ECU history professor talks Civil War topics in weekly podcast

The word podcast was barely in use when Gerald Prokopowicz began recording “Civil War Talk Radio.” But the professor and chair of the Department of History at East Carolina University has been engaging a worldwide audience through his weekly show for nearly a decade.

Produced by Internet radio station Voice America, “Civil War Talk Radio” airs live every Wednesday at 7 p.m. on www.voiceamerica.com/show/2205/civil-war-talk-radio.

Each episode is recorded in Prokopowicz’s office on the third floor of the Brewster Building at ECU.

“Initially the idea was that Internet radio would be the next big thing, and they wanted content for their shows. So someone at the station came up with the idea about a show on the Civil War,” Prokopowicz said. “They found someone to host the first four episodes, and for the fifth one, I was contacted in October 2004. So I did one. Then I did the next one. Then I did the next 210 or so in a row.”

Each week, Prokopowicz and a guest discuss various aspects of Civil War history. He said the show forces him to keep current on recent publications about the Civil War. He reads nearly one book a week – or approximately 40 books a year – with short breaks during the summer.

“One of the strengths of the show is that it’s aimed at a knowledgeable audience,” Prokopowicz said.

“If we do a show on the Battle of Gettysburg, I feel free asking the guest, ‘What is your position on the controversy of General Sickles and the Third Corps on July 2?’ without telling the audience what that controversy was; I assume they already know. I think that is the appeal: that it assumes the listener is well informed, or can become well informed by reading up on the topic.”

Prokopowicz hosts expert authors, musicians, artists, preservationists and other people in fields connected to the Civil War, and he has an informal rule not to have someone on the show more than once every five years. Past guests have included well-known historians James McPherson, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Gary Gallagher, as well as artist Don Troiani and filmmaker Ken Burns.

Another strength is the show’s informal conversation, Prokopowicz said. He has an hour with his guest without a prepared list of questions.

Prokopowicz draws a knowledgeable audience for discussions about topics related to the Civil War. He delivers podcasts on the Civil War from his office in the Brewster Building on campus

“I learned from the old Siskel and Ebert movie review show,” Prokopowicz said.

“I met Gene Siskel once in Chicago. He recorded a piece for a museum I worked in at the time, and he talked about how the secret of their show was that there are three people – the two reviewers and the audience – and they form a triangle. They’d look at the camera and address you, the viewer, and it was a 3-way conversation, although that was invisible to the viewer. They made you the third actor in their conversation without you knowing it.

“That’s the lesson I’ve tried to take for this podcast: that there are three of us there – the author, the listener, and myself. And I’ll occasionally address the listener directly to make clear they are here, too. There’d be no show if they weren’t there listening.”  

Prokopowicz receives a fair amount of email from people who say they didn’t know much about the war, but that they have learned a lot by listening to the show. Some people have playfully complained that they’ve spent too much money on books because they have to buy that week’s book and read it.

“I found the podcast by happenstance back in February this year and have since listened to every show,” emailed one listener. “You have mentioned in a few shows in the past that your podcast isn’t something people who have little knowledge in the Civil War will probably listen to, but I am one of those who had very little memory of my history classes way back in elementary school. So I have learned a lot from your show and the authors whose books I’ve purchased as a result.”

Although this was not the way the show was initially envisioned, it is how the show became popular. Many listeners download episodes after they air – sometimes years later. Additionally, it has proven a useful way to engage a larger audience beyond ECU, Greenville and North Carolina. Prokopowicz points out the podcasts to his public history students as a new way to communicate broadly about history.

The show has spawned a following. One individual has generated a Facebook page dedicated to the show. Another fan has created a website (www.impedimentsofwar.org) where visitors will find links to current and archived episodes, more information about books discussed on the show and a way to donate funds for Prokopowicz to purchase new books to read and use for future interviews. These sites create another level of engagement with Prokopowicz’s audience, in addition to the email he often receives.

“Your program makes me feel like I’m part of the larger Civil War community,” emailed one listener. “It’s always a happy day when iTunes delivers a new show!”

Another listener wrote, “I am an 8th grade U.S. history teacher at University School of Milwaukee in Wisconsin, a Michigan native and a Civil War enthusiast. My Civil War unit is the highlight of my year (for my students and myself), and I must say that your podcasts have made a huge difference in my instruction. I listen to your podcasts consistently, and they give me an amazing breadth of knowledge about and appreciation for the Civil War. My students instantly sense this affinity for Civil War studies and, as a result, dive into it themselves.”

In corresponding with this history teacher, Prokopowicz has discussed doing a show on teaching in high school, and said he will probably host the teacher next season.

Prokopowicz plans to continue producing the show as long as it remains interesting – something that seems not to be a challenge.

“The show is generally interesting to me because every week I learn something,” he said. “There’s no shortage of people with interesting stories.”