20 of the Best History Podcasts to Help Us Actually Learn From the Past

20 of the Best History Podcasts to Help Us Actually Learn From the Past
Photo: Lia Koltyrina, Shutterstock

There are days lately when it feels like we’ve had enough history, thanks very much. That it would be nice if history could slow down for just a moment to let us catch our breaths, that it’s hard enough to keep up with the day-to-day news without also looking back. Of course, that’s the attitude that’s gotten books about Harvey Milk and Ruby Bridges removed from school libraries, and discussions of the Holocaust, Japanese internment, and slavery curtailed by parents and politicians afraid to look the past in the face. It’s not all bad, though — there’s hope in history. Hope that we can correct the mistakes we’ve made in the past, and reassurance that we’ve survived strife and made progress before and can, perhaps, do it again.

Fortunately, the recent vogue for book-banning notwithstanding, history has never been quite so accessible. Passionate podcasters are telling the stories of people, places, and moments of our history from every angle, and often in incredible depth and from unexpected, under-explored angles. There are dangers in that, given that not everyone who wants to tell you about the past has pure intentions, but the good shows will always make their objectives and points of view clear without being afraid to suggest the very real connections between past, present, and future. These are some of the best pods for exploring our shared timeline.

Black History Year

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We do such a bad job of teaching history in American schools, and an exponentially worse job of teaching Black history, operating on the assumption that Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and “Lincoln freed the slaves” are all anyone would ever need to know. Hosted by Jay Walker, the show covers some of the many fascinating individuals and events that we just don’t talk about: people like teenage oil millionaire Sarah Rector, and moments like Black Wall Street and the Black Panther movement. The show deals with those topics, as well as broader trends, with the help of expert, and occasionally celebrity, guests.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

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Focusing on some of the most dramatic — and occasionally violent — moments in history, Carlin’s podcast is “hardcore” in its subject matter, but more so in its typical runtime: Rather than regularly scheduled episodes, the show drops a handful a year with multi-hour runtimes — the current series, on the roots of World War II in Japan and China, runs to something like 25 hours. Previous runs have covered the Achaemenid Persian empire, the Punic wars, and the fall of the Roman Republic. Though not a professional historian, Carlin blends astute analysis with a sense of the drama inherent in these big historical moments.

1619

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Just five episodes long, the 1619’s Nikole Hannah-Jones discusses the long shadow cast by slavery in the United States, compellingly making the case that the history of Black Americans is a main, if not the main thread in our history — not just the sideline it’s usually presented as. Digging out personal stories, as well as overlooked moments, the show looks at not just the reach of slavery, but on the contributions of Black Americans, inseparable from our rise as a nation. Likewise, Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion’s The History of American Slavery is a very different limited documentary that touches on similar threads in American history.

Presidential

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Hosted by the Washington Post’s Lillian Cunningham, the show approached American presidential history with a sense of fun that still manages to feel impressively smart. Rather than dryly reciting biographies, Cunningham examines the big moments while also making a go at understanding the personalities that underlay the world-altering decisions and boasting some big-name talking heads (David McCullough, Bob Woodward, Doris Kearns Goodwin, etc.). The show’s complete, for the most part, having covered every President up to Joe Biden, but Cunningham occasionally shows up with a special.

In Our Time: History

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The history-themed episodes of Melvyn Bragg’s nearly quarter-century run on BBC’s In Our Time are collected in this feed, the show having been a haven of intelligent discussion with knowledgeable guests over the years. Each hour covers a single topic, and they run the gamut from The Manhattan Project to Herodotus to Jamaica’s Song Massacre (just to mention a few recent episodes). It’s hard to do a deep dive on the eclectic topics within an hour, but Bragg and his guests generally manage to cover a great deal of ground.

Making Gay History

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Largely comprised of archival material, the long-running podcast began as a deep-dive into the extensive interviews conducted by journalist Eric Marcus during the 1980s, and has since expanded into the archive of oral historian Studs Terkel. However critical the decades leading up to these interviews were, there was little mainstream interest in queer culture, and indifference to HIV/AIDS was working to silence an entire generation. These discussions, with some of the key figures in modern queer life, represent a kind of miracle — voices that would otherwise be lost to history, preserved and revived to provide their own first-hand accounts. A short documentary podcast, We Were Always Here, does something similar with British voices and is similarly worth checking out.

The History Chicks

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A fun, conversational, and smart show that foregrounds history’s most important and interesting women — the show’s quick description promises: “Two women. Half the population. Several thousand years of history. About an hour.” Hosts Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider are a big part of the appeal, bringing a ton of personality to these biographies of real (and occasionally fictional) women. There are well over 200 episodes, but the website has a handy list of subjects in chronological order (it currently runs from the Pharaoh Hatshepsut to Cherokee activist Wilma Mankiller).

30 for 30

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So, admittedly, I’m not a huge sports person but, as with the TV series, the 30 for 30 podcast approached the big moments and themes in sports from a broader perspective, i.e. making things interesting for sports fans, as well as those with a little less interest. Shows include such topics as the history of the Louisiana Superdome leading up to Hurricane Katrina, the NBA’s COVID-related shutdown, and even the impact that Nipsey Hussell had on the sports world.

You Must Remember This

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Promising “the secret, and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century,” Karina Longworth delivers with a podcast that dives deep into the moments and personalities that made the movies in America, but goes in directions that aren’t always obvious. One season discussed the lives and histories of gossip columnists Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons, while another tacked the Manson family from the perspective of their interactions with Hollywood. That Manson season dedicated a full hour to the life story of Sharon Tate, presented as nothing more than a victim in just about every other treatment of the topic. Without shying away from the juicy bits, Longworth excels in shining lights on the overlooked, and in exploring the ways in which pop culture has been inextricably linked to our history, for better and worse.

Mogul

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Debuting in 2017, Mogul was the first major podcast to take a well-produced documentary approach to the history of hip-hop, beginning with the life and somewhat mysterious death of record executive Chris Lighty, and continuing into a current season covering DJ Screw. The production values and talents of host Brandon Jenkins are highlights, as are the interviews with hip-hop luminaries. This one’s exclusive to Spotify, so you’ll want to look for it there.

Dolly Parton’s America

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The documentary limited series (nine main episodes with a couple of bonus shows) looks at the life of Dolly Parton through the lens of modern American history and let me tell you, it’s fascinating. Beginning with the roots of bluegrass ballads as souvenirs of English public executions, host Jab Abumrad (from NPR’s Radiolab) explores the rise of pop country music alongside the cultural changes (and culture wars) that have come along in its wake. Dolly herself pops in frequently via newly recorded interviews. For more on the history of country music, Cocaine Rhinestones is also worth checking out.

History Extra

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An offshoot of BBC History Magazine, the History Extra pod covers an eclectic assortment of topics typically pinned to “current” events (big anniversaries — that sort of thing) or to big book or movie releases, with historians, experts, and authors popping in to discuss things like the fall of communism, Black cowboys, or ghosts in ancient Mesopotamia (just a handful of very recent episodes). Admittedly, and fairly, it’s a lot of European history, but not at all exclusively, and the guests are typically of a particularly high calibre.

Dan Snow’s History Hit

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In a similar vein, though a bit more expansive, I’m using History Hit to stand in for an entire network of podcasts started by enthusiastic and thoughtful popular historian Snow. This one is the centrepiece, with experts discussing a wide range of (very often, but not always) European history topics. The network also includes the pods Gone Medieval, Not Just the Tudors, The Ancients, and Warfare, each with its own focus and hosts. There’s even a streaming service that I subscribe to; I’m into the whole scene.

Noire Histoir

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Nothing too fancy in terms of production values here, just the narration of host and writer Natasha McEachron and her typically impressive guests — and that’s really all you need. Episodes discuss important figures from across the Black diaspora (Paul Robeson, Steve Biko, Marian Anderson, etc.), as well as significant moments interspersed with reviews of films and books, both current and classic.

The Memory Palace

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With relatively short (usually fewer than 15 minutes) episodes, Nate DiMeo takes exhilarating dives into bits of history both famous and obscure, focusing on small moments that may have had large impacts. Think of a particularly interesting museum guide pulling an item off of a shelf and revealing that it’s much more interesting than you thought — that’s the vibe.

History of Rome

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For a deep dive into classical history, you could do a lot worse than Mike Duncan’s 179-hour opus that starts at the city’s mythical foundations and concludes with the fall of the Western Empire more than 1,000 years later. The approachable (but thorough) series inspired, at least in part, other impressive (but unrelated) deep-dive series like Robin Pierson’s The History of Byzantium and Isaac Meyer’s History of Japan. Duncan himself has created a follow-up series focusing on world revolutions (called, appropriately, Revolutions)…so if you prefer your trips to history to run to many hours (raises hand) there are several good directions to go in.

The Bowery Boys

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It’s pretty specific, but if you’re into the history of New York City (and why not? it’s fascinating), the long-running show digs into the rough-and-tumble, warts-and-all history of the greatest and messiest city in the world, from the great fire of 1835 to the gay, gay history of Fire Island — there aren’t many corners that Greg Young and Tom Meyers haven’t peeked into.

Slow Burn

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Kicking off as a series about Richard Nixon’s resignation, Slow Burn brought a you-are-there approach to its recounting of that history, doing an incredible job of providing a real sense of what it must have been like to live through those tumultuous events. Further seasons have approached the Clinton impeachment, the East coast/West coast hip-hop wars of the 90s, the rise of David Duke, and the underpinnings of the Iraq War. Each season has brought that same impressive and engaging style, allowing for a little deeper understanding by placing us in the moment.

Throughline

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Bringing NPR’s news cred to bear, Throughline looks not at just moments or people, but about the threads that connect history to the present, sometimes right up to current headlines (a recent string of episodes, for example, dealt with the history of Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban; a Halloween-themed episode looked at the history of the holiday and its growth into a modern industry). The stories are always well-told, and it’s NPR — so the production values are on point.

Ridiculous History

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If you’ve ever listened to the popular Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know, you know the vibe here: Ridiculous History has two of the same hosts (Ben Bowlin and Noel Brown) and approaches history from a funny — and often a little goofy, but generally well-researched — angle. We know how stupid the present can be, and there’s nothing wrong with appreciating the history could be just as dumb.

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