Words are powerful. Using specific words allows the communicator to harness their power. One word whose power seems to have been diluted, though, is narrative. Since it was opened up to cover a wide range of terms in the 1960s, narrative has become all encompassing. Whether you have the dominant narrative or seek to counter someone else’s narrative, it is an essential part of the strategy community’s lexicon. Does it, though, describe what its users and abusers think it describes? A properly framed, communicated, and understood narrative can be quite powerful. A narrative poorly framed, miscommunicated, or misunderstood can be powerful as well, though often in an unintended way.
When reviewing a particular podcast, I told myself this podcast resonated with me because it adopted a narrative form. But it wasn’t just the narrative form, it was a specific form of narrative that resonated with me. It was a story. Stories resonate deeply within us. This is why the story format has lasted throughout our history.
Adin Dobkin and the pseudonymous Angry Staff Officer have teamed up to produce a podcast that tells true stories about war. This show is called, funnily enough, War Stories. The first season of War Stories told the tale of the tank in a way that differs from other podcasts about war. These American fellas do not interview guests or read out long tracts of tabulated data. They tell the story of the tank as, well, a story....with quite a depth of historical research woven into a tale that has the tank as the protagonist. The production quality is of a very high standard and it is not your routine history show format. It’s not quite Serial meets The History of Rome, but only because they don’t bookend their episodes with sponsorship segments.
Rather than simply review the podcast, though, and as a podcaster myself, I wanted to understand, if you'll forgive me, the story of War Stories. And since understanding a story is easier when it is told by the storyteller, I spent some time with the Angry Staff Officer (ASO) and Adin Dobkin (AD) discussing their project.
Mick Cook: ASO, You are well known for your social media engagement and blog articles as well as featuring in publications such as WIRED, etc. What made you decide to try an audio format?
ASO: Well, Mick, you know me. I’m an Army officer, and we just love the dulcet tones of our own voices. But really, I guess it came down to a new challenge. I’d been mulling over a podcast for a while, but I didn’t really have the know-how required for producing something that didn’t sound like a guy recording from his basement. Luckily, Adin is a production genius. Unluckily for him, I still remain obtuse about the process. The poor guy had to coach me through setting up the new microphone I got for the podcast, which he did...patiently.
Not that there is anything wrong with a bloke podcasting in his basement. Moving on though, how is the information you present in audio format different to that in the written format?
ASO: Audio really is a different beast in and of itself. While I do prefer to write more conversationally, writing for audio ups the ante considerably. You have to write for tone, context, and—most importantly—time. Since Adin and I are not armor subject matter experts, we made the decision early on to write out all of our scripts rather than try to ad-lib. This means we run the risk of sounding canned at some points, it also relieves our audience from having to listen to a litany of “ums,” “errrs,” and awkward pauses as we riff through our notes.
Do you prepare differently for each format?
ASO: Really, both audio and written formats have one thing in common: a lot of research. Probably more on the audio side though, since in writing you can just toss out a “for more info on this, go here” link. My pieces that I write for my blog or other publications tend to be less resource-intensive than our podcasts, because we place a high priority on primary sources—those primary sources are the lifeblood of the piece. We spend a lot of time trying to find the best ones we can for each episode. And that’s been our real difficulty, especially in trying to find non-English speaking sources for our Spanish Civil War and World War II episodes. We’ve also found that as we move more into the modern era, the number of primary sources expands rapidly—which actually kind of makes things more difficult, since there’s more to chose from. Usually we start off our episode planning with an old fashioned phone call. After that, it’s a matter of pulling key information from the sources to build up the body of the script. The recording itself is done in one session, and then Adin does his production wizardry, and hey, presto—a podcast is made.
The project you are collaborating on is a podcast called War Stories, a show that focuses on specific topics related to war in a narrative format. What is the aim of War Stories?
ASO: So, I guess speaking for myself, the aim is to provide people a greater understanding of war and the decisions people make in it. As a leader, I’d say 80% of my job is just trying to understand people and figure out what motivates them. History can be a great guide for this. I’d also like people to get a better understanding of the background of historical events; nothing happens in a bubble, so context is hugely important. Granted, that’s a lot to do in 45 minutes, but I think we manage to hit on the key objectives, so to speak.
Adin, what is the genesis story for War Stories?
AD: Well Staffer got the main details covered on that, I believe. During our bar conversation, he had mentioned doing a podcast for his site which I’m imagining as a four-hour special on the history of the combat boot or something like that. But more seriously, we chatted about it that night in light of him coming onto the Military Writers Guild podcast with Nate Finney three or four weeks prior to discuss how military and national security professionals use and misuse history. Around the anniversary of the Somme celebrations, I got the idea in my head to combine the history Staffer was thinking about doing with the format and production I had in my mind. I sent him the very roughest idea and we were off from there.
ASO, why did you decide to partner up with Adin for the project?
ASO: It was a no brainer. His work for Military Writer’s Guild and tireless energy in a whole variety of projects made me realize I was going to have to drink a lot more coffee to keep up with him. Not sure who sleeps less to do more, Adin or Nate Finney.
Adin, why did you decide to partner up with ASO for War Stories?
AD: In terms of why Staffer? I ask myself that everyday. Honestly, I think our styles and interests are very complementary. We’re not so wide apart that he’s not interested in the stories or I’m not interested in the context or deeper history, but I think if you had to ask each of us what we think makes a great episode, the relative importance we place upon those things shifts about 60-40 either way. Staffer comes in to make those historical connections where I wouldn’t, or can make them with only slight prompting, and then gives us the contextual grounding we need.
How did you decide upon the narrative as a story format?
ASO: The narrative as a story idea kind of came before anything else. I’m a huge fan of history as a narrative—after all, history is just one big collection of stories; historians try to weave their way through those stories and find the most probable outcome. And people can digest stories better than the often dry historical monographs one finds. Who doesn’t like a good war story?
AD: I think there was some desire to come up with a better way of learning about history for more types of people. Now, using that language makes it sound a lot more grandiose than what we strive for in any one episode, and I’m not going to claim some pedagogical talent that’s been missing in the course of human history. But I do think we too often take a 20,000-foot view of military history that misses out on the human element, or the human element that misses out on the longer arc and context. I think the specific format of the show hits on both those points in a way that’s hopefully accessible to broad variety of people, and in doing so, you’re hopefully keeping that story alive for just a bit longer.
Who is the intended audience for War Stories?
ASO: For me, I’d like the audience to be anyone and everyone. We do our best to explain a lot of the technical terms to military novices, as time allows. It helps to have a baseline of military history knowledge beforehand, but I’d like to think that those who don’t can still enjoy the shows.
AD: Really, I think we wanted to make a podcast that would first and foremost have the narrative or story-based appeal that resonates with all of us on some fundamental, human level. Now, in combination with that was our desire to have a show that had a solid historical backing. Going in, I wasn’t sure which of those goals I should be more worried about. Realistically, knowing my own proclivities, it was both.
How has your audience responded to the format you are using?
ASO: They love it, of course. It’s the best. Just the best. We have the biggest podcast, they tell us. Bigger than any podcast ever. Kidding of course. But we have received really positive responses from our listeners; so, until we hear differently, we’re not going to change it.
The first season of War Stories focuses on the development of the tank. Why did you pick the tank?
ASO: Well, we’re in the middle of the World War I centennial, and since the tank was first developed and saw action in that war, it kind of just made sense. I’m glad we picked the tank, because the process proved to be a little more difficult than we foresaw, and dealing with a more complex topic would’ve bogged us down more than I would like. It’s been pretty rewarding to dive into a topic I knew relatively little about—with the added bonus that I can now bore people at parties with the story of the Christie tank or Israeli modifications to the M-48.
AD: The timeline was definitely a crucial part of it. We’re still getting the hang of how to draw out our larger narrative arcs between discrete stories so we wanted to make sure we didn’t bit off more than we could chew. For example, I don’t think we could’ve done a topic that spanned 2,000 years or anything like that without either making it longer than anyone wants to hear or having large enough breaks that listeners end up noticing or becoming confused from one to the next. We’re also big World War I fans and think that its stories, history, and what have you aren’t told enough over here in the States outside of the history community.
Adin, you also write quite a bit. What differences do you find between engaging with an audience in the written and audio formats?
AD: I’m sure I couldn’t possibly list out all of them here, but I’ll try. For starters, there’s an intimacy involved with audio that I don’t think exists when you’re writing—even more so with a story-based show that also takes into account how the show feels during production. You can draw that out a bit in a written piece as well, but audio gives you a lot more room to work with. As to how that affects your relationship with listeners? I think the difference is that even in the most passing of relationships between a podcast listener and the producer, there’s a greater level of commitment required. Most people, when they download your show, are expecting to spend 40-ish minutes with you. Now sure, that may be a commute or something like that, but it’s still a greater commitment than all but the longest of written journal articles. I think that’s something special that you just don’t find all that frequently in writing. Or at least, not unless you’re a brilliant author of some extended series with a fan base.
What has been the biggest challenge in structuring the podcast in the story form ?
ASO: Time. Time is always the challenge. We’re both busy guys with multiple irons in multiple fires, so we have to make a conscious effort to carve out time for the podcast. The most resource-intensive part is the research. We usually spend about 2-3 weeks on research alone, one week writing, and one week on recording and production. Then, it's a quick breather and we’re back into the development process again.
AD: The only other irregular consideration I’d add is sources. Because of the format we’ve imposed upon ourselves, we rely on them a great deal to give the narrative elements some oomph. Sometimes, like with our tank destroyer episode, we had more diaries, orders, and photos than we knew what to do with. Though, with our limited budget, that’s more frequently the exception rather than the rule. More frequently we have enough sources to get by, with a few books or libraries calling our names that we don’t have a chance to fully consider. Other times, the narrative backbone of the episode centers around a single individual—whose original account might not even be in English.
How have you overcome this challenge?
ASO: We sync pretty regularly to try to iron out any kinks we might see coming down the road, so that helps a lot. We also do our best to identify potential stories or topics long before we start researching.
AD: Normally, we can put together an episode even in the most dire of source-based circumstances. Either we use a combination of secondary sources that focus in on individuals or small units, or look at primary sources through a wider aperture, but it’s not quite as ideal as having bountiful, well-preserved primary sources from a specific unit or individual—digitized is always nice, too.
You are both avid social media users, have you found this is a good platform to engage with the audience?
ASO: Yes and no. Yes, because it’s great to be able to engage with listeners directly on social media. No, because podcasts are inherently different from written publications in that they’re not as easy to cite, or go back and read. A podcast takes a little more work for the audience than a written piece, because it’s something you have to engage your ears and make time for, whereas a written piece can be skimmed whenever. However, I think there’s a growing audience that enjoys having something to listen to on their commute or when running, if for nothing else than to take a break from the seemingly endless news cycle.
AD: So one of the issues here is that there’s no natural way to make the connection from podcast directly to social media. Most traffic for podcasts comes through iTunes, so you’re either in an app or on your phone rather than on a browser. What that means, in addition to the basics of online interactions, is that you hear from the people with the strongest impressions of your show. In one way, that’s great because you hear from people who are making this a semi-regular part of their lives. But it also means that for the 68-95% of people in the middle, you might never hear about their thoughts—they just pop up as a ‘one’ in your downloads metric. I will say that it always means a lot for those who choose to engage with us on whatever social media platform we’re on, and we always make an effort to keep it decidedly un-corporate.
War Stories seems to be a labor of love, but can listeners support the show in anyway apart from talking about it?
ASO: Send gin. Hendricks, by the caseload, preferably. Again, kidding. If listeners want to support the show, the best thing they can do is be that annoying friend that is always sending you a link to something with, “You gotta check this out!” Word of mouth—or, text, I guess—is the primary way War Stories gets shared around. Rating the show on iTunes is also huge, because that determines where the almighty Apple puts us in the queue of who is visible and who ain’t.
AD: If Staffer is ceding all other alcohol-based gifts to me at the expense of me missing out on gin, I’d just like to go on the record as saying that I’m more than 100% okay with it...and my personal preference is bourbon or rye. I’d also mention that if you do want to financially support the show through our War Stories Patreon, it’s not a blank check to us. We spend a ton of time on the bonus episodes, regular behind-the-scenes updates, and transcripts and resource guides for supporters which I’ve heard people use both for their first listen of episodes to have additional info or to revisit old episodes and the stories within them.
Thanks for taking the time to share your story, the War Stories story, with your listeners and our readers. We are currently enjoying the interseason episodes and wait with bated breath for the launch of the second season.
The opinions expressed are the authors' alone, and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, or the Australian Defence Force.
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Header Image: An early production British tank. (History.com)
 Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 427.