The grand sweep of Doug Metzger’s Literature and History podcast

Literature and History hosts
Literature and History creator Doug Metzger and his dog Parker.

One of my favorite podcasts is Literature and History, launched nearly three years ago by a literature PhD from California named Doug Metzger. As the name suggests, the show is a history of literature – starting from the Tower of Babel origin myth and continuing on through Ancient Greece and much more. Each episode features textual readings, analysis, historical context, and Metzger’s endearingly goofy brand of humor.

I enjoy this podcast for both the scope of its ambition, and the enthusiasm in which Metzger delivers the content. To give you an idea how massive the project is: we’re now 60 episodes in, with about 100 hours of audio published, but it hasn’t even reached the AD time period yet! The most recent episode was about the Roman poet Ovid, who wrote in BCE 4.

Even if you’re not a literature or even a history fan, you’ll enjoy this podcast for its entertainment value. In addition to being a scholar, Metzger is a talented musician and cartoonist. He produces his own orchestral background music for the show, and also delivers one comedy song per episode.

Have you ever wondered what Oedipus would sound like as a rapper? Check out Doug’s video to find out:

Now for the serious questions. In the following interview with Doug Metzger, you’ll discover why he started the Literature and History podcast, how he produces it, whether he earns revenue from it, and his ultimate goals for the show.

A connected historical narrative

My first question was whether Metzger knew from the start that it would be such a large, ongoing project?

“I had a feeling it was going to be gigantic,” he replied. “By my count, we should get to Old English around Episode 103 or 4.”

The main reason it’s such a large project is to do with how the academic system treats the history of literature. According to Metzger, it is “subdivided and compartmentalized.” For example, Greek texts are typically taught by a different college department than Middle English.

“I wanted to put it all together,” he said, “to at least put the major literary works associated with these disciplines into a connected historical narrative.”

A quick look at the podcast’s structure shows how Metzger has melded this history together so far. The first 6 episodes take us from Cuneiform texts from about BCE 3100, up to ancient Egypt in the 2nd millenium BC. In episode 7 we reach our first named author, the ancient Greek “farmer poet” Hesiod from the BCE 700s. Six episodes are then spent on Hesiod’s contemporary, Homer. In episode 15 we reach the Old Testament Bible, which is a 10-part series. In episode 25, we’re back to the Ancient Greeks. Episode 42 introduces the Roman era, which we’re still in at time of writing (episode 60).

The latest episode, focusing on Roman poet Ovid.

Another thing I really like about this podcast is that it puts old literature into the context of its times. I’ve learned a surprising amount about what life was like in biblical times and ancient Greece from the show. As Metzger puts it, there is plenty of “pure history” in addition to the textual summaries and analyses.

“Too many of my professors and GSIs [Graduate Student Instructors] were lax about contexts and dates,” he explained. “I have a lot of listeners who appreciate L&H precisely because it anchors literary texts to a latticework of connected historical events. You can use Freud all you want to try and understand Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, but to me, knowing that play was first staged in Athens in 429 BCE, and knowing what was happening in that dark first phase of the Peloponnesian War, is a heck of a lot more informative than Freud.”

The music

As noted above, music is a key part of the podcast. You’ll often hear lush orchestral music in the background, as Metzger reads a poem from Virgil or a few lines of a play from Euripides. I wondered how he produces this music, since to my (admittedly amateur) ears it sounds like an actual orchestra playing. Does he do this all by himself?

“Everything in the show is me,” he replied. “I come from a family of classical musicians, so I’ve played piano all my life.”

In addition, he plays fingerstyle guitar, mandolin and banjo. In the podcast, he does all the vocals and vocal harmonies in his songs (often there are multi-tracked harmonies, or he’s singing lines for multiple characters). For the orchestral compositions, he uses Native Instruments – a software suite that samples real instruments.

Doug Metzger’s recording studio; set up here for tracking folk or bluegrass.

The music and sounds from the podcast are a pleasure to listen to. Unsurprisingly, I discovered that Metzger puts in a lot of time per episode getting the music right.

“While each episode usually has an instrumental theme and interstitial pieces composed specifically for it, those go together pretty quickly (2–3 hours at the most). The comedy songs take anywhere from two to ten hours, depending on the genre and instrumentation. The further the genre is from acoustic folk/jazz/blues, the more time it takes me. I try to do things as quickly as possible, but multipart vocal harmony often requires a number of takes to get the timing just right.”

Distribution & growth

After the recording of each episode is done, the music added, and all the post-production work completed, Metzger distributes it using a service called Libsyn. This hosts the MP3 and distributes the file to the various podcatchers – Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Podbean, and so on.

I asked Metzger does he know how many listeners he’s amassed over the past few years?

“Podcasters have total download statistics by IP address available on Libsyn, and plays per episode/day/week/month,” he told me. “So if I wanted to see how many people in Maine listened to my show on Catullus in September of 2018, I could track that down.”

He says he’s had “about a million total downloads at this point,” but there’s “no easy statistical way of seeing how many people have listened to which programs, or who is subscribed on which podcatcher.” But he estimates an average of 17,000 people have listened to each episode on the show over its history.

Statistics aside, Metzger thinks the show “has grown slowly, and continues to.”

Revenue & social media

With all the work he puts into the podcast, it’s easy to forget that Metzger also has a full-time job (he works in software development). So has he been rewarded for his podcasting efforts with much revenue?

He replied that financial contributions come from product purchases on his website, donations, and Patreon support. They’re “enough to pay the costs of the podcast, including books.” Overall, he estimates he’s “a quarter of the way” to making a living from the podcast.

One way to support the show is to purchase bonus content, including albums of the music.

With that said, Metzger admits he hasn’t gone full tilt at trying to extract a revenue from Literature and History.

“I’ve done a pretty meager job of asking for bonus content purchases, donations, and Patreon pledges. But grubbing for money at the end of a [content] rich program on, say, Ecclesiastes or Seneca just seems out of place.”

He also says he’s “absolutely terrible at marketing.” He only reluctantly uses social media and doesn’t promote those channels during the podcast episodes.

“I’m always genuinely happy to interact with listeners,” he said, “and since some prefer social media, I use it. But my (thus far only modestly effective) strategy has been to try and produce enduring content and let it speak for itself, rather than posting ephemera on Facebook and Twitter at regular intervals.”

There’s no question in my mind that the content on Literature and History will endure. It’s timeless history and despite its length (100 hours and counting), it’s a joy to listen to if you’re at all interested in the history of world literature.

What’s next for Doug Metzger?

I ended by asking Metzger is he has plans to convert some or all of the content he’s produced into a book, or perhaps even a tv series (I’d certainly watch if it was a Netflix show). Or does he see the podcast itself as the final work of art?

“I guess if I were approached by a publisher about making L&H into a multipart literary history series, I’d probably go for it,” he admitted. “But I’m hardly at a circulation level which would encourage publishers to seek me out for this purpose, and for academic publishers the grand-narrative literary history is not currently in style.”

Ultimately, Metzger seems quite content that his material is best suited to be a podcast series.

There’s plenty more to come from Literature and History in 2019.

“Part of the magic of a literature podcast is reading it into a mike. I can read and soundtrack, for instance, Sappho or the Psalms or Petronius in such a way that clarifies these texts and brings them to life. I can voice a final line that I know is the best sentence in the episode, and then have outro music that leaves this sentence to glow and smolder for a moment before the next part of the program begins. I wouldn’t be able to do that in a hardcopy book.”

However he does have “some other projects that I never talk about in the show” that he intends to try and market to publishers. These are works of fiction rather than educational non-fiction.

“I figure that if my podcast continues to grow, and if I can convince a publishing company that my manuscripts are worth putting into print, I’ll give that a try. If not, I have no plans to quit L&H. I love writing whether it’s fiction or non-fiction – that’s always been the case and I suspect it always will!”

Personally, I hope Metzger continues with Literature and History until he racks up episode 1000. It’s a wonderful resource he’s built, completely indie-style, and I think it will stand the test of time.

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