Since history podcasts are heavily researched and carefully scripted, a host's charisma is essential to cut through what might otherwise be a stock reading. Dan Carlin's subjects, varying from the Bronze Age to World War I and beyond, unfold through dramatic readings, during which he speculates on what might have happened in alternate timelines for as long as necessary (four hours!) to tell his story. But just because Carlin plays master of ceremonies on Hardcore History doesn't mean that the truth suffers. Carlin is a showman, and his performance elevates dry lecture to entertainment. Though he always provides recent episodes for free, the majority of his catalog hides behind a paywall. It's worth the investment.
Whether finding a love story in a 19th-century traveling circus or detailing the escape of a runaway slave, host Nate DiMeo knows that extraordinary people and moments help listeners make strong connections to history. Despite its short runtime, The Memory Palace leaves you fully engrossed, expanding snippets of the past into fully realized narratives. What further distinguishes this podcast is its understated sound design and elegant narration. You won't leave an episode with material for your thesis, like denser podcasts in this category, but you will leave affected by the mystical tales DiMeo plucks from obscurity.
Each episode of Biography centers around a significant historical figure, though a guilty-pleasure series this is not. Even Biography's music sets a serious tone. If you are a fan of any of its subjects, such as Darwin or Catherine the Great, you'll savor host Matt Smith's rigorous pace and intellectual conversations. This relatively new Aussie series is a great choice for the most historically inclined listeners, but perhaps even a less invested layperson might let Biography lull them to sleep while raising their IQ.
You Must Remember This makes history sexy. Host Karina Longworth condenses massive amounts of research into tight narratives with engaging soundscapes and voice-overs. Her show recalls early podcast mania, when the idea of reacting to any subject in real time without a major budget or advertisers was nothing more than a pipe dream. But given Longworth's film and journalism skills and her substantial investment of time, her passion project came to life, blowing past other new shows that lacked the pedigree and passion. The show hits its stride with the "Charles Manson's Hollywood" series, and keeps us coming back for more lessons in Longworth's latest, "The Blacklist."
Before you assume this show is just a bunch of banter about the Dewey Decimal System, have a look at the lineup: meditate with Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin before they talk about Zen Buddhism, or listen to Ta-Nehisi Coates directly address history as a subject. The show acts as a living record of live talks from the NYPL, with subject-matter experts and authors. It's both a historical artifact and an in-depth discussion (though sometimes it's just gawking at celebrity). The New York Public Library Podcast gets pretty meta pretty fast, but it's the quickest cure for FOMO for people who can't attend the live events.
When a society lasts for over a millennium and its language, culture, and technology touch nearly everyone on the planet, there's plenty to discuss. Host Mike Duncan tackles the Roman empire in 179 episodes and compresses its history for obsessives who don't have the patience to read The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Like many podcast historians, Duncan struggles with production and script-reading early in his run, but stick with him as he settles into the form. Block off plenty of time to listen to all the dirty details, including copious amounts of violence, sex, revenge, politics, and the sacking of ancient cities.