‘History Chicks’ bring personality to a dusty subject

04/07/2014 6:22 PM

04/07/2014 6:22 PM

Beckett Graham knows that, in the eyes of many, history isn’t considered the most glamorous subject.

Think of history teachers, and your mind automatically snaps to actor Ben Stein, whose monotone ramblings on America’s economic history left a classroom full of high school students droopy-eyed in the 1986 film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”

“You know everybody’s view of history teachers is that guy,” says Graham, who lives in Brookside. “And everybody’s drooling on the desk.”

So when Graham approached pal Susan Vollenweider back in 2010 with the idea of doing a history-based podcast, the two set out to keep things interesting.

In the time since, the pair, known as the History Chicks, have developed a cult-like online following thanks to a casual twist on history and its female figures.

Despite its lack of bells and whistles — unlike many podcasts available on iTunes, “The History Chicks” isn’t professionally produced — their show averages roughly 70,000 downloads per month, has been featured as an iTunes New and Notable and has been nominated for three Podcast Awards.

For the two hosts it has been a surprise midlife passion — one that formed, more or less, out of necessity.

An avid podcast listener, Graham realized a few years back that the podcast she most wanted to hear — an interesting take on historical figures — didn’t exist. So she contacted Vollenweider about the idea of doing a two-woman show introducing listeners to a collection of interesting female characters.

“No idea how to do it. (But) ignorance is bliss: I figured, ‘How hard can it be?’ 

” Graham says.

Truth be told, Vollenweider didn’t have a long-standing appreciation for history. “High school history kind of turned me off of history. It’s all wars and treaties and men who fought the wars and wrote the treaties, and it’s kind of dry,” she says.

But the idea intrigued her. Within a month, the women found themselves stationed at Graham’s dining room table, chatting into a microphone about the life and times of their first subject, Marie Antoinette, the last queen of France.

And it didn’t take long for their collective profile to bloom.

Over the past three years, they’ve produced close to 60 episodes on subjects ranging from Cleopatra to Rosa Parks to Julia Child. The pair do about about 10 hourlong episodes per season, a set that typically includes one episode on a fictional character (Cinderella was a popular one; versions of the story have been around a long time) and one voted on by listeners (Jane Austen, for instance).

It starts with an idea, which can come from anywhere: their own curiosity, their listeners. One, Graham points out, was provided by an 8-year-old girl.

After settling on a subject, the women independently mine local libraries for as much material as they can find. They spend the coming weeks digesting their research, avoiding discussion on the topic at hand except for minor questions and comments. When they eventually sit down to record the podcast, it is the first time they will have discussed their subject.

“Any surprise exhibited is genuine surprise,” Graham assures. “We won’t know what’s going to be in the other one’s head.”

With each episode, their goal is the same: introduce listeners to an interesting historical figure in a casual and intimate manner, like sitting at a table, having a cup of coffee.

The women describe themselves as opposites but agree that their differences — Vollenweider lives in Smithville and works in the home while Graham lives in Kansas City and works as a visual merchandiser — add an interesting twist to the show. The two play well off each other, and both regularly pull from their interests and backgrounds to help make the material more accessible.

The discussions are typically light and fun, with a mix of contextual information, lighthearted back-and-forth and small talk ranging from family to political views.

It’s not all that uncommon for a “Harry Potter” or “Doctor Who” reference to make its way into an episode.

“I remember reading one of the comments, back when we read every comment, and there was one that said, ‘Oh, I get it: It’s historically based girl talk.’ And that’s exactly what it is,” says Vollenweider, who also writes columns for The Star’s suburban editions.

Their work caught the attention of the Biography Channel, and last fall the pair flew to New York to record a series of short documentaries on historical figures. The documentaries are available on

biography.com. Find direct links on thehistorychicks.com

.

And as the History Chicks approach the start of their fifth season, they have no plans to stop.

Asked if she worries they’ll someday run out of subjects to profile, Vollenweider made it clear that the possibilities — at least for now — seem endless.

“Just when I think it’s complete, somebody will send us something from somewhere and I’ll do a quick search of somebody I’ve never heard of before.”

In the meantime, they’re content to churn out their particular brand of history-based education — one in which dry traditional discussion is turned on its head, and the characters take center stage.

As Vollenweider puts it, “I couldn’t tell you who wrote what treaty. I couldn’t tell you a lot of dates — I have to look them up. But I can tell you about people.

“I dig people.”

To download episodes of “The History Chicks” podcast, go to thehistorychicks.com. You can also download episodes from iTunes, Stitcher Radio or from podcast aggregators.

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