There's no end of podcasts where someone reads some surprising story to their co-host, who cracks wise and asks the dumb questions you'd probably want to ask in the same position. They're usually white blokes. It's the spine of the podcasting universe. Let's call it The Dollop Paradigm.
This isn't to do down the Dollop, which is ace, but there are loads more podcasts out there exploring untold and unseen stories which you probably never picked up in school. That's where history podcasting really comes into its own.
The BBC has absolutely tons of great history podcasts like In Our Time, You're Dead To Me, 13 Minutes to the Moon and The Bomb, but they're not here. They're over in our BBC podcast roundup, which is right here instead. If you're after something totally different and just wandered in here by accident, the best comedy podcasts are over here and the best true crime podcasts are here. If you fancy just browsing a bit if everything, the masterlist of the best podcasts this year is right here.
This newish one from The Guardian re-examines moments when music changed world history. Not in a Hasselhoff-on-the-Wall kind of way though. Instead, each episode centres on a single song that shifted a city's future. We hear from eyewitnesses how Kashy Keegan, an unknown singer-songwriter from Worthing, became the voice of pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong, and how Rick Astley helped the American army to topple the dictator of Panama in 1989 when they started to use music as an offensive weapon.
Transmissions: The Definitive Story of Joy Division and New Order
Given quite how rife with myth, legend, recrimination and petty legacy-claiming the 45-year history of Joy Divison/New Order is, it’s a minor miracle that an official line has been put together, but here we are. All of the band are involved via new interviews – yes, even Hooky – and Maxine Peake narrates the story from their earliest days in the Manchester suburbs, plus there are contributions from famous fans including Bono, Shaun Ryder, Damon Albarn, Johnny Marr, Liam Gallagher, Karen O and more.
Euro ‘96 Relived
As you might recall, last summer ITV covered some of the gaps in its schedules by rerunning all of the games from Euro ’96. (We picked the best ones here, by the way. You’re welcome.) As you might not recall, there was a companion podcast. It’s a superior example too: interviewees include Tony Adams reflecting on what being Terry Venables’ captain meant to him after his addiction to alcohol became very public knowledge, and a host of key players from across the continent too. With this being the 25th anniversary and the Euros still – fingers crossed – to come this summer, now's a good time to wallow in that golden summer's afterglow.
However you feel about the Telegraph's cheerleading for Boris Johnson over the last few years, it's still full of proper journalists who know what they're doing, and they've produced this explosive account of the saga over Russia's involvement in Donald Trump's election in 2016. Britain was at the centre of some key moments – even the name of the FBI's investigation had a British connection: 'Crossfire Hurricane', from the Rolling Stones song 'Jumpin' Jack Flash' – and this six-part series explores them using first-hand testimony.
You're Wrong About
Not strictly a history podcast only, but a podcast which demystifies and reexamines figures and events from the recent-ish past who've been miscast or misunderstand. The Huffington Post's Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall, who's working on a book about the Satanic panic of the mid-Eighties, pull apart the myths and perceived wisdoms of stuff as disparate as Princess Diana, OJ Simpson, the break-up of the Beatles, the millennium bug, Marie Antoinette and killer clowns. It's a history podcast, but one that's about why reputations form and how they solidify around events rather than just the events themselves.
The Frost Tapes
David Frost's classic interviews are always worth another listen. Yes, it's archive, but the value of these longform interviews is in their sudden relevance to everything happening now: there's vintage Frost talking to Joe Biden in 1987, for instance, and the last long interview Bobby Kennedy gave in 1968 diagnoses America's faults and neuroses in a way that suggests less has changed in the last 50 years than we'd prefer to think. Elsewhere there are collections of interviews around tensions between Black communities and the police, how to protest, and women forcing their way forward in industries dominated by men.
Wind of Change
Everyone likes a good unsubstantiated conspiracy theory. How about the one that says metal band the Scorpions’ huge 1990 hit ‘Winds of Change’ was actually written by the FBI to destroy the Soviet Union. Mission accomplished, lads. Patrick Radden Keefe, of the New Yorker, goes digging to find out exactly how true it is and where the rumour came from in the first place. Other episodes in the eight-part series will explore more stories of US government meddling in music, including whether a 1961 Nina Simone gig was actually a front for the CIA.
This is the podcast from The Conversation which, if you're unfamiliar, is where academics bring expertise, new research and big-picture thinking to issues that are in the news and could do with a bit of circumspect analysis from people outside the news cycle. Its latest series is all about recovery, and looks back to times when things have got a bit spicy for humanity at large before now – the Black Death, the Spanish Flu, the Soviet collapse – and what lessons we can learn from the rebuilding that followed as we try to sort ourselves out now.
The Rise of the Iron Men
Following the excellent 'Putin: Prisoner of Power', about the rise and rise of Russia’s resident strongman, McMafia author Misha Glenny expands his view to take in six more of the world’s new slew of authoritarian right-wing rulers and explain how the populists claimed and consolidated power. Like 'Prisoner of Power', this is built on Glenny’s storytelling and excellent first-hand interviews that dig into the regimes of Victor Orban, Rodrigo Duterte, Donald Trump, Recip Erdoğan, Narendra Modi and Boris Johnson.
Forgotten Stories of Football
If you’re into football, you probably already listen to the Guardian’s all-conquering Football Weekly podcast, but its new companion pod is a different vibe entirely. Rather than anything current affairs-y, Forgotten Stories is basically nicely rendered readings of longform pieces about odd, surprising and underappreciated moments in football’s past. The first is about the football tournament at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where the spectre of fascism loomed large but farce wasn’t far away. The British team’s pre-Games call-up letters, for instance, advised them: “As there is a month to go before we leave for Berlin, kindly take some exercise.”
Back in the 1970s and 80s, speedway motorbike racing was big. In the UK, it was a fixture of Saturday afternoon TV at a time when live football was far rarer, and live racing filled Wembley Stadium. There used to be 11 clubs in London alone, but now they're all gone. So what happened? And could speedway ever recapture the place it once had in the nation's sporting heart?
Blind Spot: The Road to 9/11
Not a cheery listen, no. But the most illuminating histories start with the assumption that nothing is inevitable, and given how long and dark the shadow of the attacks on the World Trade Centre is it’s important to remember that they were no different to any other huge moment in world history. Over eight episodes, original reporting and interviews with more than 60 FBI agents, high level bureaucrats, journalists, experts and people who knew the terrorists themselves retell the story. There’s no time as distant as the recent past, as they say.
The Fault Line: Bush, Blair and Iraq
If you thought there was little to add to Jez Usborne’s searing analysis of the Bush and Blair years on Peep Show (“Fuck you, Bush. It’s time to get out of Iraq, Bush. What were you even doing there in the first place, Bush?”) then you were wrong. David Dimbleby presents this examination of the 18 months leading up to the start of the Iraq war and interviews many of the major players: Blair himself, then-Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and CIA agent Bill Murray (not that one) are among those cross-examined. It’s about the war, but it’s also about how states make decisions at times of crisis.
The Log Books
Before King’s Cross was all Thomas Heatherwick swoops and beer cafés, it was rundown and slightly nefarious, and a place where people shunted to the edges of 1970s and 80s Britain congregated. Underneath Housmans Bookshop on Caledonian Road in 1974, a group of gay liberation activists set up a phone line offering advice about gender identity and sexuality called Gay Switchboard, and it’s still running as the charity Switchboard.
Now hosts Tash Walker and Adam Smith are delving into its archives – the log books of the name – which hold details of all the questions, conversations and worries of Britain’s LGBTQ communities at the time. It’s a fascinating social history which helps to assert the vibrancy and humanity of people who were routinely ignored or attacked at the time, and the second season is coming soon.
Queen Mary History of Emotions
The Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary’s is a uni department with an extremely good name, and an appropriately excellent podcast. Its recent The Sound of Anger strand, which won gold in the Wellbeing category at this year’s British Podcast Awards, takes an experimental and multi-layered approach to what anger means and why we need it. Lately it’s switched back to a shortform series with sub-10-minute biographies of emotions including nostalgia, Schadenfreude and loneliness.
The Town That Didn’t Stare
It feels like we might be hitting critical mass when it comes to guest-led podcasts with their own quirky angle on the basic chat format, but podcasts which dig into the everyday oddities of British towns? Now that’s the good stuff. East Grinstead in West Sussex seems like your average outer-outer London town, but for centuries it’s been a haven for alternative religions: nonconformist Christians, Scientologists, Mormons, Opus Dei and Pagans. Why? Journalist Nick Hilton investigates.
Slow Burn: David Duke
The story of KKK member and politician David Duke is never not relevant to America’s conversation on race, but since the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the Black Lives Matter protests, the subject of Slow Burn’s fourth series is almost hauntingly prescient. The idea is to retell historic episodes – Watergate, the Lewinsky affair, the deaths of Biggy and Tupac – without imposing hindsight on the narrative. You're guided through reaction to events as they happened at the time, turning up forgotten pivot points and, in the case of Duke, making clear that his positioning as a champion for resentful ‘forgotten’ whites foreshadowed the current political maelstrom.
History Becomes Her
Each time, host Rachel Thompson chats to a guest who’s making change right now about the women who came before them and still serve as an inspiration. Campaigners like LGBTQ rights advocate Ruth Hunt, journalist Zing Tsjeng and Three Women author Lisa Taddeo are among those to make their picks, from pioneering scientists to pirate queens.
Talking Politics: History of Ideas
Self-improvement's a noble goal. "Weekend plans?" you think to yourself on a Friday night. "Probably do a quick 10k, feed my sourdough starter, then bosh through some Derrida before lunch. Nice." Never quite happens that way though, does it? Obviously reading's brilliant and everything, but this podcast is a far quicker way to expand your mental horizons. David Runciman, head of politics and international studies at Cambridge, plots the genesis of the ideas and movements that still define the way we live today, including Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Thomas Hobbes' conception of the modern state and Ghandi's endorsement of non-violent resistance and anti-colonialism.
We Need To Talk About The British Empire
We're not particularly good at remembering the less gilded parts of our recent national history and while you might have done a few lessons on slavery at high school, as a nation we’re pretty blasé about Britain’s tendency to stick its oar in where it’s not wanted. Its legacy is very much still with us though: look, for example, at the still-unfolding Windrush deportation scandal. Consider this podcast a sharpener. Over the course of six episodes, journalist and author Afua Hirsch digs into the legacy of empire by talking to British cultural figures whose complicated relationship with colonialism and empire comes through in their art, from poet Benjamin Zephaniah to Dame Diana Rigg, and from Hong Kong to the West African delta.
It's the 50th anniversary of the band's poisonous break-up, but this project from the Liverpool Echo digs back into the very early years of the Beatles. Everyone in Liverpool has a Beatles story in their family, whether it's nana seeing them at the Cavern on her lunch hour or your dad's mate's uncle's mate who swears blind he sold George Harrison a Ford Cortina in 1963. This project from the Liverpool Echo tries to record them all before they fall out of living memory – take Helen Anderson, for instance, a contemporary of John Lennon at Liverpool College of Art. She made clothes for Lennon from sketches he gave her, and sat in on his early rehearsals at the college with Paul and George.
Why do we make bad decisions? Is it just a lack of good judgement? Or are our brains hardwired to let us down? Tim Harford's retellings of disasters caused by one catastrophically poor choice suggest it's the latter, but there are lessons about how we live our lives day to day to be learned from them. For instance, the really very, very bad idea of steering a supertanker toward a dangerous reef becomes a parable about not being blinded by the pursuit of a goal, and a story about the time a band of soldiers were gulled into completing a heist digs into how we instinctively trust authority figures. Alan Cumming and Russell Tovey are among the cast for reconstructions.
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