10 Podcasts that made us think Differently about History
1. Backstory (Joan)
With a tagline that they explain “the history behind today’s headlines,” my favorite thing about Backstory is learning how people at other times in American history have faced the same things we’re facing today, and how things turned out the same or different. In particular, Backstory has an episode about racial passing that blew my mind — I’ve re-listened to it twice since it first dropped. The show also has impeccable credentials; it’s hosted by professional historians from UVA, Yale, and Johns Hopkins.
2. Omnibus (Zach)
I really enjoy Omnibus with Ken Jennings and John Roderick. The premise is that they’re cataloging all of Human Knowledge before a potential apocalypse in the future. Some episodes are about historic events and people, such as Plymouth Rock, Queen Victoria’s Grandchildren, and more obscure items like Robert Smalls (an enslaved man who stole a Confederate boat to escape slavery) or Town Line, New York (which seceded from the Union during the Civil War and didn’t formally return until 1946). They also have episodes that aren’t serious history per se, like Tortilla Chips, The Rachel Haircut, the Letter J, or Sliced Bread.
3. Constitutional (Callie)
This podcast helped me hold my own in a friend circle of mostly lawyers who are far more knowledgeable than I am about this fundamental framework of our nation’s government. My favorite part of this podcast, though, is that it casts the Constitution as a living thing that Americans continue to reframe and reinterpret.
4. Revisionist History (Jason)
I’ve always enjoyed Malcom Gladwell and his books, so when I found out about this podcast I had to have a listen. I love Gladwell’s angle of taking points in history to explore a social issue in greater detail from a scientific approach and how even a small, historical moment can have a lasting impact.
5. Museums in Strange Places (Erin)
In “Museums in Strange Places,” host Hannah Hethmon takes you to surprising and sometimes unconventional places. Through those places, she explores history with the people she meets there, devoted to sharing those stories with the world. It’s a reminder of why I got into the field — especially the sense of urgency many feel when it comes to sharing truth and protecting the evidence of the past.
6. Stuff You Missed in History Class (Joan)
In this show, Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Fry of How Stuff Works cover all kinds of historical topics that would ordinarily get only a line or two in your history textbook. Generally focusing on specific people or events, they also have a running series of Unearthed episodes in which they give updates on things that have been discovered, exhumed, or dug up across the world. I appreciate their empathetic approach and even when I’ve heard of an episode topic before listening, I always learn something new along the way. They’ve got episodes on everything from women in early US animation to the Guatemalan coup of 1945 to the legal battle between Good Humor and Popsicle.
7. 99% Invisible (Jason)
By far my favorite podcast that mixes a bit of history with architecture and design into good story telling! From learning about the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and the great marketing campaign that was used by activists, to discovering the origin of “casual Fridays” – again, it shows us how small, often forgotten or “invisible” points in history can shape our culture and thinking.
8. Revolutions (Joan)
This is a very straightforward and super interesting podcast in which Mike Duncan goes through all the revolutions in history in chronological order. I appreciate his dedication to simple but comprehensive explanations and his global scope – he’s covered South America, Mexico, and Haiti in addition to the traditional French and American revolution examples. He’s done a great job picking a theme that’s specific enough to be coherent and broad enough to never get boring, and I like his wry approach to historical foibles. If you jump in now, there’s only 10 episodes to catch up on the train to understanding the Russian Revolution!
9. Uncivil (Callie)
The name says it all, or at least that’s what first attracted me to this podcast. But that only hints at the genius of this podcast. They’ve taken one of the most studied events in American history and managed to find untold or under-shared stories of espionage and intrigue – it’s just so, so good.
10. Q & Abe (Rebecca)
Listening to Q & Abe inspired me to come work at President Lincoln’s Cottage — that’s how good it is! The podcast examines difficult questions that visitors have posed at the Cottage from multiple angles, allowing the story to go wherever the research leads. Each of these journeys takes you through stellar scholarship to unexpected places. I have learned more about perceptions of sleep and dreaming during the Civil War, the way that Uncle Tom became a racial slur, and the reasons behind the civilian control of the US military in the Constitution. I can’t wait to hear how the podcast is going to explore questions like, “Who did Lincoln trust the most?” in Season 2.