Any new innovations in information technology promise to open the doors of human knowledge wider for a larger number of people. The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century is hailed as a revolution in the democratizing of access to knowledge. Both the continuing wave of Renaissance humanism and the emerging Reformation movements of the sixteenth century benefitted from the growing availability of the printed word. The explosion of technological innovations and new media at the end of the twentieth century and beginning of the twenty-first has been compared by social commentators and historians alike with that transformational era that began in the fifteenth century. The internet, the iPhone, and streaming services mark only some of the new media technologies that have increased our access to knowledge.
In 2000, French entrepreneur Tristan Louis proposed the idea of attaching audio files to RSS feeds to deliver content through the World Wide Web. The first “podcasts” began to appear in 2003 and became a regular fixture by 2007. Podcasts democratized access to audio content in a number of important ways. They stream for free in most cases, with content producers attaining financial support through product sales, advertising, or Patreon donations. Podcasts remain affordable to the average person, though there are some providers such as Luminary media who are charging fees for premium content. Because podcasts can be produced at a comparatively low cost and distributed around the world, they shatter geographical boundaries. These audio programs also enjoy the added benefit of flexible delivery through a variety of devices. Most people who have any ability to access online content can listen to them.
We always hail democratizing technologies as the thing that will finally dispel the darkness of human ignorance and bring forth a new age of enlightenment. Unfortunately, we always learn anew the important lesson that freedom is a double-edged sword. Freedoms that provide us the opportunity to rise also carry the inherent option to choose descent as well. The last twenty years have reminded us that the same tools that carry access to accurate knowledge and healthy wisdom also provide a ladder on which all of humanity’s ancient demons can crawl from the abyss. Americans saw in the flickering torches of Charlottesville the extent to which the lies also carried by our wireless networks have reanimated baser instincts we’ve tried so hard to exterminate.
We have to learn now more than ever how to discern the difference between healthy content and intellectual junk food. I see this need all the time in my interactions with students in university classrooms, but it was really brought home to me a couple of years ago when doing a presentation for a group of faculty and university administrators. I was discussing preliminary ideas for a project on popular Christian media I was writing. Most of the faculty in the room came from disciplines outside my own areas of history and religious studies. A number of interesting revelations surfaced from the discussion that followed my presentation. A couple of participants in the room, people who had pointed me to excellent resources in their own fields in the past, started mentioning the history podcasts they listened to on a regular basis which inform their perspective on how one does history. Their recommendations contained a virtual “Who’s Who” of junk history, irresponsible revisionism, and all-around wackiness. It was jarring to realize that even these academics, people rightly known for their critical approach to issues in their own fields, could be taken in by historical snake oil peddlers. Even more disturbing was their insistence in the face of critiques by three trained historians that these shows were “great” and we historians just “didn’t get it.”
Rather than wasting time identifying the bad and the ugly, I want to take the opportunity in this and my next Faith on View post to recommend some of the solid content in my own fields of history and religious studies that are circulating in the podcast world. The age of Corona offers unexpected flex time in which you may be discovering some new passions or rediscovering some old ones. If two of those are history and religious studies, I hope I can give you a few good ideas about where you can go to learn more. In the interest of full disclosure, the list below is by no means comprehensive, reflects my own historical preferences and favorite themes, and probably leaves out a few podcast gems I have not yet discovered. But maybe these suggestions will give you a good starting point or give you new ideas if you enjoy listening to history podcasts already.
I find that quality history podcasts come in two types. There are history podcasts set up in an interview format where the interviewers talk with actual historians about the projects they are researching, teaching, and writing. These shows give a platform to gifted historians who do not have the time and resources to do their own shows, but who have so much rich insight to offer. A second type are those history podcasts that feature one or two people narrating history in entertaining formats. This second category poses a challenge and requires a gifted storyteller to hold the listener’s interest. Not everyone can do it, but there are some people who do it really well.
History Interview Podcasts
HistoryExtra– The HistoryExtra podcast is released three times a week by the editors of the BBC History Magazine. Editors for the magazine interview historians, archivists, and producers of historical media about their current or upcoming projects. Interviews are often related to articles that appear in the print and digital versions of their magazine. While topics often skew towards British history, their focus is international and incorporates topics from across the world and spanning the entire chronological breadth of the human experience. Recent entries include conversations about the nature of celebrity in history with Greg Jenner and the Tudors with Tracy Borman. https://www.historyextra.com/article-type/podcast/
Ben Franklin’s World– Ben Franklin’s World is produced by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and hosted by Historian Liz Covart. The Institute publishes the academic journal the William and Mary Quarterly and sponsors a variety of initiatives to explore the history of early America broadly defined from 1450-1820. Covart frames the interviews on the podcast with probing questions and a contagious exuberance for all things historical. She reminds you of that university professor whose animated delivery turned your historical interest into an irresistible addiction. Fun recurring features of the podcast include the “time warp” in which Covart poses an alternative history question to her guests designed to prompt speculation on how historical events could have turned out differently. The podcast is dropping repeat episodes on the theme of “Vast Early America” right now in preparation for the unveiling of new episodes on April 21 that will include some innovations producers have been working on for the last few months. Now is a great time to catch up on past episodes in preparation for the new content. Recent topics include “Paul Revere’s Ride through History” and “Slavery and Freedom in Early Maryland.” https://benfranklinsworld.com/category/podcast/
The Way of Improvement Leads Home- The Way of Improvement Leads Home features Messiah College Historian John Fea interviewing a broad array of historians, academics in other fields, and cultural commentators. People with an interest in the intersection of religion, politics, and popular cultures in American history will find this podcast particularly helpful. Fea specializes in these areas and demonstrates an incisive ability to get to the heart of historical debates and contemporary issues in his interactions with guests. Recent discussions include the history of presidential real estate, “From Mount Vernon to Mar-a-Lago,” and “Searching for Christian America in a Boston High School.” https://thewayofimprovement.com/podcast/
Historical Narrative Podcasts
The Renaissance English History Podcast– The Renaissance English History Podcast delves into the Tudor period with the engaging storytelling of Heather Teysko. Teysko’s delivery provides a great example of narrative storytelling at its best, a skill supported by the fact that her chosen period is ripe with great stories. In addition, her programs are well researched and deal with both well-known and more obscure topics in Tudor history. Teysko infuses the program with great Tudor era music, one of her particular passions, and also produces the Tudor Music Hour and the Tudor Minute. Recent programs include a survey of bad romance in the Tudor period and a look at how apocalyptic prophecies stoked popular anxieties in the 1520s. https://www.englandcast.com/
Unobscured and Lore– Aaron Mahnke produces a vast array of media including a companion television series to his Lore podcast which streams on Amazon’s Prime Video. Mahnke applies his riveting narrative style to the more macabre side of history by investing the origins of chilling tales that haunt the American past. Lore chronicles suspenseful tales from the past in an anthology format with a different tale released each week while Unobscured focuses on a particular theme for a season of about thirteen episodes. Season one of Unobscured explored the horrors of the Salem Witch Trails while season two, still in progress, relates the fascinating history of American spiritualism. Unobscured stands as a hybrid of the two historical podcast styles because Mahnke intersperses comments from historians to accentuate his narrative. The final episodes of season one were full recordings of the interviews he had done with selected historians of the Salem Witch Trials. https://historyunobscured.com/ https://www.lorepodcast.com/
Witch Hunt– Witch Hunt marks the second entry in this section that functions as a hybrid incorporating both dramatic narration and commentary by historians. It ran as a limited series of seven episodes in the fall of 2019 produced by BBC Radio Scotland. Susan Morrison hosts the program with the help of several other historians who provide commentary. The series treats the Scottish witch hunts in particular detail, but also sheds light on the nature of European witch hunts in general during the early modern period. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p07rn38
These entries are just a few of the podcasts I enjoy that provide an accurate take on history that holds audience interest well. New ones are emerging every day that tackle topics and time periods across the spectrum. I look forward to hearing some of your own suggestions and sharing some of my favorite religious studies podcast with you next month.