The Making of Slate’s Inaugural Academy Series on Slavery

Rebecca Onion describes how she and co-host Jamelle Bouie turned an idea into a nine-part series.

“Slavery and the civil war are having a moment in pop culture,” says Slate writer Jamelle Bouie in the introduction to The History of American Slavery. In the nine episode podcast series, hosts Bouie and Slate history writer Rebecca Onion use the topic’s currency to examine the lives of enslaved people, one per episode, with the help of a rotating roster of historians.

The inaugural Slate Academy series is part of an array of offerings for Slate Plus members, Slate’s almost one-and-a-half-year old paid membership program that provides participants with paywalled articles, newsletters, podcast extras and chances to interact with writers.

It was an ambitious undertaking for its hosts. “It’s been so much more work than any of us thought it would ever be,” says Onion.

The subject matter for the first academy course originated with Onion. “[Slate Plus editor Jeff Friedrich] asked me if I could think of anything history-related that could be good for [a Slate Academy series], some topic that would be the right size and would be appealing to people,” she says.

One of the topics she came up with was the history of slavery. When Onion proposed the idea, it caught Bouie’s attention. “Jamelle is a history buff, has a lot of historical interests. He said, ‘oh yeah that’s something that I would also like to do.’ That’s how it ended up being us,” she says.

In a teaser video for the series, Bouie explains how the topic of slavery in recent popular culture appears to have led to a “kind of a broader interest in American Slavery. We figure, why not use this as an opportunity to explore the whole period.”

The breadth and depth of slavery, how often unexamined but deeply intertwined it is with the story of American expansion, is one of the things that struck Onion as the series progressed. “If you think about it it almost seems like an alternate history. Doing the reading for this project made me realize it’s tied up with everything,” she says.

“We talk about the idea of slavery having a frontier,” she says, referring to the frontiersman who would settle territories like Mississippi, arriving from Southern states with enslaved people in tow. “I always think about the frontier as Little House on the Prairie. It’s a very sweet family story; people are all cuddly in a log cabin. It’s almost utopian. And this slavery frontier was enslaved people basically living on nothing and trying to build as quickly as possible. It made me reconfigure my thinking.”

It wasn’t just the material that held lessons for Onion. As a first time podcaster, the whole experience came with a learning curve, from learning how to achieve conversationality to letting go of her inner historian enough to enable a looser, more free-flowing conversation. “As a historian I wanted to get everything across,” Onion says of her initial approach. “I wanted to make sure that things were said, and that is not always the way to get good audio.”

But as work on the podcasts progressed, she learned to negotiate among her desire to deliver wall-to-wall comprehensiveness, her “internal fact-checker,” and her role as a host. “I basically had to learn how to relax enough to let that run as a background program,” she says, “to learn how to be talking more so than worrying.”

Onion and Bouie completed a large portion of their interviews with scholars and historians over a two-week period in Slate’s Washington studios. Onion, who is based out of Ohio, flew to Washington in March to join Bouie in the studio. “What I didn’t understand before we did this is that–obviously, if you’ve ever done audio you know this–but recording the interviews is kind of the beginning,” she says.

The rest of the work is achieved thanks to the wonders of modern technology, which allows two hosts working from separate states to sound as if they are face to face. In each episode Onion and Bouie interview two historians, weaving in moments when they address the audience and each other as they think through what they have learned.

Working with their producer, who points out what from the interviews will make for “good audio” or “good interactions,” Bouie and Onion sketch out a rough plan for transitioning from clip to clip, deciding who will be the first to speak and who will be the one to “make the bridge” from their conversation to the next clip. Those conversations take place over the phone, Onion recording her portion with a field recording set-up in her home.

“Despite that,” Onion says, referring to their level of plotting, “it still feels like Jamelle says things that are thought-provoking or new that we didn’t think we’re going to talk about. I hope I do the same.”

Onion and Bouie are a little more than halfway through the series, which they conclude Sept. 17 with a live symposium in Washington.