The first podcast is considered by many to be Doug Kaye’s IT Conversations, which ran from 2003 to 2012. A year after the show’s inception, journalist Ben Hammersley wrote for The Guardian about this new phenomenon, ultimately giving the medium its name: “But what to call it? Audioblogging? Podcasting? GuerillaMedia?” We’re happy to say the publication you’re reading now isn’t called the Audioblogging Review.
That’s some podcast history, but alas… you’re here for history podcasts. And considering the genre is filled with quality shows, the question to ask is what makes a history podcast stand out? My answer is that every show on this list makes excellent editorial calls, regardless of topic or format. Some illuminate previously overshadowed periods of history, while others propose new ideas around our most infamous historical events. No matter its methodology, each of these history podcasts rewards listeners with rich insights into our past delivered at a pleasant pace.
Revolutions hardly needs an explainer. But for a show all about turmoil, uprisings, and disaffection, writer and host Mike Duncan delivers these complicated historical episodes with all the enthusiasm of your neighbor describing their new driveway paving — and, well, it works. After 10 seasons and over 100 episodes, Revolutions remains worth listening to because it isn’t brash or reductive. In fact, it might appeal precisely because it diverges from the reactionary pace of today’s news cycle. This show rewards fans of steady pacing, nuance, and attention to detail, appealing to anyone who enjoys Stephen West’s podcast Philosophize This! Even if you don’t have a favorite philosopher, Revolutions might just leave you with a favorite political uprising. (Mine is the French Revolution.)
British historian Dan Snow has been making television and radio programs about history for two decades. His latest project, Dan Snow’s History Hit, is a masterclass in making history accessible to the public. The podcast manages to be both topical and historical, which makes you wonder whether Snow is trying to have his cake and eat it too. But the format has proven successful, thanks to quick turnarounds and a backlog of pre-recorded episodes. How else would he put out a show about Queen Elizabeth II on the same day she died? Bravo, Dan.
Snow isn’t quite beloved in the UK — he’s no Lucy Worsley, but then, who is? — though he’s a very popular mainstay of the history broadcasting scene. Yes, there’s a scene. But his podcast has endured since 2015 for the simple fact that it is both well researched and digestible. With episodes erring on the shorter side, around 20 minutes, History Hit is perfect for a coffee break or while cooking dinner. Just make sure you avoid all the episodes on plague while you carve the chicken.
Named one of our best podcasts of 2018, You Must Remember This takes listeners through the debauchery, scandal, and forgotten history of Hollywood. For more than 200 episodes, host Karina Longworth has illuminated details of Hollywood lore that, invariably, are not exactly how we remember them.
With recent films like Babylon and Hail, Caesar!, it’s clear that Hollywood is just as interested in its own myths and scandals as we are, so the fact that Longworth is a film critic as well as an author lends You Must Remember This even more weight. In his recent round-up of the best film podcasts, Matt Seaton described the show as a series of “podcast-essays” that “unfold like stories.” The result? A meticulously researched dive into Hollywood legends of the sort that endure with each passing generation.
Stuff The British Stole is a thought-provoking dive into the British habit of taking what doesn’t belong to them. Hosted by Marc Fennell, the show uses all the editorial tricks of a true-crime exposé to explore Britain’s long history of acquiring ancient treasures. It’s as if Wondery went after the British Museum instead of, say, Dr. Death.
Fennell’s tonal choice is a curious one, especially for an Australian podcast. Like so many nations, Australia is reckoning with its own Indigenous history, and distancing itself from its connection to the British narrative is an inevitable part of that process. This, of course, is not my main quibble with Stuff The British Stole. Please, criticize us all you like. It’s the dire background music that I take issue with. But if you can tolerate the questionable instrumentals, Fennell raises important questions worth deeply thinking about. This is a show that offers timely insight into a colonial legacy in dire need of critical examination.
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Rather than dwelling on grand narratives, The Memory Palace celebrates the people and places that sit at the heart of historical events. Host Nate DiMeo has taken an ambitious approach, forgoing the convention of a serial format to craft a show that can be listened to in any order. The result is a sonic tapestry of emotionally charged storytelling.
The Memory Palace examines history from an personal, rather than exclusively intellectual, perspective. In her review of show, Kat Rooney described The Memory Palace as “history as told around a fireplace, or at bedtime. It is the kind of story we don’t want to end, the kind of story that makes us want to learn more, and that is what it does best.” The episodes are short, often only five to twenty minutes long, but they manage to convey many of the sublime details of the human experience. How can you resist?
Forget King Charles. Melvyn Bragg is the true patriarch of the British nation. Don’t believe me? Bragg has been at the helm of In Our Time since 1998, with over 900 episodes to date. Let the record show that Charles III has been in his post for a fraction of that time, with much less deference given to him.
In Our Time is a British radio show and podcast presented by Bragg and recorded live for BBC Radio 4. It’s an academic roundtable that explores rich and diverse topics, from Marie Antoinette to Social Darwinism to Early Chinese History. If you can think of a nerdy topic, they’ve likely covered it. Now, if I can’t convince you of the delights of listening to three academics arguing about the real meaning of a palimpsest dating back to 1543, then perhaps my claim that this podcast got me through my undergraduate years might persuade you. Long live the reign of Bragg!
What would a list of educational podcasts be without a show from NPR? Enter Throughline. Put simply, this is a history podcast about often marginalized and frequently debated events in history, casting a critical lens on topics from the prosaic to the provocative.
When Podcast Review spoke with the hosts of NPR’s Throughline, they revealed that the show has been accused of being both apolitical and too political. The hosts, Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei, took this as a compliment. “It was like, if we’re getting it from both sides, I think we did a good job.” Looking back, it’s easy to see why this podcast has been successful. Whether discussing monopoly or the modern white power movement, Abdelfatah and Arablouei never swerve.
We called 1619 one of the best podcasts of 2019. Returning to the show a few years later, it’s hard to miss all the reasons why it had such an impact. The title refers to August 20, 1619, the day a ship carrying enslaved Africans landed on the shores of Virginia. Over 400 years later, The New York Times’s 1619 Project offers an ambitious examination of slavery in the United States. This podcast’s first episode begins with host Nikole Hannah-Jones standing in New England, looking back across the Atlantic towards Africa. 1619 is an intimately narrated and rigorously researched telling of a history that, even now, is glossed over.
Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is probably the most infamous history podcast on this list. It’s certainly the most acquired taste. But that hasn’t stopped it from gaining a cult following for its richly layered storytelling and the striking artwork that accompanies it.
True to its name, Hardcore History is not for dabblers. Each episode stretches for hours — we’re talking the best part of five — and Carlin uses that time to paint an intriguing, highly contextualized portrait of some of the darker periods of world history. Though Carlin insists he is a “fan of History, not a historian,” he takes complicated events and makes them feel real through clever discussion, often flipping ideas on their head and asking listeners to examine concepts from multiple angles. Though Carlin’s deference for historical nuance often sacrifices sensitivity about language, the show remains a staple of the genre.
Alice Florence Orr is the Lists Editor of Podcast Review and is based in Edinburgh. Her work has appeared in Scottish Review, Like The Wind, and Nomad Journal. You can connect with her on Twitter or Instagram.