The Tolkien Professor Draws Huge Online Audience

By Chantel Delulio
Layout Editor

When Washington College English professor Dr. Corey Olsen first launched his website, TolkienProfessor.com, in July of 2007, he did so not knowing that it would evolve into a worldwide podcasting phenomenon. The online lecture series, which offers scholarly discussions of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, has since garnered listeners from all over the globe, boasting more than 300,000 downloads (2,000 to 3,000 daily), nine million hits to the website, and holding a place on iTunes’ official list of Best 2009 Podcasts.

But Olsen didn’t launch his idea out as a bid for internet fame and glory. Indeed, the idea for the online lecture series preempted his discovery of podcasting altogether.

“I was frustrated by the cruel, sad fact that very few people actually read most of the work professors do in our scholarship,” Olsen said. “But I was convinced there would be people out there who would be really interested in this stuff. And I am sure that the traditional scholarly publications aren’t reaching that audience.”

However, it took a couple of years of tinkering for Olsen to touch base with this audience. The Tolkien Professor started off as a website that would host the audio files containing the lectures but initially clocked in as relatively paltry at 100 listeners. After getting away from the project between the fall of 2007 and the summer of 2009 Olsen uploaded the series to a podcast feed and the reaction was as impressive as it was immediate.

Between midnight and 8:30 a.m. the next morning, the Tolkien Professor got more downloads (around 1,000) than it had ever gotten since the website launched back in 2007.

“I would bet that it was also more people than I think have ever read my published articles,” Olsen said.

Since then the popularity has continued to grow reaching listeners from America to Europe to Africa to Asia to Europe, a popularity that Olsen attributes to the international appeal of Tolkien’s work. Indeed, “The Hobbit” itself has been translated into over 40 languages. In addition to a broad audience globally the Tolkien Professor is also enjoyed by an audience that spans age demographics. Listeners as young as 12 and 13 years-old have written in with questions.

“My goal has been to make it accessible,” said Olsen. “And I feel like if 13-year-olds are listening to it and enjoying it than I’m probably succeeding. I’m probably more proud of that than anything else.”

In addition to accessibility the format of a free podcast provides a level of availability that is not often seen when it comes to scholarly work. Even though something like a podcast is considered “untraditional and unorthodox,” Olsen believes that “change is coming.”

“Right now, the scholarly publishing world is dying,” he said. “Their market is simply tiny–general readers are almost completely excluded by their prices. Journal subscriptions in some scholarly fields can be hundreds, even thousands of dollars a year, and books cost $50 to $100 a piece. That’s insane. The current system actually prevents a wide readership for most scholarly material.”

While recognizing that not all professors from all disciplines may not be suited for an interactive podcasting presentation specifically, Olsen said that the format suits him perfectly.

“There are two primary things that professors do: teaching and scholarship. The website and lecture series are the perfect marriage of those two things, for me. This is what I most want to be doing; it is immensely satisfying and fun,” he said.

Indeed the Tolkien Professor isn’t about sending some lectures out into cyberspace and hoping people download. Olsen makes himself available to his listeners. He even hosts “virtual office hours” via Skype that allows for listeners to call in with their Tolkien-related queries.

The Tolkien Professor’s episodes also vary in format. There’s the original lecture series, the tri-weekly recordings of the Tolkien class sessions, listener question and answer episodes, and recorded “spontaneous and free-flowing” conversations with students.

“It’s that stuff I like about audio rather than just text interactions,” he said. “I like the more personal contact of audio.”

Though Olsen is not sure if he’ll ever truly run out of things to say on the matter of Tolkien, he does plan to do similarly designed lecture series on the works of Geoffrey Chaucer and Sir Tomas Malory. He doesn’t, however, expect that one hundred percent of his Tolkien audience will be along for the Middle English-infused ride.

“It’s one thing to do a podcast on a book that is many people’s favorite book. But it’s not like people are reading Chaucer and Malory on the beach,” Olsen said. However, he hopes that, having earned the trust of his audience, enough people will want to tune in.

“I hope that in walking through the books with me, people see how rewarding and how much fun looking at texts carefully can be,” he said.

As for Tolkien related events on campus, the sixth annual “Lord of the Rings” film marathon will be held starting at 10 a.m. on April 24 in Norman James Theatre.

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