You should listen to more than one history podcast. But if you have pick just one, pick In Our Time, the venerable BBC radio show and podcast that covers a different topic each episode. It’s your best opportunity to learn a little bit about a lot of things. And it’s the best way to figure out what parts of history really interest you, for further learning.
Each week, host Melvyn Bragg talks to a handful of academics about one person, era, culture, concept, or work of art.
Past episodes have covered Beethoven, Edith Wharton, King Solomon, Frida Kahlo, Judas Maccabeus, al-Biruni, Simone de Beauvoir, Emily Dickinson, The Iliad, The Art of War, Candide, Robinson Crusoe, Hamlet, the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Scientific Method, the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, the measurement of time, game theory, Fermat’s Last Theorem, the Mayan empire, druids, ice ages, feathered dinosaurs, purgatory, enzymes, the Borgias, and the War of 1812.
I've got nothing against Dan Carlin's 'Hardcore History', but it seems to eat up all the publicity for history podcasts. That's a shame, because the podcast format is a fantastic way to dive into a thirty-hour history of the French Revolution, or snack on a 12-minute account of how Warren G. Harding, betrayed by his corrupt Cabinet, publicly projected all his feelings onto his dog Laddie Boy.
There are 300 episodes available in podcast form, stretching back to 2011, and over 500 more on the BBC’s website, reaching back to 1998. (The show’s earliest episodes cover much broader topics such as science in the 20th century, feminism, and “modern culture”.) You could spend years catching up, even if you pick and choose episodes like I do.
Despite this incredible breadth, the show handles each topic thoroughly and rigorously, thanks to extensive research and preparation by Bragg and his guests. The tone is dry but not humourless — the funniest part is usually Bragg grumbling at his guests to hurry up because they only have 45 minutes to cover an entire empire.
When those bullies from business school mocked you for getting a useless doctorate in medieval literature, they didn't see the world of history podcasts coming. Now it's cool as hell to sit in your closet and read out your doctoral thesis. It turns out that podcasts are a fantastic way for people to learn about history, at all scales and time periods, one lesson at a time.
The show can get intimidating pretty quickly, so don’t feel bad about skipping to the next episode after 10 or 15 minutes, or pausing to check Wikipedia. And if it’s all too much, try Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness, which is a kind of super-friendly version of the same approach, much more conversational and forgiving of gaps in your education.
Van Ness (the guy from Queer Eye!) has covered Brexit, the Romanov dynasty, gender identity, US-China relations, internet security, the split between Sunnis and Shiites, Agent Orange, and “what’s going on in the Middle East right now?” Van Ness asks the basic questions so you don’t have to, which is frequently an advantage over In Our Time’s breakneck pace and assumption of base knowledge. But depending on the subject, you might like both. I do.
In Our Time | BBC Radio 4