Behind the Scenes of Q & Abe

Joan Cummins working on a recent episode of Q & Abe.

This summer we introduced our brand new podcast Q & Abe” where each episode we investigate a real question that visitors have asked on tours of President Lincoln’s Cottage. With one more episode coming soon in Season 1, Executive Administrator & Editor Zach Klitzman interviewed Joan Cummins, who serves as the co-host, producer and editor of the podcast. Read below to learn how the idea for this new podcast came about, the work that goes into each episode, the best thing Joan’s learned so far, and why the podcast is an important part of the mission of President Lincoln’s Cottage.

How would you describe Q & Abe for someone who hasn’t listened yet?
On the podcast, we take real visitor questions we’ve received on tours that we wish we could spend a half hour answering, and actually spend the half hour answering them. We delve into the historical primary sources, share our own reflections, and talk to experts in all kinds of fields to explore what the answers might be. It’s like being along for the ride on an investigative journey with us – I’d recommend it to anyone who’s ever felt curious and wanted to know more about something!

What was the genesis for the podcast?
[Director of Programming] Callie Hawkins and [CEO & Executive Director] Erin Mast came up with the idea. I wasn’t present for the very first conversations on this, but joined the production team shortly thereafter. Our approach to the tour is part of what makes the Cottage stand out, and, for a podcast medium, Callie and Erin were looking to extend that experience and pursue our mission in a new format. My small contribution to the genesis is that I came up with the name for it on a walk of the grounds of the AFRH campus!

Take us through the life cycle of a single podcast episode. What is required to get it done?
Just like any creative endeavor, a lot of work goes into making it seem like it was easy. We start with choosing the question, and thinking through an initial possible answer and what gaps are left to fill. Then, we start looking for answers: doing research, on books, primary sources, and potential experts who can speak to the subject. We schedule interviews with our guests, who record with us both onsite and remotely. Once we’ve completed interviews for an episode, I re-listen to all of them and make notes on which time stamps in the audio correspond to their talking points. Then I compare the lists and start to put together their excerpts into a coherent narrative of answering the question. Often this follows pretty closely to our actual process of inquiry into the subject. I create a script from there, which will include transcripts of the excerpts from our guests that we plan to use, some scripted language for Callie and me, and some spots that include unscripted notes on what I think we should discuss. Callie and I then do a recording session of our own, to generate the audio for our “host” portions of the episode. Next, I sit down and do some preliminary editing on the audio for sound quality, after which I stitch all the various audio clips together, following the script, and add music over top. There are a couple final tweaks, and then the episode gets uploaded for listeners to enjoy. In follow-up on the episode, I work on editing the automatically generated transcript for accuracy and legibility, so that we can make sure the content is accessible. Plus, there’s usually something fascinating that didn’t make it into the main episode, which goes into the bonus episode shortly thereafter!

What has been the neatest thing that you’ve learned so far?
There’s a point Chandra Manning made about how black women in contraband camps subtly asserted their rights to citizenship by deliberately positioning themselves as “useful” in the public sphere, which was the main conception of citizenship in the 19th century. That gave me a renewed appreciation for the courage and determination it must have taken to do something like that – but Chandra explains it much better than I do, so I hope you’ll listen to it as part of the bonus content for episode 2. I would say I’ve really been amazed that there is always more to learn about something. Even questions I’ve felt pretty confident approaching have turned up unexpected insights, people who are experts in fields I didn’t even know existed, and perspectives I had never encountered before.

How has the podcast changed your understanding of Lincoln, the Cottage, the Civil War and/or how you give tours?
Working on Episode 2: Is it ok to call her Aunt Mary? has genuinely changed the way I think about Mary Williams, the free black woman working at the Cottage as a cook, and the way I present the primary sources we have about her. I talk differently on my tours about her now, and look forward to having more opportunities to talk to visitors about the ways in which calling her “Aunt” gets complicated very quickly.

What is your goal for the podcast?
I hope that someone who’s never been on the tour of the Cottage will hear the podcast and be inspired to come visit, and I hope that someone who has been on the tour will listen and return with a new perspective on the place. I’d love it if folks came on the tour specifically because they had tricky questions they need answered, and hopefully give us the opportunity to do so! And, in general, I hope we can model something of the process of how to think through a subject you want to know more about.

What are the future plans for Q & Abe?
We are making plans now for Season 2, which will arrive in your feed in December 2020. Just this week one of our Museum Program Associates brought me a fascinating question from her tour that I think would be interesting to look into…But I can’t say any more yet.

In one sentence, why should someone listen to Q & Abe?
It’s a Civil War podcast hosted by two women, from a site that cares deeply about how this history impacts the present, and the whole premise is that we take your questions as visitors seriously – I think all that makes it unique and interesting!

The next episode of Q & Abe is scheduled to come out August 22. To catch up on Q & Abe, you can find all episodes here, as well as at the links below. You can also listen wherever you download podcasts, including Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Stitcher / Google Podcasts. 

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