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The 15 best history podcasts

From sassy takes on recent events to voyages into the far past, these podcasts take the mystery out of history

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski
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There is, let’s be honest, a lot of history out there, and looking at English-language history podcasts alone there is such a bewildering array that it can be difficult to narrow a decent selection down without setting some fairly serious parameters.

This list, then, is focused on the history of English speaking countries, plus broader world history, emphasising alternative and interesting perspectives. If you want to find something more specific – say, the history of an individual country – it’s probably out there! If you want to hear some dudes rattle on about the First World War, it’s definitely out there! But here are the history shows you might not yet know you need to listen to. Perfect road trip fodder, to say the least.

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Best history podcasts, ranked

If you’re looking for some seriously in-depth explainers into pivotal moments in recent American history, this podcast series from Slate magazine is pretty much perfect. Covering subjects from Watergate to the LA Riots via the Iraq War and the killings of Biggie and Tupac, each series of ‘Slow Burn’ - which has a changing assortment of hosts - takes a thorough and penetrating look at events you probably know the general outline of but probably haven’t studied in any great depth. But a series of ‘Slow Burn’ will emphatically leave you feeling thoroughly informed.

This weighty but digestible podcast from the New York Times tackles the legacy of slavery in America and takes its name from the year that the first ship carrying enslaved Africans arrived in the nascent country. Hosted by Nikole Hannah-Jones, ‘1619’ advances through six punchy episodes to examine the impact on American culture of its Black population on everything from music to healthcare. It’s essential stuff to shape your understanding of how the very fabric of contemporary American culture is inextricably bound up in slavery.

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The BBC’s excellent bite-size journey through the history of the world initially ran through 2010 and probably wasn’t called a podcast, but it lives on in that form. Narrated by art historian Neil Macgregor - then director of the British museum - it does exactly what the title suggests, being a loosely chronological guide to human civilisation via stuff that we as a species have made, from primitive tools to world-famous pieces of art. The episodes are bang on 14-minutes each, but they’re impeccably well informed and moreover they add up to a genuinely symphonic whole that manages to capture something of the symphonic sweep of human civilisation.

Nate DiMeo’s astoundingly long-running podcast - it’s been going since 2008! - is like history dispatched as a dreamy performance project. Appearing once or twice a month, each edition of ‘The Memory Palace’ sees DiMeo turn his drifting tones to what feels less like a history lesson than a memory of the distant past, dredged up and set loose to haunt your consciousness. The episodes have abstract names and DiMeo recommends you don’t find out the contents until you listen to them, and there’s even a randomiser button on the site to stress that that’s the ideal way to listen to them. Each episode is accompanied by an exquisitely chosen soundtrack, played in the background at a quietly atmospheric volume. 

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Running weekly since 1998, the BBC’s heavyweight vehicle for presenter Melvyn Bragg isn’t quite as simple as a mere ‘history show’, although contained in its gargantuan vaults - coming up for 1000 episodes, all available to download - are plenty of more straightforward history-based editions. But in essence, ‘In Our Time’ is a reckoning with all the big ideas and philosophical concepts that have shaped humanity - if you want to understand the development of humanity, this is the (very long-running) show for you.

If you want to find a podcast on any of your favourite global conflicts, just do an online search and fill your boots: there are plenty. But this award-winning 2017 podcast on the US Civil War is really worth a listen - it’s ‘the stories left out of the official history of the Civil War’, and that’s pretty much the remit, not so much an attempt to reframe or recast the war, as put together a fascinating compendium of largely unknown stories relating to the war, and largely untaught in history. A relentlessly interesting, unfailingly high-quality show.

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This excellent, funny, fiery Australian podcast presented by Marc Fennell is a guide to the history of the modern-day Commonwealth via exactly what the title says: stuff the British stole during imperial times. From the Parthenon Marbles to the Hottentot Venus, ‘Stuff the British Stole’ is alive to both the absurdity of imperial adventures and the burning injustice while also making a pretty good guide to some of the world’s key museum artefacts.

It may have only had seven episodes, but this terrific podcast from Dan Taberski and Pineapple Street Studios is a poignant and penetrating look at how a grim, almost incomprehensible terrorist atrocity on September 11, 2001 went on to become the grimly indelible cultural entity that is ‘9/11’. Episodes tackle everything from the rise of Islamophobia in its wake, to conspiracy theories about the day, to the difficulty faced by humorists in knowing how to talk about it. They’re all dispatched with tremendous humanity and insight.

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Love it or loathe it, no city looms larger in the global popular imagination than New York. And ‘The Bowery Boys’ is its great podcast. Like NYC itself, the show has humble origins: hosts Greg Young and Tom Meyers did their first show from Meyers’s Bowery apartment: an unresearched story about nearby Canal Street. It’s become vastly more professional in subsequent years - and long moved out of the Bowery - and that’s really a very good thing because it’s morphed into a truly wonderful show that finds a new, fascinating, often delightfully obscure facet of New York’s endlessly alluring story each week.

This podcast series is a spin-off from US television channel ESPN’s series of documentary films of the same name. But you don’t really need to know that! ‘30 for 30’ (the podcast) is an ongoing series of excellent sports documentaries. They’re relatively recent history, but history nonetheless, and always interesting. Where earlier series tended to focus on a different subject each week, later seasons have taken more of a joined-up approach: season five focussed on the downfall of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, while season seven dealt with the controversial Romanian gymnastic coaches Béla and Márta Karolyi.

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Definitely not one for everybody, US podcaster Carlin’s butchly philosophical, prodigiously long treatises on various cataclysmic world events - usually wars - are not something you just casually put on. Nonetheless, despite his aggressive dedication to blowing our minds, persuading us to rethink everything we thought we knew, he is a supreme storyteller and his shows - which often stretch to well over four hours in duration - are utterly gripping if you’re in the mood.

Though it wrapped up back in 2018, the three seasons of this NPR podcast are essential listening if you have even the slightest interest in the US Supreme Court and its edicts, which have profoundly shaped the country’s history. Although a lot of legal and constitutional scholars are inevitably featured, ‘More Perfect’ is far from a dry affair, and its episodes run the gamut from interesting individual cases to an explanation of how the Supreme Court became so damn supreme to a history of mansplaining (that is to say, unauthorised interruptions) in the court.

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Blurring the line between history and pop culture, journalist Sarah Marshall’s bimonthly-ish podcast is devoted to explaining why we are indeed wrong about things from the past - a broad remit that runs from distant historical figures like Catherine the Great to more recent phenomena like cancel culture or Tom Cruise’s infamous sofa interview. It’s all good fun, and despite the slightly didactic promise of the premise, you’ll learn plenty even if you had no strong opinion on the subject in the first place.

Brit historian Snow’s daily podcast is a sort of free-flowing greatest hits of history, bounding cheerily from one major event to the next as Snow’s whims take him: in a very literal sense he’s the sort of guy who will do a show about the legacy of the Mongolian empire one day, and another about the real Peaky Blinders the next. While the 20-ish minute episodes inevitably don’t always constitute the absolute last word on their subject, Snow is always engaging, and the slightly fly by the seat of the pants nature of the project means that he can respond with agility to world events - eg lots of stuff on Russia and Ukraine after the former invaded the latter.

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Greg Jenner’s BBC podcast ‘for those who don’t like history… and those that do’ is a hoot, a sly alternative sideways rummage through the nooks and crannies of history with a firm emphasis on the fun and the interesting. Broadly speaking it is divided into episodes focused on historical figures with outrageously colourful lives, and asking more niche questions of history – such as who invented high heels and how did they become popular? Whatever form an episode takes, it’s always good fun.

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