A Podcast Built on Ruins

Paul MM Cooper tells us how he built a subscription driven powerhouse in Fall of Civilizations

Since Paul MM Cooper was a child, he has had a fascination with ruined places. He would stare at pictures of mossy, overgrown churches and castles with crumbling walls, and feel them transport him to another time. The images felt like a portal, not just into another time, but into the stories of the souls that once lived in these romantic, haunted places. Many years later, this fascination fed into his doctoral thesis at the University of East Anglia, in which Cooper explored how artists and writers used ruins as “actively politicized spaces to explore the troubled relationship between past and present.” Despite writing that 100,000-word thesis, after so many years of rigorous research, he felt like he still had so much more to say. 

“History writers often don’t trust their audience will be interested in the past if they don’t Hollywoodize it in that way,”

So, one day in October 2017, he went on Twitter and started spontaneously sharing his ruin-related thoughts and feelings. Across several nested threads, he spoke about the Nazi obsession with ruins, the embarrassing badness of a Hollywood recreation of Babylon, visits to Saddam Hussein’s ruined palace in Iraq, and a relocated ruined Libyan city that ended up in an English park. A flurry of favorites, retweets, and replies followed. It felt like he was at a campfire, telling stories, and a crowd instantly started to gather round. “They were really receptive, really responsive,” Cooper recalls. “Every ruin is a fracture: the world was one way, it stopped, and now it is different. People really wanted to hear stories about how these spaces had come to be where they are. There was a real hunger to hear about a history full of human stories—not one that’s dry and didactic.” 

After his tweetstorms, his audience didn’t fall silent. They continued to pepper him with questions, and clamored for more tales of ruined cities. Cooper had just completed his first novel, River of Ink, which had been inspired by time spent in UNESCO sites in Sri Lanka, and was writing his second. But he was growing tired of spending all his time telling stories on Twitter. So one day, towards the end of 2018, he decided to make a podcast and called it Fall of Civilizations. He started up a Patreon page, and a smattering of Twitter fans signed up immediately before he put out a single episode.

Trial, error, and lots of re-tracking

Before he got to work, Cooper surveyed the history podcast landscape for inspiration. He especially admired the sound of Aaron Mahnke’s Lore, the animated storytelling in Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and Patrick Wyman’s Fall of Rome. He also wanted to recreate the sound of the old BBC documentaries he had listened to as a child, in which actors spoke the parts of historical protagonists. “They vary texture, break things up, and keep things lively,” Cooper says. “And it felt professional.” So he conscripted a few university friends and volunteers from the UEA drama department, and put together the first few episodes of his podcast. “Those were entirely cost-less,” he adds.

Photo provided by Cooper

Writing the first two episodes, on Roman Britain and the Bronze Age collapse in the eastern Mediterranean, was almost effortless. “It was so exciting to write about, I found it came easily,” he recalls. The next step—recording the voiceover and editing it on Audacity—was a little trickier. “I’d never edited, never recorded,” Cooper says. “It was quite an intense learning process learning how to do all this without messing it up and in fact I did mess it up.” Tiny things tripped him up in the editing process, like recording a voiceover in which he neglected to start from the beginning of the sentence every time he flubbed.

But through trial and error, more online research, and technical advice from fellow history podcasters and the on-campus recording studio, Cooper was on his way. Four episodes in, the number of Patreon subscribers grew, and with the bump in revenue, he was able to pay his voice actors and a sound engineer. “I never got the hang of EQ-ing; to be able to tell, ‘this voice sounds boxy, this one’s too tinny, it needs to be lowered under 80 Hz,” he says, with a laugh. “I tried to do it myself, but it’s such an art.” 

A cycle of generosity

From the start, Cooper made a conscious decision to eschew advertising or accept any offers of sponsorship, and was confident about relying on the support of his listeners alone. He wanted to “create as pure an experience for the listener as possible,” partly because of his own aversive encounters with advertisements. “There have been podcasts I’ve enjoyed in the past that I had to stop listening to because they became oversaturated with ads and sponsored content,” he says.
“I think if you’re generous with your listeners and don’t waste their time, they always repay that generosity. I really believe in the new model of economics that the internet has created, where passionate people contribute to projects they love, and it’s been amazing to see it work out for this show.”

Between the start of 2019 and today, Cooper has put out 11 episodes. When he listens back, he discerns a jump in quality and confidence every three episodes, as his voice, confidence, and budget has grown. The first three episodes sound a little “basic,”. But the musical cues and effects improve sharply in the next three, once he was able to subscribe to a better library of sound effects and music. By this point, he had also settled on a reliable roster of good actors who could affectingly—but not hammily—voice the parts of the colonial tormentors of indigenous peoples, Sumerian poets, and, in one memorable case, the American biogeographer and bestselling author Jared Diamond

Soon enough, Cooper felt surer of his voice and his storytelling niche. He knew, for certain, what he wanted to avoid: the fixations of mainstream popular history fare, which tended to focus on gruesome torture techniques, executions, and the sexcapades of nobles. “History writers often don’t trust their audience will be interested in the past if they don’t Hollywoodize it in that way,” he says. But from the kind of enthusiasm his first Twitter threads inspired, he trusted there would be an audience for the stories he wanted to tell: the stories of regular folk. “What was it like, what did it feel like to walk those streets, to live through the historical event, to really feel it? I found it really fruitful to return to that question,” he says. 

Another thing that sets Fall of Civilizations apart from other history podcasts is the way Cooper leans into that question, thanks to his background, which combines literary fiction and historical scholarship. Many of his episodes end with poets or writers mourning the fading of the world they once knew. “Throughout history, when things are falling apart around you, the first recourse of humans is to write poetry and literature about it,” he says. “In every one of these cities that come apart, you’ll find people writing movingly about the world that once was.” Despite that, he finds that literary sources tend to be overlooked by historians “and, by extension, radio producers.” He tries to end every episode with such texts, which he thinks “naturally bring in an emotive element into the show.” So far, this approach seems to have paid off. Episode 8, on the collapse of the world’s first civilization in southern Mesopotamia, ends with the “incredible laments” of Sumerians witnessing the destruction of their city in 3000 BC. “As if someone living had died,” he says. It is the most popular episode he has put out so far. 

Over time, Cooper has really enjoyed leaning into the atmospherics that specially commissioned music can provide. “The audio medium has this amazing ability to transport someone,” he says. “I found that I liked soundscapes in the background, echoes of the scene around you, which really force listeners to fill in the gaps.” Ancestral chants by children from Easter Island heightened the tragedy and mystery around the archeological puzzle at the heart of the episode—the theory advanced by the biogeographer Jared Diamond, who claim that the islanders laid waste to their environment to construct their striking stone monoliths, the mo’ai, leading to their eventual destruction. Cooper is especially proud of his latest episode, on Byzantium, which features musicians playing instruments such as the Byzantine lyra, the Levantine qanun, and the Greek santur. It also features the choir of the Greek Orthodox Cathedral in London.

Each episode takes just under two months to put together. They’re exhaustively researched, with runtimes sometimes exceeding three hours. Cooper’s writing is distinctive for its meticulous detail, description, and context, and the distinct lack of exoticizing. He tends to switch between atmospheric descriptions and clarifying context about archeological theories and gaps or ambiguities in research. This is especially helpful when helping clear up misconceptions and controversies, such as those surrounding the collapse of Mayan society and the civilization of the Rapa Nui on Easter Island.

A growing audience and a pandemic-era pivot to video

In just a year and a half, Fall of Civilizations has racked up hundreds of stellar reviews averaging 4.9 on iTunes, 20,000 Twitter followers, and 1,300 Patreon subscribers. And every episode has upwards of 120,000 listens. Sometimes, before a new episode release, Cooper gets on Twitter to stir up audience anticipation, through a tweetstorm highlighting a tangent, “a little story” related to the episode. In the middle of 2019, Cooper did a Reddit AMA—an approach that he had used to promote his first two novels. “Some came to talk, lots wanted to argue,” says Cooper. But he credits the measure for boosting the show’s profile and doubling its listenership. 

An unexpected move that ended up paying off was a recent pandemic-era pivot to video. Since the lockdown, Cooper decided to rework his episodes for the video format, remastering them, using better music and stock footage. The first one went up in April, and some of them have racked up over a million views since. “I expected that as the video episodes went up, the rest would crash,” he says. “But what’s happened is there’s a rising tide [of listenership] across everything—Spotify, iTunes, and audio episodes with a still image which I uploaded onto YouTube. It’s been a much bigger promotional boost than I expected.” 

Some of the popularity can be attributed to YouTube’s massive audience base, which dwarfs those of all other social media platforms. But it could also be because tales of mysterious plagues, dysfunctional rulers, and imminent societal and environmental collapse do seem distinctly zeitgeist-y right now. 

Cooper thinks, though, even tales of doom and gloom have some redemptive uplift. “Every story of collapse until the end is ultimately a story of survival,” he says. Besides, history is a process of change, which people always experience as a catastrophe. “The feeling that times are uniquely bad is an ancient feeling, one that people have felt throughout history,” he says. “Connecting to people who’ve felt this past sense of deterioration in different times of history can make us feel a little less alone in our moment. But some degree of acceptance, I think, also helps.” 

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