Sure, we’re all living history right now — the catastrophic pandemic, mass protests, creeping global fascism — but that doesn’t mean we should stop learning about other moments of history.
Podcasts are especially effective at telling historical stories. The medium allows people to listen to archival audio and offers practically unlimited time and space — a pod can be as long as you like and you can do as many episodes as needed — which makes for some super-immersive experiences. Podcasts do a wonderful job of uncovering lost stories, or telling familiar stories from an angle that’s gone overlooked. And they make passing the time in a pandemic just a little bit easier.
Read on for 11 of our picks for the best history podcasts.
The pod from friends Tom Meyers and Greg Young describes itself as a “romp down the back alleys of New York City.” You might learn about random stuff — like a short-lived Bronx theme park shaped like America — or big things, like how New York streets were shaped into a grid. NYC is a city rich with forgotten history. Meyers and Young do a great job sharing it.
In this week’s Bowery Boys podcast: The story of inventor Nikola Tesla and his life in New York City — from the Lower East Side working for Edison to his years living at the Waldorf-Astoria. Did you know he had a lab in the Village which went up in flame? https://t.co/vJHJWgUPfK pic.twitter.com/oDT3Hw28N3
— The Bowery Boys Podcast (@BoweryBoys) August 14, 2020
Let’s face it: Bad people are fascinating. Behind the Bastards is a podcast focused on telling the stories of history’s villains, many of whom you might not even know about. Along the way, the pod details plenty of strange things that helped make awful people so damn awful.
OK, we’re biased, but Mashable’s podcast History Becomes Her absolutely rules. Each episode, host Rachel Thompson speaks with contemporary history-making women about women of the past. It’s a good way to learn about the subject with women at the center of the story, which is rarely how it’s been presented.
Backstory, a program from the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, is a history podcast made by actual historians, so you can count on it to be thorough and accurate. The hosts tell you the history your school might’ve missed, for instance, about the long, deep history of fake news in America. In many cases, that story is way more interesting than the ones you’ve been told. Backstory ended in June, but there remains a huge backlog of episodes available.
The Sneak, a USA Today podcast hosted and reported by For the Win editor Nate Scott, is billed a true crime and sports mash-up. But the second season, which has new episodes currently being released weekly, definitely overdelivers on that logline. I refuse to spoil the pod for myself and research the entire story but, only five episodes in, it’s a tale that feels like it must become a motion picture. It tells the story of the man at the center of the largest jewel heist in history — a group of surfers who stole literally priceless jewels (they were too valuable to be appraised) from NYC’s Museum of Natural History in 1964. But the story of Jack Murphy is far more dark and complicated than a simple heist, and along the way, you’ll learn about forgotten versions of Miami and New York City.
History isn’t often told through a gay lens and Making Gay History looks to change that, telling the stories of the people who fought for decades for LGBTQ civil rights. Many of them have largely gone uncelebrated — until now. The podcast will debut its eighth season in October, drawing material from the Studs Terkel Radio Archive.
This podcast is exactly what it sounds like. In nine episodes, journalists Rebecca Onion and Jamelle Bouie walk through the story of slavery in America and explain how it has shaped our country to this day. The series completed in 2015, so you can binge it all the way through.
You Must Remember This tells the strange and forgotten history of old Hollywood. Host and producer Karina Longworth researches the stories deeply and weaves interesting, narrative-driven tales. If you want an amazing intro to the series, you should listen to Longworth’s series on Charles Manson. It walks through Manson’s surprisingly deep connections in Hollywood — forgotten bits of history lost to time and sensationalism — and how the murders helped shape the end of the ’60s.
Good morning I am making pancakes and listening to a bunch of four year old You Must Remember This episodes about the Hollywood communist blacklist
— Amanda Mull (@amandamull) August 15, 2020
OK, first a disclaimer: Blowback is an unapologetically leftwing podcast. If that’s not cool with you, then it’s not the podcast for you. It tells the story of the Iraq War from that leftist point of view, and it’s both fascinating and necessary. Much of the Iraq War, as the American public knew it, was laundered through a right-wing government, and it was some time before anyone was open to admitting the disastrous war just that. Blowback details how horrific and wrongheaded the Iraq War was, how its tentacles still shape America today, and how few consequences befell the people who sold it to the public.
Dan Carlin, also the host of the popular show Common Sense, is one of the better-known voices in podcasting. Hardcore History dives deep into historical events — chiefly wars and military history — with super-detailed episodes being released only a few times a year. But the hours-long episodes are always informative and entertaining, and they should last you a while. There’s also a deep backlog if you’re not already a listener.
Slate’s Slow Burn offers a rotating cast of hosts and a new story each season. Basically, each season takes a historical event you might think you know about, and then reveals way more about it than you ever knew.
I’ve listened to the seasons covering the deaths of Biggie and Tupac, as well as the most recent season on the rise of David Duke. Both were fantastic.
Want even more podcast recommendations? You’re welcome: