Are You Listening to History?

His Master's Voice

Over the last three years I’ve become a fan of podcasts. They’re great to listen to when I’m doing things that require my hands and eyes but only a small part of my brain: chopping vegetables, washing dishes, reconciling bank statements, sorting through the pile of mystery papers on the floor next to my desk. For the most part, I listen to podcasts about the craft and business of writing,* with an occasional side trip into popular culture. **

Recently I had a revelation. (You see where this is going, right?)

In the course of research, I stumbled across New Books In History: a podcast that interviews academic historians about their work. I’m glad I found it. The interviews are well done, but definitely academic in scope and tone. It’s more like listening to a college lecture than two smart, opinionated and funny writers discussing narrative structure and character development in The Philadelphia Story. *** And it’s a nuisance to stop what I’m doing to take a note. Which I often want to do. Because these people are smart.

But beyond its intrinsic value, NBH made me think “History podcasts!” and “Duh!” A quick glance at the choices in iTunes was both overwhelming and dispiriting. I downloaded several that seemed to meet my criteria: broad interests held together by a set of personal historical concerns on the part of the podcaster(s), a quirky aesthetic that doesn’t descend into farce, an appealing voice.**** In short, the podcast equivalent of History in the Margins.***** Once I find a few I like, I’ll share.

But in the meantime, I’m hoping you’ll share. Do you listen to podcasts? How do you find them? Are there history podcasts you love? History podcasts you hate? What makes a good history podcast? Etc.

I really want to know.

* If that’s your thing, I strongly recommend the various podcasts put out by the people at Storywonk and Dan Blank’s Dabblers v Do-ers.

**Or better yet, popular culture as a vehicle for understanding narrative structure.

***The Popcorn Dialogues. They stopped recording in 2012, but there is lots of good stuff here,

****Literally as well as metaphorically. The voices on some podcasts that I listen to regularly drive My Own True Love out of the kitchen.

*****Yes, yes. I’ve thought about it. But not any time soon.


  1. Jack El-Hai on July 18, 2015 at 1:11 pm

    Most podcasts I’ve tried that are dedicated to history have been disappointing. They’re either pedantic, amateurish, or boring. But I have enjoyed the occasional history-themed episodes that have appeared in This American Life, Radio Lab, & Freakonomics. Thanks for your recommendation of New Books in History. There are many other New Books… podcasts on other topics that look interesting as well.

    • pamela on July 21, 2015 at 1:04 pm

      It sounds like I’m not alone in the search for a great history podcast. Dang.

  2. Randy on July 21, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    I agree, I haven’t been able to find a good solid history podcast that was worth listening to.
    I listen to the John Batchelor show online and his podcast whenever I’m driving around. On the weekends he interviews various history authors, worth checking out.
    The best podcast I’ve listened to is the Mike Duncan History of Rome, very informative.

  3. Megan on July 24, 2015 at 1:30 am

    Personally, I’ve always gotten a kick out of NPR’s Backstory, which can be found on iTunes. It’s not very academic per se, but it’s fun and quirky—plus they have three different historians who weigh in on each topic, providing different perspectives based on thier specialties, which helps to liven things up (one focuses on the 1700s, another on the 1800s, and the last on the 20th century). It’s worth a listen, I’d say.

    • pamela on August 6, 2015 at 11:20 am

      Megan: How have I missed this one? Adding it to the list.

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