How 3 History PhD Students Used Podcasting to Harness “The Superstar Effect”

By Scott Rank

Getting noticed in academia is enormously difficult. Scholars compete for attention by having fancy alma maters or getting published in prestigious journals – both of which have acceptance rates in the single digits.

But three PhD students in history were largely able to sidestep this process. Each gained academic clout through unconventional means. They did it in ways that academic publishing or conference presentations would not have made possible.

What do they have in common? All three are history podcasters. They are Chris Gratien from The Ottoman History Podcast, Tamas Kiss from the Medieval Radio Podcast, and me from the History in Five Minutes Podcast. None of them had an exceptional technical knowledge when they started. What they did could be done by just about any academic. In this blog post I will describe how academics can used podcasting to stand out in their fields.

But first I need to describe a behavioral phenomenon that explains why something as simple as podcasting can produce such big results. That phenomenon is called “The Superstar Effect.”

I’ve written elsewhere about the Superstar Effect in academia. Computer science PhD Cal Newport described it in even greater detail in an extensive post on Tim Ferriss’s blog. The Superstar Effect is an economics theory that says in many different fields it pays disproportionally well to be not just very good, but the absolute best. According to a 1981 paper published in the American Economics Review, the top person in any field will get massively more fame, money, and attention than his or her marginally-less-talented competitors.

Understanding the Superstar Effect within academia is simple. According to a recent article in Slate, a new study in Science Advances shows that just a quarter of all universities account for 71 to 86 percent of all tenure-track faculty in the U.S. and Canada in the fields of business, computer science, and history. Eight schools account for half of all history professors.

If a university hiring committee has to choose between two candidates, one a graduate from Harvard and the other from the University of Iowa, all things being equal they will choose the Harvard graduate. That’s why tenure-track job openings get hundreds of job applicants with marginal differences between any one of them, but the job in the end goes to the Ivy League graduate.

But there is a way to get all the benefits of the Superstar Effect without going to Harvard or being published in the American Historical Review. It comes by using a process known as The Superstar Corollary. Newport writes that The Superstar Corollary means being the best in a field makes you disproportionally impressive to the outside world. This effect holds even if the field is not crowded, competitive, or well-known.

This is where podcasting comes in. Being the best podcaster in an academic field is far less difficult than writing dozens of peer-reviewed articles. But you can receive far more benefits from the former despite much less competition.

Chris Gratien is one of the hosts of The Ottoman History Podcast. He began the project in April 2011 during his PhD studies to discuss topics in the field with fellow Ottoman scholars. Although Chris has excellent academic and publishing credentials, he has still triggered The Superstar Effect through podcasting. By recording nearly 200 episodes, he has become a well-known name across Ottoman studies.

The Ottoman History Podcast has no funding or institutional affiliation. Each episode is powered by a laptop, a mixer, and a few microphones. It features a discussion among 2-3 historians on one aspect of Ottoman studies, whether environmental history or poetry in the classical age. Sometimes it is Gratien alone giving a monologue. Despite these humble resources, the show has grown into a social media powerhouse.

Gratien wrote last month that the program currently receives 15,000 plays and downloads per week. The site uses a social media approach based on Facebook, with a core following of 18,000 people. Gratien lectures to the equivalent of a large state university each week. Thanks to numerous shares and retweets of new Ottoman History Podcast episodes, they often reach media professionals focused on foreign affairs and the Middle East.

The second example is Tamas Kiss, a doctoral candidate in Ottoman History at Central European University. He started the CEU Medieval Radio Podcast. Tamas conceived of CEU Medieval Radio in 2011 in the first year of his program because he regretted the enormous amount of knowledge that was being accumulated in the field but would never reach the wider public. Even though exciting ideas were traded among medievalists at conferences and public lectures, the average person still thought that everyone in the Middle Ages believed in a flat earth and burned witches.

The first episode aired on April 25, 2012. It is the only medieval themed radio on the Internet which provides its listeners with verbal content along with authentic medieval and renaissance music, from the Iberian Peninsula to the Ottoman Empire. His goal is for the radio program to become the most listened-to online radio associated with medieval and early modern history and music.

Through the program, Tamas has met top medieval and early modern historians. Over 80 guests have been on the show, including Natalie Zemon Davis and Peter Burke. The recording studio itself is located an hour from the university, which gave him a chance to get to know them while in commute. No such opportunity to talk at such length with such prominent scholars could ever be possible at a conference. The rector of Central European University even invited Tamas to his house for dinner because of CEU Medieval Radio.

The last of the three podcasters is me. I am the host of the History in Five Minutes Podcast. After nearly two years and 114 episodes, the show has over 1 million downloads. My podcast is less academic than Chris’s or Tamas’s but still contains a historical bent. The topics range from common knowledge about the Middle Ages that is incorrect to a five-part series on the mafia.

Doing the podcast has created a whole side career for me as an author of popular history books. I have built up enough of an audience that I knew I could sell a book if I published it on Amazon. Since 2013 I have published 12 short history books online. Some of the more popular titles include “Lost Civilizations: 10 Societies That Vanished Without a Trace” and “Off the Edge of the Map: Marco Polo, Captain Cook, and 9 Travelers and Explorers that Pushed the Boundaries of the Known World.”

The podcast has also led to other unexpected opportunities. A few months ago Amberley Publishing approached me with an offer to write a book about the history of explorers and adventurers. I would have never appeared on their radar if only for my academic writing. It was podcasting and popular history books that made this opportunity possible.

In sum, neither Chris, Tamas, or I had any special experience when we started podcasting. We simply got in front of the microphone and talked about what we knew. It turned into something much larger than any of us could have ever imagined. Podcasting offers huge opportunities for academics who simply reach out and take it.

Scott Rank is a PhD candidate in history at Central European University. He writes and hosts The Scholarpreneur Podcast 



  • On March 23, 2019