Thursday, February 22, 2018

Podcasts for the Picky Historian

People ask me what history podcasts I like. The answer requires considerable caveats. I find most history podcasts unlistenable. This is my fault, I ask a lot from a podcast. I want excellent storytelling, high production values, and a playful sense of humor. I want to hear from experts, not from some podcast bros who are sharing what they learned on Wikipedia an hour ago. And I want the stories to be novel. Tell me something I have not heard before. Finally, a good podcast should be compact--15-20 minutes is the sweet spot.

Here are a few history podcasts that have consistently kept my interest:

The Memory Palace, hosted by Nate Dimeo, is the show that got me hooked on history podcasts, and still my favorite. Dimeo tells intimate, perfectly-crafted stories that come across as if you were sitting in his parlor. The real genius of Dimeo is that he keeps the tales brief. episodes often run 5-7
"Ha! Tesla's podcast is terrible."
minutes. Like a great punk song, the Memory Palace hooks you hard then stops, leaving you wanting more. A few favorites (and it is hard to choose!): Charlie: God of RainPlummeting ApprovalFifty Words Written After Learning the Arctic Bowhead Whale Can Live up to Two Hundred Years; and Shadowboxing.

99% Invisible, hosted by Roman Mars, is described as a podcast about design, but many or most of the episodes are about history. Mars explores a variety of wonderfully off-kilter topics. Favorites include The Modern Moloch (about how automobiles redefined the purpose of streets); Notes on an Imagined Plaque (about Nathan Bedford Forrest and Confederate monuments); Monumental Dilemma (the first statue of a woman erected in America is a woman who killed Indian children--awkward); and Billy Possum, about that time when William Howard Taft ate a whole roasted opossum, and the nation rejoiced.

BackStory with the American History Guys is a podcast I have covered before. BackStory is a far more conventional show than the above. A group of history professors discuss a given topic, interview some guests, maybe play some historic audio if it fits. What makes it work so well is the engagement of the hosts and the excellent production values. The four hosts are funny and smart and keep the show moving. The usual format is a show based on a broad topic in American history, and the hosts and guests follow that topic through the centuries. Some excellent fairly recent episodes include FORGOTTEN FLU: America & the 1918 Pandemic; ALL THAT GLITTERS? Legacies of the California Gold Rush; and UNTRAMMELED: Americans and the Wilderness.

Uncivil is a new podcast about the American Civil War. I do not even care about the Civil War but I love this podcast. What makes it special is hosts Jack Hitt and Chenjerai Kumanyika's passion and desire to connect the past to the present. These guys are woke. Uncivil just finished its first season, I particularly enjoyed The Deed, about the long shadow of a Civil War plan to give freed peoples farmland, and The Paper, which explores how a Philadelphia printer discovered that Abe Lincoln did not care if he counterfeited Confederate money.

Slow Burn: A Podcast About Watergate is another new show that I love. Like BackStory it is conventional in some ways, but extremely well done. As the title implies, Slow Burn is a reminder that the Watergate crisis was a very long affair that took two years to resolve, and that its denouement--the resignation of an American president--was a shock indeed. A fun aspect of the show is how it animates forgotten Watergate figures such as Martha Mitchell and Wright Patman. Favorite episodes so far include Lie Detectors and Rabbit Holes ("Watergate turned America into a nation of conspiracy theorists"). Slow Burn gives me hope that President Trump may yet be brought to justice.
Et tu, Donald?

...and that is pretty much it. There are a lot of other podcasts that I dip into from time to time, but none are consistently pleasing to me. I dislike the "one guy talking into a microphone about stuff" model of many popular podcasts. I theoretically like the model of interviewing authors about their new books--but interviewing is an art, and so is producing a podcast with good editing and sound quality, and who among us is a historian who is also good at both things?  As I said, I am an atypical audience and a tough one.

Reader, what am I missing? Given my likes, what other podcasts should I be listening to?

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