ECU professor celebrates 15 seasons of Civil War Talk Radio podcast

Bookcases teeming with more than 1,000 books from floor to ceiling surround history professor Dr. Gerald Prokopowicz on three sides in his small office at East Carolina University. Tucked away on the third floor of the Brewster Building, Prokopowicz has spent years chatting about these publications, nearly 400 of them in particular.

Over the past 15 years, well before the word podcast even existed, Prokopowicz has been engaging a worldwide audience through a weekly, hourlong show called Civil War Talk Radio. Each episode is recorded live, directly from his office, and his monthly listener count has topped 70,000.

“Every week is interesting, I have to say. If it weren’t, I would stop doing it,” Prokopowicz said.

Prokopowicz talks to one person per show, which is typically broken into three 20-minute segments. Over the course of the 15 seasons, he has conducted 469 hours of live interviews.

“I have an informal five-year rule not to repeat the same guest,” Prokopowicz said. “There have been a handful of guests who have been on two or three times. So I would guess at least 400 different people have been on the show.”

He said 90% of his guests tend to be authors, but not all of them. Prokopowicz gives the audience a chance to hear from authors, musicians, artists, preservationists and other people in fields connected to the Civil War.

To determine the authors he will talk with on air, Prokopowicz reviews professional journals and commercial and university presses to see what books may be coming out on a Civil War topic.

Prokopowicz conducts each of the podcast interviews directly from his office in ECU’s Brewster Building.

Publishers also contact him to help promote an upcoming book. They want their author to be on the show, and Prokopowicz said he receives a new book in the mail nearly every other day.

“I will look at it and see if it’s something I think would be interesting to the listener. I don’t interview people who have written books that I don’t think are useful,” he said, pointing out a bin of books behind his desk that will not make it to the show.

According to Prokopowicz, some books are better than others, and he reads each book from cover to cover before conducting an interview on air with the author. He discusses specific chapters or sections with the author, something he says they enjoy, knowing he has done his research.

Some well-known individuals have appeared on the show throughout the years, including historians James McPherson, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Gary Gallagher, as well as artist Don Troiani, filmmaker Ken Burns and the late Pulitzer-winning journalist Tony Horwitz.

“There are some guests who are more overtly outgoing and entertaining,” Prokopowicz said. “Gary Gallagher is a wonderful guest because he is not the least bit shy with his opinions and views. We don’t agree on everything, so there’s also room for us to have some back-and-forth, which is nice.”

The first 10 minutes of Prokopowicz’s show is a monologue, where he has discussed all sorts of topics from his daughter’s soccer team and Pirate sports to issues pertaining to the ECU campus, in general, and challenges he sees in higher education and state administration.

Over the years, Prokopowicz has dealt with some struggles, including an interview with two young authors whose book that tackled the topic of the beards of Civil War generals proved a bit obscure.

“Stretching that out into an hour was a little bit challenging,” he said. “They were delightful people, so I was very empathetic and really wanted things to go well, but it took some doing.”

Some of his most enjoyable moments of the show include getting to be part of a community, revisiting his own opinions and trying to persuade others that his views or opinions are correct, but also listening and perhaps reconsidering his ideas based on other people’s discussions and feedback.

Prokopowicz has a number of selections ready to go for his podcast’s 16th season, which kicked off Wednesday, Aug. 28, with guest Timothy Orr.

“I like being part of the history; the Civil War community, which is broader than the academic community,” Prokopowicz said.

He recently attended the annual meeting of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, which draws 300 people every year, and of those, only 5% are professional historians or history professors. The rest are just interested in the subject, said Prokopowicz.

“What I like,” Prokopowicz said, “through the show, I have talked to a lot of my colleagues around the country and then at a meeting like this we get to meet face-to-face. It’s like we already know each other.

“And I also get to meet listeners. I get to talk to them and ask what they like and who they want to hear on the show. You get this feedback and response from individuals that is great,” he said. “As professors, especially in history, we don’t spend enough time talking to the public. And history isn’t any good if the public isn’t using it. It has to be consumed.”

As a professor of public history, Prokopowicz is dedicated to training students to practice history outside of academia, and to removing the artificial barriers that divide academic historians from public historians and from the public itself.

Dr. Christopher Oakley, professor and chair of the Department of History, said, “There’s a lot of interest in history, but professional historians have not always done the best job of directly engaging the public. That should be an important part of what we do.

“Gerry’s podcast was one of the first of its kind, and he has had enormous success. It’s good for the department, for ECU and for the discipline of history.”

Prokopowicz said he will continue the show as long as it is interesting. Each show and each year go by faster than expected, he said.

Civil War Talk Radio is produced by Internet radio station Voice America and airs live every Wednesday at 7 p.m. EST. A website and Facebook page created by a fan more than 10 years ago is maintained, free of charge, for Prokopowicz. Prokopowicz keeps in contact with the fan about the seasons and gives him a list of upcoming interviews, as well as books he may not get to discuss on air.

Prokopowicz has discussed more than 400 books and conducted 469 hours of live interviews over the 15 seasons of his Civil War Talk Radio podcast.