A Historical Pursuit in Podcasting as Digital Scholarship with Robert Cassanello

By Amplify Network Date: January 24, 2023 Tags: Podcasting, Peer Review

Amplified is an audio blog series about the sounds of scholarship from our team here at the Amplify Podcast Network. This month on Amplified, I’m joined by Robert Cassanello, associate professor of History at the University of Central Florida. More importantly for our context here, he is an early advocate for the peer review of podcasts as scholarship, and the co-founder of H-Podcast, part of the online humanities and social sciences forum H-Net. Together we unpack the development of Robert’s early podcast pursuits and where he hopes to see the academic podcast community headed next.


Stacey Copeland: Welcome to Amplified, an audio blog about the sounds of scholarship from our team here at the Amplify Podcast Network, I’m your host, Stacey Copeland.

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[00:00:15] In the grand narrative of podcasting, 2014 is often cited as the year of the podcast boom with shows like Serial, followed by a flurry of podcast curiosity among big business and independents alike. But in the world of academic podcasting, a very different story was taking place. Today on Amplified, I’m joined by Robert Cassanello, an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida.

More importantly for our context here, an early advocate for the peer review of podcasts as scholarship and the co-founder of H-Podcast, part of the online humanities and social sciences, H-Net. In 2014, while mainstream media was all a-buzz about Sarah Koenig’s Serial success, Robert was already a year into the production of perhaps his best-known academic podcast work, A History of Central Florida Podcast.

[00:01:14] Ep 1 Clip from A History of Central Florida Podcast: Thank you for downloading this episode of a History of Central Florida Podcast.

[00:01:19] Stacey Copeland: During this time, Robert was tirelessly searching for a journal or academic space that might actually treat his podcast as a form of digital scholarship. Member of our inaugural Amplify Editorial Board, Robert and I dig into his experiences leading up to the establishment of H Podcast with co-founder Yelena Kalinsky, and we unpack the development of Robert’s own podcast pursuits and where he hopes to see the academic podcast community headed next.

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[00:01:59] Robert Cassanello: Hello, I’m Robert Cassanello. Associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida. What brought me into podcasting initially was just, you know, being a consumer of it, right? I’m trying to think of the year this was, but it must have been 2004, 2005 around there, learned about podcasts. I started listening to them and I just thought I could do this and it could be a history thing and it could be just, you know, part of what I do as a historian.

[00:02:28] Stacey Copeland: So you were thinking, hey, I can do a history podcast., how did you end up coming to the history of Central Florida podcast project? Because that is a bit more of a big endeavor. It’s a 50 episode multi-team initiative as well.

[00:02:44] Robert Cassanello: Video podcast too with that.

[00:02:46] Stacey Copeland: Yeah, that’s right.

[00:02:47] Yeah. No, it was, it was a mammoth project.

[00:02:49] Robert Cassanello: I don’t think I’ve, I’ve done anything to that extent since, and it was, It wasn’t my first project, obviously, and what I realized when I made the commitment to create a podcast was I didn’t want the first podcast I do to be a passion project. You know, I wanted, I wanted, um, the first project I did to be a lesson to figure out how to make podcasts. I think the first project I did was called Public History Podcast, and I just interviewed people in public history. Did it for about a year and a half. They don’t exist anymore because I’ve never, I never backed them up. And they were all on iTunes U and iTunes U disappeared. And so they’re all gone.

[00:03:30] They, they’re in the ether. But I just sort of learned how to, how do you record someone in person? How do you record someone over the phone? How do you edit? You know, and I learned all the kind of the tricks. I went from that to I think like two other podcast projects, and then I went to History of Central Florida Podcast.

[00:03:48] Stacey Copeland: So do you feel like by the point you got to a history of Central Florida podcast, which started or at least started publishing in 2013? [Robert: Mm-hm.], did you see or hear of other people doing this kind of work? Or was it something that you were kind of out on your own figuring out as you went along?

[00:04:09] Robert Cassanello: I definitely felt I was out on my own figuring it out. I mean there were, uh, radio programs that moved into podcast environments, like, you know, Backstory was podcasting at the time, I was doing a history of central florida and those were historians that were hosts. And later on I, I found out that they were just hosts. They were just, they were just the talent. They were the pretty faces or the pretty voices. Right. And there actually were these radio producers who were producing that show. And to me, I have a, I, I have and had at the time a very kind of strict definition of a podcast. And I think like someone producing a radio program and putting it into a podcast distribution is not a podcast to me.

Right? It has to have that. You know, um, there, there’s like a podcast intent that I think is different from radio. There were a few podcasts that were out. I remember I had my students listen to things like, you know, History according to Bob, I think was one, if I remember correctly. And there were a few that were, you know, done by, not professional historians, but like, I know there was one that I listened to with my students called the History of the Byzantine Emperors.

[00:05:13] You know , so I kind of liked listening to the forms and stuff and for me, my favorite podcast at the time that was history based, was a History of the World In, you know, however many Objects [100 objects] the, the BBC podcast. And so I wanted to do that, with this History of Central Florida podcast. And that was sort of the ambition. And of course we kind of did things a little bit different in that, you know, it was a locality with the, with the world history emphasis as well as the video part of it. And so we’re actually able to play with kind of visual narratives and visual styles.

[00:05:45] Stacey Copeland: On the element of, you know, a history of Central Florida being a video podcast – I mean video podcasting, the whole talking heads on YouTube approach versus the more supplementary still images style of your project set with, um, narrative driven audio really is a whole other conversation we could definitely get into when it comes to the debates about what a podcast is for sure. But keeping us focused here on the role of the history of Central Florida Podcast, which has since become sort of an early model for other academic history podcasts to follow. Could you tell me a bit more about the development process behind the project, and secondly, were you even thinking about it as a scholarly podcast at the time, or was it more of say, teaching materials?

[00:06:40] Robert Cassanello: So I taught a graduate class called, uh, I think it was Public history and New media, and the entire class was making this podcast project, right? So, you know, the class only lasted 16 weeks. And so what I said, okay, we’re gonna use these 16 weeks. We’re gonna listen to podcasts, we’re gonna read stuff, we’re gonna design what eventually became the history of Central Florida Podcasts, right? So at the end of the semester before we broke, I said to them, I said, okay, we have the blueprint. I’m gonna produce this. If any of you want to produce this, you’re more than welcome to. And I said I would try to get some grants to help, you know, compensate them for producing the podcast, which I was able to do. And so I think there were 12 students in the class and 11 decided to take me up on the offer and they volunteered their time.

I obviously volunteered my time. And we produced the podcast between 2013 and 2015, and you know, we just worked little by little and I gave everyone the orders that your life, your academic career is precedent over the podcast. If you have an hour or two a week, work on the podcast. If not, don’t. And get to it when you can.And so that, you know, that’s sort of what what we did . As far as the academic part of it. It was always my intent to make this an academic podcast in that it had a thesis. This is sort of what I was testing. I was testing whether a podcast could produce original knowledge. That was sort of my experiment, if you will.

[00:08:04] What I decided to do, and I did this very overtly with the students. I mean, this was sort of in the, in the recipe of this, of this project. I said, okay, let’s produce original content. Let’s have a thesis. So this isn’t a synthesis project at all. This is actually original knowledge because what we did is we took the idea, you know, so if we’re looking at this in terms of, you know, literature and scholarship and stuff, you know, we took a history of the World podcast and we said, okay, can you take this concept right?

Can you take this thesis and apply it to a locality with the global, you know, history narrative? And that’s what we did. So, you know, each of these podcasts thematically , you know, connect to each other because they’re all, you know, not looking at micro history, if you will, of one corner of Orlando or some other place in central Florida.

[00:08:56] But it’s sort of taking the universality of the human experience and just putting it in a central Florida object. [Stacey: Mm-hm.] Right. People like myself who’ve taught state history, state and local history can get kind of frustrated if, you know, you, you see these very kind of provincial, very local histories that don’t really go beyond the locality. And I said to the students, you know, the first day of class I said someone in Tokyo, someone in Wyoming, you know, someone in uh Nigeria should be able to watch your podcast and enjoy it and get something out of it. That was the challenge.

[00:09:30] Stacey Copeland: yeah, and you kind of see that in the theme. So even episode one, the Windover burial site, which I think is one of the most viewed ones on YouTube weaves through those themes and they’re all quite short, which is, uh, why I was curious if you were thinking about it as learning materials as well, because they’re in that 15 minute kind of time range, which you don’t typically see with podcasts these days. For the most part, people. Thinking of podcasts as being 20 minutes or more, sometimes up to an hour and a half as more of the typical timeframe for a podcast episode.

[00:10:02] Robert Cassanello: Interesting you say that because, um, I’ve worked on many podcast projects with students here and taught podcast classes, and the students have come up with what they refer to as the Cassanello Rule, and that is, nothing’s over 15 minutes. , right? The shorter the better. You know, like I had this rule in the class, like I don’t want to hear any one person more than one minute and twenty seconds.

If it’s a narrator, if it’s the voice of an expert, and then move on to something else. And so I, I, I’ve really kind of enforced that to a great deal. We broke it sometimes.

[00:10:33] Stacey Copeland: Was there a logic behind that for you, or is it just like your favorite number? ? (laughs)

[00:10:37] Robert Cassanello: Yeah, I’ll tell, I’ll tell you exactly where it came from. One of the podcasts we listened to in this class. Um, at the time, this might be really kind of out there, but there was a show on TV called Fringe. Do you remember that show? It was a sci-fi show. [ Stacey: Yup, Yeah.] Yeah. So there was this, actually there was more than one, but there was this one Fringe podcast. So the people would watch the episode of Fringe, like, I think it was Thursday night at the time they watched the episode of Fringe. Right? And then they will record their thoughts from the fringe episode. Right. And so any episode was. Uh, you know, 48 minutes or something like that, right? But they created a four hour podcast, no lie per episode, four hours, right? And so, you know, because we’re, you know, I, I want to introduce them to forms and styles and things like this, and I’m like, all right, let’s watch this fan based podcast, right? or listen to it.

And we were listening to it and it was like, and I said to them, I said, I don’t want to hear a four hour podcast on anything.

[00:11:30] Stacey Copeland: yeah, I mean that makes a lot of sense. It, you know, a four hour podcast tends to be background listening, things people are putting on for maybe ambiance versus a 15 minute podcast being something people are really going to, to learn something in particular and perhaps pay more close attention to in that way. [ Robert: Right, right.] Doing a little pivot here, a history of Central Florida Podcast I learned about through H Net and the H Podcast Network for those unfamiliar, H-Net, in brief, is a longstanding interdisciplinary online forum really for humanities and social science scholars with a wide variety of different topics and location-based networks and resources available.

Including of course, H podcast. I was curious to hear about how you got involved with H Net, which is something I delved into about two years ago for the first time, and don’t think I’ll ever get to the bottom of all of the content and all of the material that’s available, uh, through H Net as such a, a wonderful initiative. But how did you end up getting involved over there ?

[00:12:40] Robert Cassanello: So I got involved in H Net when I was a graduate student in the early nineties. I had a professor come to a class and said, Hey, there’s this H net thing and had a, essentially a printed up flyer, you know, from a Xerox machine and handed them out. Very digital, right?

[00:12:54] What was introduced to us in this class was sort of, oh, you, you meet up with a network of scholars and asked questions and things like this. So, you know, I think this was ’94, 1994 maybe, and I joined my first H Net network then. From then on, when I became more involved, I realized, well you could start a network and one of the networks I started with a colleague, um, of mine was H Florida. Cuz we were both working in Florida history and we’re like, Hey, there’s no Florida network, let’s create a Florida network and we can kind of grab a bunch of scholars, have conversations and things like this. You know, there certainly were people making podcasts and they were making podcasts as hobbyist, if you will.

I don’t mean that pejoratively, but that was just what was being done. Mm-hmm. , and I was interested in the scholarly pursuit of it. So I was kind of frustrated that there wasn’t this community of scholars, you know, to kind of work with. I went back to H Net . And, uh, there was someone I was working with at h at the time at Yelena Kalinsky, and she was the assistant director at H Net.

[00:13:54] And so her and I just said, we need to create a H podcast. And we created h Podcast as a way to first develop a place to have a dialogue about, um, what academic podcasting is. And the other was to review podcasts because it was so hard to get podcasts reviewed. [Stacey:Mm-hmm.] . And so I’ve been overseeing a reviews project at H Podcast.

Initially we reviewed books on podcasting and then we moved into actual podcasts themselves. And I think I, I don’t know if I, if I’m correct in putting this out there, but I’ll put this out there cuz I don’t know if I’m wrong or not, but I think we were the academic reviews of podcasts out there.

[00:14:35] Stacey Copeland: Yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised given, uh, what would it have been, like 2014 around…

[00:14:39] Robert Cassanello: yeah. I don’t remember the exact year off the top of my head.

[00:14:43] Stacey Copeland: I know the, um, Radio Doc Review journal, uh, was started around that time too, led by Siobhan McHugh, but they were, and still are very focused more on like the critical analysis of audio documentary work, of podcasts, um, more broadly rather than a focus on scholarly podcasting. So perhaps more to explore from that era.

[00:15:06] Robert Cassanello: I’m sure someone will stop us and say, you’re wrong, there was this review.

[00:15:11] Stacey Copeland: But yeah, you, so you were trying to get your podcast reviewed. You couldn’t find a place-

[00:15:15] Robert Cassanello: Because I mean, that’s what’s important, right? I mean, if you produce something and you’re saying this is original knowledge. Which is what our intent was with history of Central Florida podcast. We were trying to produce original knowledge. It needs to be reviewed, it needs to be considered scholarship. I created a kind of little package and I gave them to review editors, you know, and said, you need to review this because it’s original knowledge you’re reviewing other digital projects.

[00:15:37] Why not a podcast? in that pursuit, I realized that we needed H Podcast up and running . It took me four years to get a history of Central Florida reviewed in journals. And so in that four years is when Yelena and I got H Podcast up and running, got a reviews program up and running. We created a set of guidelines of how to review podcasts with, with H Podcast. Maybe it was three and a half years in one of the journal editors came to me and said, Hey, we’re gonna review your podcast, but we just don’t know how to do it. Do you have any advice? And I was able to give them the review guidelines we did at H Podcast . So it was this really kind of crazy full circle, right?

Where it was like, okay, you know, we’re reviewing podcasts, this is what we’re doing. Maybe this will help you in your reviewers review podcasts. So it was, I had to beg people initially to, to review podcasts (laughter) and now people kind of come to me and they’re like, Hey, I heard I could review a podcast.

[00:16:29] Stacey Copeland: So in that sense, you know, running H Podcast for I guess almost 10 years, maybe eight years at this point, what direction do you hope to see scholarly podcasting going, uh, or headed to next in the next few years to come? Particularly, you know, the social sciences and humanities context that we’re in here .

[00:16:48] Robert Cassanello: I would like to see, uh, the, the future person and their podcast project have a very clear path to multiple reviews. I mean, I got two reviews from my history Central Florida podcast. I mean, that was exhausting just to get those two.

I, I don’t think there was a third journal that was gonna review that podcast. And I would like to see a place where, you know, a podcast can get reviewed in five venues or six venues, just like a book would . You know, I’d really like to see people use H Podcast as a site for original knowledge, right? Like maybe set up panels at conferences on podcasting, or, you know, work on edited collections on podcasting, or even books or something like that. Where people are using the site to kind of further those kind of ideas.

[00:17:33] We have kind of small conversations on each podcast along those lines, but nothing yet has kind of filtered a out into something that’s sort of like, okay, here’s, you know, this idea germinated from bowels of H Podcast . That moment hasn’t happened, but I I, I’m hoping that sometime soon,

You know, I have to say that I’m really impressed with what you all are doing. I don’t think I could have imagined , you know, where you’re sort of taking things at this point. I mean, I felt like a lone voice for a long time. Uh, maybe that’s just cuz I’m, I’m unfriendly and I don’t have a lot of people in my in my network, (laughter) but, Yelena, I think was the first person to turn me on to what y’all were doing. You all are doing things I would not have imagined, you know, even a few years ago. So my hat’s off to you.

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[00:18:17] Stacey Copeland: Well, thank you so much, Robert. Alright,

[00:18:19] Robert Cassanello: great.

[00:18:24] Stacey Copeland: A big thank you to Robert for joining us here on Amplified this month. If you have comments or additional thoughts on our conversation today or other amplified topics, please do reach out. We’re always interested in hearing. Other folks engaging with scholarly podcasting and alternative modes of academic publishing.

Thanks for listening to Amplified a podcast, an audio blog, about the sounds of scholarship coming to you each month from our team here at the Amplify Podcast Network.

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Guest Bio

Robert Cassanello is an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida. He is a social historian interested in public history. His book To Render Invisible: Jim Crow and Public Life in New South Jacksonville won the 2014 Harry Moore Award by the Florida Historical Society. He has also produced numerous media projects such as the films, The Committee, Filthy Dreamers and Marching Forward with Dr. Lisa Mills. The films have screened at numerous state, national and international film festivals and their films have won several awards including a Suncoast Emmy© and College TV Emmy©. Additionally he produced the podcasts RICHES of Central Florida, A History of Central Florida Podcast, Florida Historical Quarterly Podcast, and The Florida Constitutions Podcast. He has won the Dunn Internet Broadcasting Award with the Florida Historical Society for his work in podcasting. Dr. Cassanello also was a featured voice on the weekly public radio program Florida Frontiers produced by the Florida Historical Society between 2013 and 2016.

Links and Resources

H-Podcast on H-Net – https://networks.h-net.org/h-podcast

A History of Central Florida Podcast – https://stars.library.ucf.edu/ahistoryofcentralfloridapodcast/

Radio Doc Review Journal – https://ro.uow.edu.au/rdr/

Intro + Outro Theme Music: Pxl Cray – Blue Dot Studios (2016)

Boom SFX from Freesound.org – “Magic Star Retro Sparkle” and “SRS Cinematic Hit

Written and produced by: Stacey Copeland