Thursday, January 06, 2022 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Five years ago this week, I launched the first episode of what became a weekly podcast and blog called Charleston Time Machine. The past sixty months have passed like a blur that I can scarcely recall because I’ve been so immersed in the process of planning, researching, and creating new episodes. At this anniversary moment , I’d like to deviate from the usual format and reflect on the past and the future of this strange endeavor. Yes, there are going to be some changes, but we’ll get to that in due time. First, I’d like to answer a few common questions and provide a behind-the-scenes peek at how the sausage is made.
 

 

How Did CTM Get Started?

Charleston Time Machine is a nerdy sort of podcast that strives to present original content to a broad and varied audience. It represents a mixture of my academic background (the details of which I won’t bore you with) and my professional position within a public library system in a diverse and historic community. In short, I was trained to locate, transcribe, and digest materials from historical sources and repackage that data for the benefit of curious readers.

After moving to Charleston in 1999, I worked as an archivist for the South Carolina Historical Society between 2000 and 2005. It was my job to know the contents of the society’s large collection of manuscripts and to help researchers find the facts and stories they sought. In the spring of 2005, I joined the staff of the Charleston County Public Library as archivist and manager of the library’s “special collections.” In many respects, my duties were the same as those at the Historical Society. That is to say, it was my job to immerse myself in the library’s collection of manuscripts and rare books in order to guide visitors to the materials they sought.

In 2006, the library administration began encouraging staff to present more public programs rather than relying heavily on the talents of visiting lecturers. Because of my academic and teaching background, I found it relatively easy to create and present original programs. To generate ideas for programs, I drew obscure facts and stories from dusty archival materials and tried to package them in a manner that would appeal to audiences interested in various aspects of local history. The response from both audiences and library administration was positive. I was encouraged to keep inventing new programs, and the work of creating and presenting lectures and slideshows became a large part of my career.

Beginning with the earliest live programs I did back in 2006, I frequently heard questions from citizens who were unable to attend in person. Potential audience members wanted to know if there was a recorded version of a specific program, or was I planning to publish some version of it in the near future. The short answer, unfortunately, was frequently no. It takes a lot of work to assemble materials like a PowerPoint slideshow and present a live program, and the bulk of my workday was filled with archival duties behind the scenes. By the time I finished one program, I was already scrambling to assemble the next. A colleague helped me produce video versions of a handful of programs in the early 2000s, but, in general, I simply did not have the time to create more permanent versions of live programs.

After several years of juggling duties as both manager of the library’s archive and host of public programs, I reached a crossroads that required some sort of change in my career path. The library administration wanted me to present more programs, and I wanted to streamline my very busy and varied schedule. The solution gestated over a couple of years and came to fruition in the spring of 2014. In March of that year, I passed the mantle of “archivist” to a colleague and stepped into a new role as “historian” for the Charleston County Public Library.

At that same time, I started using the phrase “Charleston Time Machine” as an umbrella term for the numerous live programs that I presented at various branches of the library system. CCPL’s institutional website in 2014 was too antiquated to host a blog, so I used my knowledge of basic HTML coding to create a free blog on Wordpress.com and purchased the domain name “charlestontimemachine.” My goal wasn’t to bypass the library’s administration for personal gain, but rather to grasp the necessary tools to promote my public work across the community.

The more programs I presented, the more requests I heard for recorded versions of them. Then, in the spring of 2016, CCPL gained a license for a low-power FM radio station. Shortly thereafter, my supervisor asked me to create—as soon as possible—some sort of regularly-scheduled radio program (preferably on a weekly basis). I was given a small budget to procure a few pieces of equipment and then scrambled to learn how to use them. I started recording weekly episodes in September 2016, which aired immediately on WYLA-FM.

Shortly after commencing that work, I realized that traditional radio was not the answer to my programming conundrum. A radio program, after all, is just as ephemeral as a live presentation before a studio audience. If you don’t hear the program at the moment of broadcast, there’s no way to access it again. What I needed was a permanent place to park my audio files on the Internet so that listeners could access the material at their convenience. In twenty-first-century terms, I needed to transform my radio programs into a podcast series.

I had explored the possibility of creating a podcast since my earliest days at CCPL, but, for a variety of reasons, couldn’t gain any traction. In my experience, the most difficult part of creating a podcast is determining how to distribute the content on the Internet. One has to own or rent space on a computer server to host the large digital audio files necessary to create a podcast. Then there’s a variety of complicated coding and software needed to enable listeners to access the materials with a minimum of fuss. In 2016, CCPL’s website was too antiquated to host a podcast feed, and there was no one on staff with the right skills to help me surmount the obstacles.

To simplify the technical issues, I purchased a basic plan from Wordpress.com that cost a few dollars a month. By the end of 2016, I had recorded around half a dozen radio programs and felt I was ready to launch a podcast. The first episode appeared on January 17th, 2017. Because I already had a blog on Wordpress at that time, I mounted both audio and text versions of the program online at the same time. A few months later, CCPL hired a number of talented folks with broadcasting and technical skills to spare. Plans for a new institutional website coalesced in the summer of 2017 and came to fruition by the end of the year.

During the early weeks of 2018, just after the first anniversary of the Time Machine podcast, we began uploading the digital files of first fifty-odd episodes to the library’s new website. CCPL also purchased an account with Soundcloud to host the existing and future audio files associated with this podcast. For a few weeks the spring of 2018, the Time Machine podcast emanated from both WordPress and Soundcloud as the transition progressed. That duplicate practice ended on April 13th, however, when I closed the Wordpress site and embraced the podcast’s new home within the official website of the Charleston County Public Library. Our low-power radio station, WYLA, disappeared soon afterwards, but the Time Machine podcast continued as an asynchronous audio phenomenon.

 

Why Use A Script?

From the beginning of this venture, I wanted my podcast to sound like a professional radio program that you might hear on South Carolina ETV or NPR. To achieve that level of polish, I chose to prepare a script for every episode rather than improvise into the microphone. While I’m perfectly comfortable speaking off-the-cuff in front of a live audience, I believe the subject matter I’m dealing with doesn’t work well in a loose, stream-of-consciousness presentation, especially when you can’t see the speaker or any other visual materials. To help the audience focus on the topic at hand, and to make the most of the listener’s time, I decided to organize my thoughts and produce a script before turning on the microphone.

The task of writing a script for every episode involves a lot of work, of course, but it also helps me to create a robust, permanent record of the program. I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing in the early days of the podcast, but the process evolved into a comfortable formula by the end of the first year. Episode No. 57, for example, was the first to begin with a brief summary of the topic at hand, and I’ve maintained that pattern for nearly four years. Episode No. 63 was the first to include footnotes, but that change stemmed from the move to a new web platform rather than the creation of a new work habit. I have footnotes for the texts of the first sixty two programs, and I’m slowly revising those early programs to insert the footnotes into their respective webpages. Early in the second year of the podcast, I realized that I could use the Time Machine as a legitimate publishing platform. The goal with every episode, therefore, is to create an essay that stands on its own as a professional document, and might serve as a chapter or part of a chapter in a future book.

 

What’s Your Recording Process?

The wonders of modern digital technology make it possible for anyone to produce their own broadcast-quality podcast or video with a minimum of equipment and training. Fancy recording studios with soundproof rooms, high-end microphones, and trained audio engineers are wonderful luxuries, but they are beyond my pay grade. I have a simple, portable rig that I can wrangle with two hands and fit into a small backpack. My “studio” space varies according to circumstances, and hopefully listeners don’t notice the subtle tonal differences between one episode and the next.

I record each episode using a Røde Podcaster microphone that is plugged directly into a small digital recording device called a Zoom H5. Armed with monitoring headphones and a pop filter to reduce plosive consonants, I simply press the record button and read the script from my laptop screen. You might have heard that many podcasters plug their microphones into their computers and record directly to the hard drive, but that approach doesn’t work for me. Because I’m reading a script from the computer, I found it cumbersome to switch back and forth between the audio and text on the same screen. Most podcasters don’t read from a script, of course, so my recording setup reflects the atypical nature of this podcast.

The process of recording the narration for an episode usually takes up to three times as long as the finished podcast because I frequently pause and repeat phases or sentences or entire paragraphs. Sometimes I get tongue-tied or run out of breadth, so I’ll pause and try again until I get a smoother take. Sometimes an airplane flies overhead, or a siren screeches down the street, so I’ll pause, wait for silence, and repeat myself. Sometimes it takes a dozen takes to pronounce a difficult word or name. Sometimes I’m having a bad voice day because of allergies, and I have to pause every few seconds to cough and clear my throat. I’ve learned not to worry about such problems, however. Just like in the world of professional audio recording, one can simply keep the meter running and leave a small amount of quiet space between successive takes.

Once I’ve recorded the entire script, I transfer the digital audio file or files from the Zoom H5 to my Macbook computer and open them in Garageband. This program is pretty simple to use, but it takes a lot of practice, patience, and concentration to whittle the disjointed rough recording into a smooth, finished product. Hopefully the listeners can’t tell that every episode is a patchwork of nearly a hundred small pieces that have been chopped and spliced to create a continuous narrative. Like the initial recording, the editing process takes me three to four times the length of the finished episode. If an episode runs for twenty minutes, for example, then it probably took me around one hour to record it and close to ninety minutes to edit the rough audio down to the finished length.

After editing the audio down to a single, continuous file, I splice-in the intro and the outro. In case you’re wondering, the fiddle tune heard at the beginning of every episode (so far) is a seventeenth-century English dance tune called “Cockleshells,” as performed by David Douglass and friends. I then export the finished audio package from Garageband in the more compact MP3 format. Then I upload the text of the script, illustrations, and the MP3 file to a server at the library. From that point, one of my colleagues at CCPL handles the technical work of mounting, distributing, and publicizing the podcast. Sam Tyson has been the library’s digital content coordinator since the summer of 2017, and he deserves a lot of credit for the success, improvement, and survival of the Charleston Time Machine. The audience for this nerdy podcast has grown exponentially since Sam’s arrival, and it continues to grow at an astonishing rate thanks to his patient work.

 

How Do You Pick Topics?

My goal is to present information that isn’t readily available in other formats, and to focus on less familiar aspects of local history. More specifically, my programs spring from information found in primary source materials, like manuscripts and historic newspapers. After more than two decades of intensive research in various archives, I’ve collected a large cache of historical data—several thousands of pages of typed notes—on a wide variety of subjects. At this moment, I have a running list of topics for nearly three hundred future programs, and I’m always adding new ideas as they come to mind.

Because this podcast is intended for a general audience, I make an effort to vary the timeframe, geography, and subject of the various episodes. I realize that not everyone shares my passion for the colonial-era history of urban Charleston, for example, so I try to intersperse such materials with programs that explore different places, themes, and eras of local history. If you don’t care for the subject matter of one episode, the next one might be completely different. Hopefully there’s something for everyone in the long run.

You might notice that some episodes are broadly encyclopedic in nature, like the episode defining the concept of “free people of color,” while others are smaller narratives, like the story of Catherine’s struggle for freedom. These contrasting styles of presentation involve different kinds of research, but I enjoy them both. I often wonder if the audience prefers one style or the other, and my own preferences change from week to week. In the future, you might perceive a shift towards one or the other, as the podcast evolves. I have so many ideas for upcoming programs that I might have to become more selective as the years roll by.

 

Do You Have Favorite Episodes?

I frequently find it difficult to remember the content of last week’s program because I’m scrambling to create the next one. Looking back over the past five years, however, I have fond memories of creating a pair of programs about Charles Barker Nixon, a colorful Charlestonian of 1876 (see Episode No. 75 and No. 76). I’m also proud of the three-part series called “A Woman’s Progress in Early South Carolina” (see Episode No. 12, No. 13, and No. 14), although those early texts deserve to be expanded.

I suppose I’m also partial to the biographical episodes about such characters as Abraham the Unstoppable, Elizabeth McQueen, Bee Jackson, Doctor Ceasar, Charles Shinner, Catherine, and Albro, that could be expanded into screenplays for one of the popular streaming channels. I have plans for further programs about obscure but interesting characters from Charleston’s past, so stay tuned.

 

What Does the Future Hold?

Over the past five years, I created 222 episodes containing a total of more than 900,000 words that fill more than 100 hours of audio. That word-count translates into approximately 2,700 pages of double-spaced text, or approximately 2,000 single-spaced pages. At this rate, I’m producing a book-length collection of essays every nine months. As you might imagine, this work has been exhausting. The task of producing a new episode almost every week for the past five years—always racing to meet a deadline—has consumed far more hours than I care to admit. I’ve taken a few holidays during that time, but in general I’ve devoted the bulk of my time and energy to keeping the Time Machine in motion. To continue the podcast into the future, and to facilitate better promotion of every episode, it’s time make some changes.

Starting in January 2022, new episodes of Charleston Time Machine will appear every other week. During the off-weeks, the library’s website will include a brief preview of the upcoming episode. If you’re subscribed to the Time Machine newsletter, you’ll receive that preview via email. This new routine will hopefully facilitate some breathing room to conduct ongoing research, develop new programs, and collaborate with my colleagues at CCPL in new multimedia ventures. In the coming months, you’ll notice some changes to the Time Machine’s homepage on the library’s website and some improved publicity across social media platforms. Avid listeners will notice a few audio tweaks as well. In short, our goal is to move the podcast forward with a more sustainable schedule while simultaneously increasing its quality and visibility.

Whether you listen to Charleston Time Machine through a podcatching service or read the text from the library’s website, I thank you for your attention and feedback. I’m also very thankful for the support and encouragement I’ve received over the years from my colleagues and supervisors at the Charleston County Public Library. CCPL afforded me a very long leash to create this odd phenomenon, and I strive to repay that freedom with healthy dividends.

Finally, I’ll close this fifth-anniversary review by drawing your attention to what might be an obvious fact. The Charleston Time Machine podcast is a free service provided by the Charleston County Public Library. There is no advertising or product placement of any kind within the podcast, and there never will be anything of the sort. I don’t receive any extra money by increasing the size of the audience. By voicing your appreciation for the Charleston Time Machine podcast and sharing its free content with your friends and neighbors, however, you can help ensure that it will continue to thrive in the coming years.

On that note, I’ll close for now. As always, I look forward to seeing y’all in the future.

 

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