Created by academics from the Roy Rosenzweig Center at George Mason University, Consolation Prize is a narrative-style podcast that examines the myriad lives, stories, and experiences of U.S. Consuls in the nineteenth century. As representatives of the American government abroad, consuls were expected to carry out a variety of roles, these including but not limited to: helping Americans stuck in sticky situations, facilitating trading relationships, and any number of other region-specific tasks that were unique to their posting. In combining this astoundingly rich repertoire of material with excellent scholarship and polished production values, each episode of Consolation Prize makes for entertaining, engaging, and not to mention educational listening.
At the time of writing this review, Consolation Prize has just completed its first season, which consists of 16 hour-long episodes – these also including 3 bonus episodes. Each episode follows a largely similar format whereby the host, Abby Mullen, is joined by experts who specialise in the topic/region at hand. What then ensues is a lively, engaging account of a particular counsel’s activities in the area, this oftentimes incorporating the ‘voices’ of the consuls themselves and other primary sources from the period.
Take for instance Episode 3, which centres on consul Nicholas Trist’s time in Cuba (and is gloriously entitled ‘Havana Hard Time as Consul’). Beyond providing the context that Trist was operating in, the episode goes through great pains to also include excerpts from letters, advertisements, and newspapers, all of which are read by a cast of talented voices. While each episode is conducted in a fairly conversational manner, this does not mean that the creators have skimped on the academic value of the content. Indeed, each episode has been painstakingly researched – so much so that that the main website includes a link to the Zotero library that houses all the resources that have been used to create the podcast.
For those who would rather read than listen (or even read along while listening), the podcast has also provided excellent transcripts for each episode. These are accessible via the Episodes tab and each episode webpage includes: a media player that will play the episode in question, short bios of the week’s guests, a transcript of the entire episode, credits for that week, and a list of further readings related to the subject. While many podcasts tend to treat transcripts as a second thought, Consolation Prize’s presentation of them is clean, thoughtful, and peppered through with painstakingly cited photos, illustrations, and quotes. Listeners are thus encouraged to have these transcripts open when listening, as they truly add to the listening experience. Likewise, readers should definitely consider playomg the podcasts when perusing the transcripts, as the excellent voicework really helps to bring various historical figures to life.
These aside, the News tab on the podcast website is worth mentioning as it houses a number of useful resources. For educators, there is a great post on how to incorporate Consolation Prize into a syllabus, with the podcast team linking particular episodes to topics such as American military history, religious history, or migration. Beyond using a podcast episode (or even a segment of it) as a stand-in for the usual textbook chapter or handout, teachers might also consider getting students to study the podcast itself as a form of digital history. Students can then go on to consider what kinds of history might best suit certain formats, and perhaps even create podcast episodes of their own. Syllabus suggestions aside, there's also an equally well-curated Holiday Booklist post, which lists a number of academic monographs that listeners might want to consider checking out if they enjoyed a particular episode. Last but definitely not least is also a supplementary post to Episode 6, which extends discussions of Consul Samuel Shaw in China to also include his writings on food. While each podcast episode is already chockful of information, it would nevertheless be nice to see more supplementary posts like the latter as listeners might want to delve a bit deeper into specific side-topics that might have been raised in the actual episode.
Overall, Consolation Prize is a fantastic podcast that comes highly recommended for anyone who has an interest in American history, or even for those who just enjoy well-told, solidly researched stories. Make sure to keep an eye out for Season 2!