Poets, pirates and sea shanties propel Regis scholar’s podcast to viral success

In most modern books and movies, pirates are depicted as men who wear eye patches, use hooks and clomp around on peg legs. And with the possible exception of Capt. Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, they’re straight.

But is any of that historically accurate?

Just ask Regis Associate Professor Alyse Knorr, who helps answer many pirate-themed questions like those on the queer and women’s history podcast SweetBitter as part of her role as co-creator and researcher. For two seasons, the show has investigated literary works and historical characters like pirates to discuss how marginalized identities can be erased from history.

The podcast, once featured on Apple Podcasts’ banner and the app’s New and Noteworthy homepage, has gained a loyal following, putting it in the top 1 percent of podcast listenership and generating more than 5,000 downloads per episode.

To promote its second season, Knorr created a TikTok video about queer pirates that has generated more than 1.9 million views.

Knorr, who teaches in the Regis English department, writes poetry and researches women and LGBTQ writers as well as contemporary pop culture. SweetBitter was started after Knorr appeared as a guest on a separate podcast episode to discuss Sappho, a queer Greek poet-musician and one of the few ancient women whose works have survived. Leesa Charlotte, a producer who was listening, was fascinated by the topic and began searching for more in-depth podcast coverage about Sappho. When she couldn’t find any, she invited Knorr to start a new show with her and audio engineer Ellie Brigida. Knorr accepted.

During season one, the podcasting team interviewed classicists, archaeologists, art historians, papyrologists (scholars of ancient manuscripts), literary experts, playwrights and artists to explore Sappho’s life and works. They conducted one interview in French and featured scholars from Italy to Australia.They have also hosted two live events, including one co-sponsored by Regis and featuring Regis classicist Ian Oliver as a panelist.

“We wanted to really thoroughly tell her story,” Knorr said. “That season was so popular because it's a story that you don't really hear much about. Classics are often considered old and dusty and boring, but we had a lot of fun with it. Part of the podcast’s purpose is to make Sappho fun and exciting.”

One major component of creating excitement was composing original disco, country and R&B songs set to Sappho’s ancient lyrics. The show was a success: Listeners have given the show an average of 4.6 stars on Apple Podcasts, and many have left reviews in the style of a Sappho poem.

After the first season concluded, the podcast team had a few ideas about what they’d cover next. But then a TikTok video created by Knorr went viral.

Right as sea shanties — work songs that originated with sailors working aboard merchant ships —  were sweeping the platform, Knorr wrote a song in her head while she was driving her daughter to daycare. She went home, recorded it and posted it online. True to SweetBitter’s mission, the TikTok shares an untold story: Historically, many pirates were queer and many of the most successful pirates were women.

“I wasn't looking to go viral or hoping to go viral,” Knorr said. “I'm kind of a private person … I just thought, ‘Well, let's get 40 or 50 likes on this.’”

Her TikTok is now nearing 700,000 likes and Knorr has gained more than 20,000 followers.

“It just feels surprising to go viral at all,” Knorr said. “The morning after, every time I opened my phone and opened TikTok, there were tens of thousands more likes … [The video] did so well that in season two, we decided to focus on the untold histories of pirates.”

Season two is underway. So far, the team has talked to scholars about the golden age of piracy and stories that mainstream audiences don’t hear much about, from Chinese pirates to an all-Black life-saving service, similar to the Coast Guard, that operated during the Jim Crow era. They end each show with an original shanty about the episode’s themes and topics.

“It's very exciting to think that these ideas and the TikTok, which are rooted in historical fact and in lots of research and reading, could reach this wider audience and maybe change people's perceptions about pirates and expose them to new ideas about pirates,” Knorr said.

As the season continues, the show plans to welcome Regis History, Politics and Political Economy Term Instructor Ryan Burns, who teaches a popular course about the golden age of piracy.

As for those pirate eye patches, Knorr says they helped transition pirates’ vision from the sunlight above deck to the darkness below. And hooks were a standard prosthetic, as any Peter Pan fan knows. Peg legs weren’t as common because it’s not likely a pirate would have survived a leg amputation at sea.

To listen to Knorr’s podcast, visit the SweetBitter website.