When it comes to my podcast diet, I generally prefer shows that teach me something. By their nature, history-themed podcasts get the job done—and, hey, if they can entertain me as well, that’s icing on the danish.
Below are a few of my favorite history podcasts, from the intense to the whimsical to the quick ‘n’ tidy. For more recommendations—including roundups of my favorite TV, food, music, and comics podcasts—head to the archive.
JUST GETTING STARTED? SAMPLE THESE.
Let’s start with a show many consider to be the history podcast, one that boasts some of the highest production values—and longest runtimes. Carlin’s epic explorations of world history are fascinating and impeccably researched. He approaches episodes as if they’re high-quality audiobooks, so there’s often a long wait for new ones, but the tales are so dense they may warrant repeat listens.
In this popular show from HowStuffWorks.com, hosts Holly Frey and Tracy Wilson share their research and enthusiasm for all sorts of topics, from narcolepsy to carousels. The podcast is true to its name and a lively mixed bag of trivia you’ll want to share at the workplace.
This radio program often uses current events as jumping-off points to delve into treasured stories from the past. Hosted by historians dubbed the “American History Guys,” I’m often impressed by their interviews and angles. (On a fun time-themed episode, for example, they explained the origins of basketball’s shot clock.)
From Josephine Baker to Frida Kahlo to Queen Victoria, each episode of this podcast delves deeper into notable women’s lives than your high school history books ever did. Short on time? The Chicks also release “minicasts” that are just as jam-packed with info.
This clever show has a revolving door of hosts, which lends itself to a variety of topics ranging from politics to popcorn.
POLITICS AND AMERICAN HISTORY
At a time when 2016 presidential campaigns are starting to dominate the news, you may want to venture over to this podcast, which examines the history of presidential campaigning. You’ll hear about past candidates’ smartest and silliest moves and can judge for yourself how far campaigning has come (or not).
Hosted by history buff Mike Duncan, each ep takes a closer look at political revolutions. Mike likes to spend dozens of episodes per revolution. After tackling the American Revolution, he’s now elbows-deep in the French Revolution.
If early American history is your wheelhouse (or you want it to be), sample this show, which features historians and experts on specific, thoughtful topics. While BFW does delve into politics, I like when it veers into more personal stories, like the history of stepfamilies or the story of two women who lived as an openly married couple in the early 19th century.
John Hagedorn is so psyched about history that this show feels more like a storytelling podcast. Episodes focus on notable and forgotten folks; highlights include his “Who killed Superman?” ep about actor George Reeves and the ongoing “America’s Best Twenty Years” series, in which Hagedorn reminisces about growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s.
HISTORY WITH A TWIST
As a former New Yorker, I have particular interest in hearing Greg Young and Tom Meyers “romp down the back alleys of New York City.” But I think their approach would appeal to anyone, perhaps even prompting listeners to visit the Big Apple themselves. Recent shows have delved into Billie Holiday’s New York and the Rockettes, though they’re unafraid of more serious topics like the 1904 General Slocum disaster and the Civil War draft riots.
I love this podcast from Karina Longworth, in which she beautifully recounts tales of old Hollywood. I’ve enjoyed her episodes about Mia Farrow and the “many loves of Howard Hughes,” though her “Star Wars” series about celebrities’ experiences during wartime is particularly outstanding.
This relatively new podcast focuses on the history behind scary stories. A recent ep explored how insane asylums became such popular locations in fiction; don’t listen before bedtime!
This show about the history of espionage will help tide you over until the next season of The Americans. Episodes include interviews with intelligence experts, historians, authors, and others privy to little-known facts about spies.
Obsessed with etymology? This show reveals the history of the English language, a few words at a time. Eps blend facts with illuminating stories, like the one about the first known poet in the English language.
This podcast is less than 10 episodes in, but that’s still a lot more than I expected to learn about pirates. Host “Captain Craigbuddy” offers a rather serious look at swashbucklers; what History of Pirates may lack in delivery it makes up for with information.
QUICK NUGGETS O' HISTORY
Produced by students and faculty at the University of Texas at Austin, this podcast offers insight into American and world history in a tidy span of time. If you hear about a topic you want to explore further, the website offers suggested readings, photos and more.
If you can only spare five minutes, try Garrison Keillor’s daily public radio feature, in which he shares a classic poem and literary “day in history” events.
This show uses interviews and archival recordings to create vivid portraits of the past. Start with any ep, though I particularly enjoyed this piece about songwriter Rose Marie McCoy, a woman who penned hundreds of tunes for Elvis Presley, James Brown and others and never became a household name.
Producer Nate DiMeo puts his stamp on unique, oft-forgotten bits of American culture. This summer he plans to post a new episode each week, and I can’t wait—much like This American Life, I appreciate the tone as much as the tales.