the power of jokes

If you’ve glanced at the podcast charts recently, it’s hard to escape the popularity of history podcasts. They’re one of the most successful categories, and BBC Sounds’ comedy history podcast You’re Dead To Me is one of the stalwarts of the genre, alongside examples like The Rest Is History, History Extra and Dan Snow’s History Hit.

Hosted by public historian and writer Greg Jenner, the show pairs comedians and historians to examine topics including Prohibition, the Terracotta Army and ancient medicine. The podcast, which is launching its sixth season on 10 February, echoes Jenner’s previous work as a consultant on TV’s Horrible Histories, and has been nominated for multiple British Podcast Awards

Jenner’s goal is to make history less intimidating and more accessible, putting it in a context that his audience can relate to. We sat down with Jenner to discuss how the podcast has evolved, what goes into making each series, and how he ensures the show remains relevant for international listeners.

How would you describe your podcast?

It's a history show with a comedic sort of energy. I'm the host and I pair up a top historian with a top comedian. We talk about different subjects each episode. It was initially designed for people who don't like history; people who found history intimidating or boring at school, or who just didn't quite know where to start with it. But obviously, as the show has grown in stature and got a bigger audience, it's now more of an interesting balance about trying to ensure that you don't leave anyone behind.

People can come to the show who don't necessarily know much about history, but also the people who really do like history are also getting something out of it. So we're trying to, where possible, bridge quite different audiences, which is sometimes a challenge and sometimes really rewarding.

Why did you start your podcast?

The podcast was a process of trying to create something accessible for people who were intimidated by history. There’s a real [trend] in history towards the same subjects over and over – a reliance on Hitler and the Nazis and the Tudors. I'm very committed as a public historian to try to diversify how the public understands the reach and range of the past. That it's not just British history, Western history, military or political history, but there are all these incredible stories from around the world. The idea of You’re Dead to Me is that every episode is a little bit different than the previous one but, overall, the series is, hopefully, giving people a fresh look at what history can be. 

It's also about trying to demystify the idea of the historian as being someone who is probably a middle-aged white guy in a tweed jacket. We wanted to ensure that people understood that history was for everyone and could be written by everyone… we wanted to celebrate the range of historical scholarship out there. And then, when you bring comedians into that, you’re getting a really fun dynamic because they’re bringing energy in questions and laughter. But also we try to book comedians who might have a connection to the episode that they're covering, so there might be something personal for them, or an interest.

What advice do you wish you'd been given when you first started?

I changed microphones four times in three years, and I probably should have just started with a good one because ultimately, you end up spending a lot of money on stuff you abandon early on. 

And I probably spoke a bit fast. I still speak too fast now, but what we didn't quite anticipate is how many international listeners we would have who are speaking English as a second language. We try to make some of the jokes and some of the phrasing a little bit more accessible. We’ll still do the idioms – the very, very British jokes, the kind of references that are specific to a BBC UK audience. But I always try to translate them, if that makes sense. So, I think being aware of the fact that not everyone listening has necessarily the same cultural background as I do.

How many people does it take to create an episode of your show?

On series one, it took five people. But that was a much smaller production, much more reliant on knowledge I already had as a historian; it was very much figuring out the format. By the time we got into series two, the team had grown considerably. It’s so difficult to produce high quality historical scholarship and then make it funny… you burn out creatively. What we have now, it's a fantastic thing. We have a team of five PhD students who join us every series and they’re the research team. 

Then we have my co-producer, co-writer Emma [Nagouse], who's been on the show since series one. She's a PhD student as well. And Emmie Rose Price-Goodfellow, who was previously an intern on series two, has since finished her PhD and is now our assistant producer. Then we have our audio producer, Steve Hankey. We go through producers quite quickly because it’s such an enormous workload! And then, obviously, you've got your booker of guests, a BBC exec making sure we’re not saying anything too dangerous, and a few more. So, all in all something like 11 to 12 people are involved.

Do you monetise your podcast?

I don't. I think adverts are playing out on the international versions. I think they might be a subscription model too, and possibly paid download. But in the UK it’s a BBC licence fee-funded show, which means that it is accessible to everyone who's paying their licence fee, which means it gets to go out there for a lovely big audience. 

How do you promote your podcast?

Obviously when you're making a show for the BBC, you have this fantastic broadcaster with this huge ready-made audience and all its integrated infrastructure. The BBC Sounds app is really, really good. You get cross-platform advertising across radio and TV. We’re hugely lucky to have that. So I don't have to do that much but I obviously try, where possible. Twitter is my personal poison of choice when it comes to social media, Instagram slightly less. I don't do TikTok. I'm far too middle-aged, it’s just not cool.

In truth, if you have a show on the BBC and people are enjoying that show, then you already have a pre-existing place to be broadcasting into. Since day one, the show launched as a number one show, with its first episode, which was absurd. And it's been one of the top two shows on the BBC ever since. So we're just very lucky.

What have you learned about yourself since starting the podcast?

What I've learned about myself since starting this interview is that I talk way too much! But the reason the show is good, I think, is that I'm a very ruthless editor. I co-edit the show with our audio producers and my instincts are very much the rhythms of comedy rather than the rhythms of documentary. I'm much more towards the ‘Punchline, punchline, punchline!’ school. So a good episode of You’re Dead to Me has very little of me in it and lots more of the comedian and historian talking to each other; I'm just facilitating. 

But what I've learned most about myself is that I'm probably a better editor and better writer than I am host. I'm quite good at going, ‘No, that's going… that's going… that has to go.’ It's quite disconcerting to some to realise how annoying you are and have evidence every week. I spend probably six to seven hours doing an edit pass on an episode, and you're just listening to your own voice over and over and over. By the end you’re sick of yourself, “Oh my God, this guy! That absolute jerk!”

Who listens to your podcast?

Nerds and cool kids. Actually, I don't think I anticipated how diverse it would be, but we have a really committed audience in the under-34 demographic. I think we’re the number one or number two show with the under-34s on BBC Sounds. It’s very successful in slightly unexpected places. We have Aussies and Kiwis saying how much they love the show. It's done quite well in the States, which is nice to know. So I think it's quite a broad mix to be honest: comedy fans and history fans. Usually, those are two different categories. 

Obviously there's an overlap there, but there's quite a lot of casual listeners, I think, who just enjoy the fact that the show's quite energetic. It's not patronising. We try not to condescend. We try to be informative and fun and move quickly. I think it's become part of people's weekly routines and so when we're not there, we get a lot of complaints and people say, “Where's the next series?” It's like, “Well, we're making it, but it takes eight months, calm down!”

What was the last podcast you listened to?

My favourite podcast is called Three Bean Salad. It's a funny comedy show that’s absolute pure nonsense and it's wonderful. Mike Wozniak, Henry Paker and Benjamin Partridge are three friends who’ve done loads of projects together over the years, some improvised, some scripted, some mixing, and they just have an incredible repartee between the three of them. They can talk about any subject at all for an hour and it's hilarious.

Listeners send in a subject they have to talk about – whether that's snakes, bags, hats, shopping trolleys, whatever. It's hysterically funny, incredibly creative and I'm enormously jealous because I spend hours and hours crafting and scripting jokes that I think might work, and they're just improvising them and they're still funny. Very annoying.