When Lisa Louise Cooke’s daughters bought her an iPod a few years ago, she was barely even aware of podcasting as a business. But that gift would go on to inspire one of the world’s most popular genealogy podcasts. In this edition of the Voices of the Past podcast, Lisa talks about how she turned her passion for genealogy into a dream career. Plus, she talks about the unreality of starring in the reality television show “Texas Ranch House.”
Welcome to the Voices of the Past Podcast. I’m Jeff Guin. Today I’m talking to Lisa Louise Cooke of the podcast and blog Genealogy Gems. Lisa is going to tell us how she first became involved in social media–in particular, podcasting–and how she uses the web to promote genealogy and help others become more passionate about family history. Lisa, welcome to the podcast. How did your passion for genealogy develop?
Cooke: The classic story of being passionate about genealogy is from the time I was a little girl and sitting with my grandmother and talking to her about her parents who came through Ellis Island and she was willing to entertain me and jotted down some notes, which I still have. I researched off and on throughout my entire life, and around 2000, I got really to where I was doing it practically every day. And really knee-deep into doing it. Before that I was raising kids and that kind of thing, and a friend of mine had said at the family history center, “Gosh, you’ve got some ideas here, you’ve been finding things that I’m not finding. You gotta find a way to teach people this.” And I thought, I don’t know how am I going to do that, and then 2007, my daughters all got together and they bought me an iPod for my birthday, and I discovered podcasts. And I always kid people because the young people go to see what they can spend money on, which is music and videos and that type of thing. Me, I’m cheap. I go and look for the free stuff. And so I found podcasts. And within a month I had my own podcast online. And I think it just captured my imagination. It just hit me, “This is my medium, this is a way to get the word out.” Because if you’re going to teach, it is wonderful to get to teach in a class of ten, but how about reaching 10,000? And then everybody benefits and you get this community going and it’s terrific.
Guin: But there seems like there would be quite a learning curve between actually having that passion and then translating that into reaching that audience of millions. What did you have to do to put a podcast together and actually start your own blog. Was that difficult?
Cooke: I think it wasn’t difficult because I was so passionate about it. It’s like when it hits you this is the right way to go, this is the right medium, I know what my message is, then it was like there aren’t enough hours in the day. And so for 30 days I think I was doing it around the clock–just eating up everything I could find in terms of how to get podcasts, how do you hook up the computer, where do you get a mic, how do you set up a blog, and I was constantly–if I wasn’t podcasting or setting things up myself, I was out running around and listening to other people on podcasts explain how to do it. And that’s why I think that within the month I was able to get it up and running. But the ideas had been formulating for a long time. And it is kind of the classic story of you can look back at your life and say, “Wow. Everything I’ve been doing up to this point has been about getting ready to do this.” Because everything from my theatrical background to producing videos to being on a television show and learning about interviewing, my passion for family histories, some of the teaching opportunities I had had in small class settings, all came together and it was like, “This is the time, this is the moment where it all gels.”
Guin: Well actually I was going to ask you about that because you really do have a vibrant personality and obviously you know what you are doing around media. Did you have a media background?
Cooke: Well, I’ve always been interested. I’ve always, when video first came out to the computer, I was always dabbling with that. I was creating home videos and compiling photographs and setting them to music. Around 2000-2001, I was actually the drama director at my church, and I convinced them that we need to do something beyond just talking in front of folks. We need to get visual and get multimedia about it. And so I started not only producing plays, which were live, but then saying, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do a little three-minute video?” Well, that just captures them all off guard and catches their attention and gets them involved in the activities going on. So I did that for a couple of years and I was amazed at the response. The way people responded and they were willing to hear messages and maybe get involved when just getting up in front of the group and talking with a microphone wasn’t cutting it. So that really showed me the power of it.
Guin: Did it take a while for you to actually develop your voice for your blog?
Cooke: Well it had probably come a little bit easier to me because I had done some script writing. Many of the productions I was doing as the drama director, I was actually writing and producing some of those shows. So, I had a sense about dialog and having worked in community theater and that type of thing, but you are absolutely right. You have to figure out what your voice is. And I think, I was probably watching some documentary on Martha Stewart, and she was talking about sitting down and writing her first cookbook and that she had to find her voice. And I don’t know why but it always stuck with me. While I don’t have to write this academically, people may actually respond to me if I write it more like as I write a script, which is this conversation, this emotional connection with the people that are interacting on stage. Couldn’t I have that with my readers? And in the end, it’s just a lot easier to write as yourself. And I think that if you are very honest and true about what you’re saying and you really care about it, then you just have to let that come naturally. And it really does, and I find that the more I am myself, the more response I get.
Guin: Well, and also your audience develops around that. Who are those people that are your audience?
Cooke: You know that it’s funny. I was thinking about that question before we started, and I thought: I have two. I have my present-day audience and I have the audience of 2020. Do you know what I mean? Because the Internet is so different. What I’m doing, I’m thinking about how am I reaching those needs today and what people want to hear about, but this is going to be likely online for years and years to come. And everyday I see people streaming in and signing up and subscribing to the podcast, and I realized, “Wow, they are going back to episode 1.” And they are starting, and people will write me and go, “Oh, I’m on a binge, I just listened to 30 episodes in a row trying to get caught up.” And so that’s kind of the nature of media, and the idea that I’m not only speaking to the folks who are researching now in their genealogy, which typically are 50 plus, right? They tend to be older in age, they have a little more time, a little more income. But I do have, because of the multimedia presence that I have, I have a lot of younger folks as well, surprisingly. They may not be going to a genealogy society or they may not be attending conferences, but they are totally with me on Twitter and they are totally with me on Facebook and they found the podcast without me having to explain how to do it. I figure, the 20-somethings of today are the 50-somethings of tomorrow who will have some more time and who will have raised their kids and start to be thinking about, “Wow, I would like to leave something to this family and to these children, and I want it to be more than just me.” You know, we are all just ourselves and can only accomplish so much, but to give them an entire heritage of ancestors and family culture is a phenomenal gift and when that strikes you, that’s where that passion comes from. I hear it all the time from my listeners. You know, you can’t do it fast enough because wow, this is really meaning I can give back and in really significant way. So yeah, my audience is so warm and they are so wonderful, and I was recently out on a medical condition and people were emailing me and just, it’s a wonderful community. I love it.
Guin: Well, you mentioned your audiences are with you in different forms of media that you are engaged in. Kind of give me a timeline, an overview, of what you did. I mean, you started with your blog and your podcast. How has Lisa Louise Cook’s involvement in social media developed over time?
Cooke: It started with the Genealogy Gems podcast, and did that for about a year. I guess I started the blog later. I started in like February, later in the summer I realized I needed a blog. I needed another channel to get people, and I had actually produced a couple of videos that made the rounds. One of them was called, “Socks to America,” which is a funny little video I did about sock puppets and their heritage and how they immigrated. And it was funny how it took off and ran around the Internet and people were sharing it. So I very quickly realized I’d like to have a YouTube channel and have a place to put those videos. And of course the wonderful thing is, while my website is not as integrated as I would like it to be, I wish I had one website that had everything on it, but cost is a contributor and time. So I have a lot of different channels that are interconnected. So for the user it is hopefully a very streamlined usage of the website, but in reality they are going to different places: when they visit my blog, when they visit my video channel, that type of thing. And I got into Facebook probably shortly there after. And then I got approached by personalized media to do another genealogy show, and I had one in mind that I was thinking about and Genealogy Gems was taking off. So I started Family History Genealogy Made Easy, which is kind of more of a course in genealogy. Not a hardcore academic course, but each episode’s devoted to one topic and I try to do it in a way that you could start in episode one knowing nothing about genealogy and actually follow along and get going right away. And then let me think. I started doing speaking engagements. Family History Expos contacted me and said, “Hey, you ought to be out here talking to our folks,” and so I went and got hooked. I love going to the conferences.
Guin: You were talking about your speaking engagements and how much you enjoy those and how much it helps you to connect to your audience. How did that develop and what do you get out of going to those speaking engagements?
Cooke: I’m one of those odd folks who enjoys talking in front of a group. I am probably more nervous one-on-one than I am in front of a large crowd. And many years ago when i had just first started in the business world, I went to seminar, and it was how to make presentations. And I thought to myself, “I want to do that. I want to do what she’s doing.” But I had no idea what the topic was going to be. And I was raising children so I know I couldn’t travel from town to town or do that kind of thing. But again, I learned some of the techniques and it planted the idea. And so, I started doing some speaking engagements after we did “Texas Ranch House,” and people wanted to know about the experience of being on a reality TV show. And then I also started doing a couple little groups who asked me to come and talk about genealogy because I’d been working on the history of a local historical house in our community. And so I did some of those and I just found that I really enjoyed it. And I loved the instant response. Just like with the theater: there are two people on stage. There is you and then there is the whole crowd and their energy and what they’re doing. And so like I said, Family History Expo contacted me and gosh, just a couple months after the podcast started of in 2007 and said, “You got to come out to Utah, we’re having a conference. Do you have a couple of classes you’d like to teach?” And I said, “OK!” And so i ran and put them together and put together a little booth, and it just took off. My big emphasis is I love technology and I love using technology for genealogical purposes. And Google is one I started with shortly after my podcast started. My very first Gem in fact was Google site search, and those classes have been sold out, packed out and standing room only ever since I started teaching them. And I realized people are past how do I get online, but they really want to know, “How do I make the most out of what I’m finding” because there’s so much. And so I love to be able to fill that niche and then if they decide they want to become a premium member later and I’ve got the whole thing on video series. So I try to have resources I can point them to so when you get home from one of my classes, you’re not sitting there scratching your head saying, “What did she say? Where do I start?” So I love too that the podcast, the videos, pretty much all of that can all work together with the live presentations. I don’t have to give up working with people in person to be able to do multimedia online.
Guin: Well you brought up the premium memberships and that is a rarity among heritage blogs and just people working in the heritage field, they haven’t quite gotten to that level. What made you decide to go with a premium membership model?
Cooke: Well I knew I had to pay for what I was buying. My husband said, “Where’s the money going to come from?” And I said, “I don’t know.” I mean, I did not get into it to make any money. But you do find yourself yearning for the next software program or the Macintosh, which I just got into, and things that can help me do a better job of what I’m trying to share because that is a number one thing for me is quality. I would rather not put something out than to have it be kind of subpar and not really hit the mark. So premium membership was also something that people were asking for. They were saying, “Where can I get more? You are only doing this once a week or I want to see what you’re talking about and not just hear about it.” And so I thought, I found a place that had a reasonably priced membership software and I just hacked and hacked on it until I figured it out, and then I realized that this was a way to go in depth into some of these topics that we hit on. And I always try to give people these nuggets they can work with. But I love having the ability to go more in depth and then having the video version so that they can follow along live on the screen with me, right as I go. And the response has been tremendous. I wasn’t sure. Genealogists like to get things for free; I appreciate that. But I think if they like what I am doing and they want more and they feel like they are connecting with me, then they’re excited about getting it and I’m totally excited about delivering it. So I have just gotten to know my premium members even more, and hopefully it will keep growing because it has made it possible for me not to “podfade.” That’s one of the things that happens to people. You get an idea and you are passionate, you find a way to get past the roadblocks and the technology, and it is just really easy to get overwhelmed, run out of money, whatever, and all of a sudden we’ve seen it before, those podcasts and those videos just fade away and you don’t hear from that person anymore. I felt like generating some income was important for me to sustain what I am doing, and I think that that’s another reason people are happy to pay for that additional content. They are getting something out of it and they also know that I am going to be around.
Guin: Did you use anyone else as a model when you created your premium memberships?
Cooke: Actually, the models that were out there, I didn’t like that much. Some of them were really expensive, some of them were “We are going to auto renew you for the rest of your life unless you can figure out how to cancel us.” There were elements to them that I didn’t like very much. So I’d have to say Jason VanOrden, he did the Podcasting Underground, I think it is called Masterminds minds now or something. But it was a podcast. He was dabbling with that model around the same time, and I started to get anxious and wanted to get going on it, so I just listened to what he was talking about and what he was thinking about for his business and then I ran out and tried to find and luckily there were some resources out there. But like I say, I tweaked the model to the way I felt it would best meet the way of my audience, which is preservationists and archivists and genealogists, they are an unique group with certain expectations, and it was important to respect that.
Guin: Absolutely. Well you mentioned earlier, and you brought it up, Texas Ranch House. Tell us about your experience there.
Cooke: One, I couldn’t believe that they’d picked us. That was a whole experience. It took as long to get selected as it did to go out and live in 1867. And just in case your listeners haven’t heard of it, Texas Ranch House was on PBS. It was part of their kind of “house” series, and our objective was to go out and live as if it were 1867 on a 400,000 acre ranch in the middle of nowhere in Texas. Actually, a gorgeous area near Big Bend, but the idea was, and it was really interesting, because the premise was you’re 20th century people or 21st century people, how would you handle the 1867 experience and how would you adapt. It was not supposed to be an reenactment, but it’s amazing with every house miniseries that came on line, everybody went raving mad. “Oh my gosh, they’re not reenacting, what’s wrong with these people.” That wasn’t the premise. But obviously being a genealogist, I think they picked me because I said, “Look, I had a great, great grandmother from west Texas in 1867, this is my one and only chance to walk in her shoes or her boots and her corset.” And they wanted that.
Guin: You didn’t have to wear a corset, did you?
Cooke: Oh my goodness! A corset and seven layers. Which, in a 114-degree weather were peeled off very quickly. And it was funny because I got together with some ladies who live out there and fairly minimal conditions. I mean, some of them kind of enjoy living more of that rustic pioneer life. And we talked about, “OK let’s get down and dirty. How much are you wearing and are you shortening your skirts at all and do you always wear your corset,” and they were like, “Oh no honey. Unless there is somebody coming down the road that I can see, that corset is off and it’s about getting the work done.” So anyway, my whole family went, which was my husband and I and three teenage daughters at that time. And can you imagine what kind of salesman I am to get three teenage daughters to agree to go Texas?
Guin: No I can’t imagine.
Cooke: Oh my gosh. But there were two experiences. There was filming a reality TV Show and there was living in 1867. And the two shall meet and clash heads, which they do, but you really are kept in the dark. That is the main thing that I don’t think people realize is how in the dark you are as a participant. We didn’t find out until we got there that our executive producer was straight out of MTV. And so you’ve gone through all this and then it hits you, they are trying to get the 20-something audience and this is a reality TV without the million-dollar prize at the end. And so it was a constant struggle between their vision and our vision. And then they had a struggle between their vision and the vision of the company in Great Britain that actually financed it. So I learned a lot about the makings of a television show; the politics of it. I learned a lot about interviewing because one of the things they did was they took us out about every 7-10 days and they interviewed us individually for an hour. And of course much of that never showed on the show. But one thing I can tell your audience is when you’re watching reality TV, be aware of what you’re not seeing because the final product is in the hands of the editor and also the person who adds the music. You can be saying something and they can be playing violins behind you and you sound really amazingly intelligent or they could be going doke-de-doke-de-doke, just some funky music behind you and you’re like, “Oh, I look like such a dweeb, you know?” So it was interesting. It was interesting to see the end product, and we all looked at each other and said, “What summer were they at? Which ranch were they at?” Because it was so different and it was this tiny sliver of, we calculated, 1800 hours we were out there, three months. And 95 percent of that was the day-to-day living and as a woman, as a wife and a mother, when I watched the house shows, I want to see how did they cook, how were they sowing, what was it like, how tired were they. And they almost never came in our house, I don’t know if you ever noticed that in the show, but they couldn’t come inside and film because you would see how much we were getting done. And their objective was to show us as lazy. So, you run the risk of a little bit of a character attack, but I still look back and say it was my seven million dollar free vacation. It was the genealogy Disney Land that you get once in a lifetime and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Guin: But would you do it again?
Cooke: Would I do it again? We would go out in a heartbeat and live in 1867 on a ranch without TV cameras, no problem. Rattlesnakes, centipedes, 114 degree weather, it was an amazingly fantastic experience. I know exactly what my great grandmother felt like. Would I go on reality TV again and let them paint my character and create a character for me? No. Because that was really painful, and that was something I probably never really had a chance to really talk about, which is, it was really really painful for our family. And I don’t know how they do that and go to sleep at night.
Guin: Right. And especially with teenage daughters because that’s a sensitive time and there are issues where they want their privacy and everything is a drama and I feel that way with my 5-year-old daughter, so I can image how it is going to be when she’s a teenager. So that would be something. You are kind of exposing yourself there a little bit. Although the premise for the show, it seems like there would be more purity to the concept than some of the other shows like Real Life.
Cooke: Well I think when the shows were done in Great Britain, they had more of that purity and I love those. When the British come to America and film Americans, they bring their own stereotype of what Americans are like. And also the American producers don’t trust the audience to be able to stay with the academic side of it or to stay with the historical side of it. And they think they need to spoon feed a bunch of chaos and they did a lot of things to try to stir that up. So it is an unfortunate statement about what they think about the intelligence of the American public. But one thing I can tell you about my daughters, they came out of Texas so confident, so capable. They had an experience that almost no American child gets these days. And that is, they knew that if I don’t bring the wood in, we all go hungry, period. So when you tell your 5 year old when she’s 10, you need to go back, you need to bring your laundry down. If they don’t, what happens? The world ends? But for three months, my daughters had a sense of “I matter to the lives and the well-being of my entire family.” And the bonding that we got out of that and the sense of trust and togetherness, was phenomenal. And for no other reason, that would be the reason I would ever do it again.
Guin: Do you have some kind of checks in your own life where even though you are so connected and you are dealing with an audience that always wants another piece of you. How do you center yourself as a human being away from these tools?
Cooke: In terms of technology, my approach is a little different, and this is one of the things I talk about in my classes–particularly my Google class. You are not the slave of the Internet or of technology. It is there to serve you. And so everything I do, I approach it that way. It is so easy to go online and become very very overwhelmed because you feel, we are taught to be polite and you respond to things. And you start to just have it take you away with it, versus, for example when I teach a Google class, you can go to Google and you can put in your key word and you can have it give you 10 thousand different results and spend the rest of your life trying to comb through them, trying to find your genealogy. But what I do is to show them how to use the tool to actually set it up to use it as a genealogy dashboard where it is kind of like their home center and get these tools to work for you. To go out and find things and bring them back, to help you select and stay on top of your priorities. It is kind of what I do all the time in terms of my media. I want to say a message. I want to know what my message is, and if you know what your purpose is and your research and your preservation work and your genealogy, then you have to approach the technology that says, “What will you do for me.” And you pick and select, and you just let the rest of it go because you cannot possibly do it all and there is just more to come. So I don’t think you should be a slave of it.
Guin: Has your sense of mission always been very clear in your mind or was there a point in your life where there was a transition or an event that kind of helped you form your sense of mission that you have today?
Cooke: Well I think having my children. It gave me a sense of going beyond myself and being committed to their well-being and the well-being of my family. Whenever I interact with my kids, even today as grown adults, in the back of my mind is: does this help me get closer to them in 20 years, does it help me get full access to my grandchildren, I’m going to be a grandmother this year. And is everything I am doing helping me to bring me closer and to communicate better how dear they are to me, and the same thing with my audience. Am I communicating how dear they are to me because they really are. And if it’s not going to communicate that, toss it aside. It’s like when you talk about blog writing: editing is the number one thing. It’s what you leave out, get rid of it. Ah! It is just like reality TV, it’s what you leave out. That’s how you craft your message and I have a little note that is on my bulletin board and I look at it everyday and it says, “Are you working on your dream?” And my dream is kind of my mission, it’s, “Ah, a tombstone, what do I want on the tombstone?” What do I want people to think about and it’s interesting when I go to a conference, people will say, “Oh, when I think of Lisa Louise Cooke, I think this or that,” and that’s awesome because that means that I have stayed on message and I have gotten rid of the periphery stuff that just doesn’t add value. And I don’t know, I just think that overall what I want to do is I want to be able to leave something of value for generations to come. Not only within my family but also within the world. And isn’t that a wonderful trait of the Internet and of technology? Those podcasts will be out there well beyond me. That maybe this is going to help somebody else’s grandchild. Ah, I don’t know, maybe it will all be irrelevant, it might be. But I like the idea that it isn’t just lost the second that it’s done. And that’s a good thing.
Guin: Well, I guess that leads us to our next question. Where do you see Genealogy Gems going in the future? And not just Genealogy Gems, but Lisa Louise Cooke as well?
Cooke: OK. I will tell you the truth. I don’t even go by Lisa Louise. Do you know why I started using Louise? No, I am just telling you. Because after Texas Ranch House came out, I wasn’t sure if I wanted everyone to think of Mrs. Cooke or Lisa Cooke. And actually I am one of seven generations of Louises in my family. So that is just a little tidbit for your listeners on where the Louise comes from, and where do I want her to be? Where do I want Genealogy Gems to be? I want it to be continuing to foster that relationship with the listeners and just on the technology side of things. Some of the things I am looking at is–I am hoping I can pull this off–I’d love to do a live show once a month. So that people can actually call in. Maybe it would be chat, I’m not sure how that would work yet. I am looking at some different platforms to help me do it, but I would love to be able to do more of the in addition to what I’m doing is once a month they can just call in and we can just talk about how are the things that you are learning on the show, that you are picking up on your genealogy society. How are those things working for you? What do you think about them? What are your roadblocks? Whatever people have been talking a lot about libraries that have been closing lately because of budget cuts. Those are things that are important to people, and I think that would be another step in the community would be to be able to actually live talk. Right now I give them a voicemail line. There are lots of different ways they can connect with me. But it would be wonderful to do a live show. I’m also doing a lot of things with Family Tree Magazine. I am doing some online webinars and I just finished writing three courses. They are putting together a family tree university that is going to be online, so I am actually going to be able to teach classes using this coursework that I have written, and my students can email me and it will be interactive. And they can take these courses and learn more in depth on different subjects. So there is always an educational component I guess to it. And the fun thing is, whenever I write a class like that or do the research for it, I get to get a breakthrough on my research. I mean, I always learn something new. So it is selfish in that way as well.
Guin: So here’s a scenario: Someone’s watching this and they’re inspired, and they are developing their own sense of mission, and they want to involve new media in it. What advice would you have for that person?