Four Podcasts that Beat Your High School History Class

Indie shows revisit hoaxes, rebellions and socialites through the centuries.

By Shannon Rupp 1 Oct 2015 |

Shannon Rupp is a contributing editor at The Tyee and our podcast reviewer. Know of a show you think she should hear? Mention it in the comments section. Or tweet her @shannonrupp.

The old adage about history warns that those who ignore it are doomed to repeat it. "Yes, in summer school," my adolescent self used to say. My impression was that history classes were a chore done under threat of extended jail time.

It wasn't until much later, when I heard people trotting out self-serving revisionist versions of the past, that it dawned on me I ought to have been paying more attention in history class. I'm not alone in this view. Or so I suspect, given the volume and popularity of history-related podcasts.

Every amateur history buff seems to have gotten in on the act, with mixed results. But that could be said of most of the quarter million podcasts out there. So here's a short survey of the different approaches you can find in the enormous genre labelled "history." But it's just skimming the surface.

'The Memory Palace'

Nate DiMeo's Memory Palace is history as a collection of impressions. He sketches out the stories of people and incidents in episodes that are as short as four minutes long.

DiMeo is a former NPR reporter and he knows how to suck us in with sound. If there were an audio equivalent of that soft, gauzy image of the past -- as seen in Merchant Ivory films or British costume dramas -- it would be DiMeo's podcasts.

There are more than 70 episodes in his archive and you can start anywhere. But I particularly liked the story of 19-year-old Eugenia Kelly, a 1915 New York socialite, whose mother took her to court after she began smoking, drinking, and hanging out at the "trotteries." Women couldn't vote yet, but they could go pay professional partners to waltz them around the dance halls. Things turned scandalous when Eugenia began canoodling with one of those Tango Pirates.

'The History Chicks'

When people talk about the quirky charm of podcasts, they're talking about shows like The History Chicks. This is a pair of middle-aged moms with no expertise in either history or broadcasting who get together to talk about celebrities of the past. But here's the twist: they're talking about the female celebs.

That's what's missing in podcasting and history both: women. Which may account for their cult following -- they have a reported 70,000 downloads an episode -- which is impressive for an independent podcast. Or it may be their genial amateurism that is so appealing. The sound is echo-y. You can hear ambient noise, including sirens going by. But the rough edges are part of the allure.

For example, I think that child reading the ad copy in one episode was the son of one of them -- he yelled to mom for help. (It's very funny and they left it in.) As often as not, they allude to Harry Potter's storyline as a metaphor, suggesting kiddie lit is the focus of their lives.

In a Kansas City Star interview, Beckett Graham and Susan Vollenweider described their show as "historically-based girl talk," which captures the tone perfectly.

It's light. And fun. But they do manage to hit the biographical highlights of their subjects while uncovering some little-known details. For example, everyone knows witty Dorothy Parker was a copy editor at Vogue who penned headlines like, "Brevity is the soul of lingerie." But did you know her ashes ended up in her lawyer's filing cabinet while her money went to Martin Luther King?

Their two-part episode on Parker reveals that her glamorous, martini-laced life as a theatre critic, scriptwriter, and novelist was much sadder than her quippy copy would suggest.

Dan Carlin's 'Hardcore History'

As befits the name, Dan Carlin's podcast Hardcore History gets into the nitty-gritty detail and contradictions that characterize genuine historical research. While we tend to treat history as a cohesive narrative in which people behave in logical, explicable ways, it's really more like a heap of puzzle pieces, only some of which fit into a clear picture.

Carlin, an American, is an amateur historian who used to be a TV and radio reporter. He produces in-depth looks at historical incidents, and often explores military history. He releases new episodes every few months and his three-year-old podcast is so successful he now sells his backlist in iTunes.

He tells his stories in a conversational style, which is engaging enough if you're interested in the subject. Although I sometimes wish he'd cut to the chase a little faster. His podcasts are long, and often span a series, so they're a good accompaniment to big tasks like cleaning out a garage.

"Prophets of Doom," about the Munster Rebellion in early 16th century Germany, is an intimidating 4.5 hours long. But it's a good example of why I often listen to his podcast. Before hearing this about a year ago, I had only a vague notion of what an Anabaptist was, which turns out to be a glaring gap in my education.

They were what we now call fundamentalists -- radicals, in their day. And they were the forerunners of religious sects like the Amish. They sprang up after Martin Luther protested the Catholic Church's corruption and kicked off the Protestant Reformation, but they were far more revolutionary than the Lutherans. And no they're not Baptists. Although they're related. Sort of. They baptize adults instead of children.

It's all very complicated. Which is typical of history. And this podcast explains what happened. Go listen.

'Stuff You Missed in History Class'

There's a marked absence of podcasts illuminating Canadian history, but a pair of Americans -- Tracy Wilson and Holly Frey -- are filling some of the gaps with their long-running podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class. They research history from all over the world, often at the request of their listeners, and deliver the goods about social customs and memorable personalities in a chatty style.

They have a weakness for what might be called weird history. Things like historical hoaxes. Or the origins of peanut butter or Halloween traditions. One episode is about an incident in 1910 when a couple of enterprising guys in Louisiana tried to convince Congress that the meat shortage of the early 20th century could be met by ranching hippos.

Naturally, their love of weird history leads them to Canada fairly often. A 2014 episode details a story about that time, in 1859, when British Columbia and the U.S. nearly went to war over a dead pig on the disputed territory of San Juan Island. The Hudson's Bay Company had a hand in sparking the international incident. And soon the Americans had moved troops onto the island and a trio of British war ships was menacing them.

The episode is called "The Pig War" and it's hard to believe.  [Tyee]

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