For my post this month, I’ve decided to revisit a piece I wrote last year in which I shared some of my favourite history podcasts.
As many of us hunker down for extended periods of “social distancing” with the spread of COVID-19, we will be looking for ways to pass the time while at home.
And what better way than by listening to historical podcasts?!
Here are a few more favourites that I’ve started listening to in the last year or so.
The Keepers, by the Kitchen Sisters
The Keepers is a series created by the Kitchen Sisters, a radio-producing duo consisting of Davia Nelson and Nikki Silva. The series, which airs on National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States, chronicles the “stories of activist archivists, rogue librarians, curators, collectors and historians – keepers of the culture, and the cultures and collections they keep.”
This is a masterfully produced podcast that seamlessly weaves together archival footage, music, interviews, and narration to tell fascinating stories about keepers of the past of many stripes.
One thing I really love about this show is how it makes preserving the past exciting, full of drama and intrigue. This effect is obtained not only by the stories themselves, which are unfailingly gripping, but also by the clever, technical ways they are told.
For example, in the opening segment of the series’ first episode, about the Hiphop Archive and Research Institute at Harvard University, a fellow at the institute (acclaimed hip-hop producer-turned-academic 9th Wonder) makes the case for preserving hip-hop’s past, gushing excitedly as he introduces listeners to the collection, “This is… the archive.” This sentence is followed immediately by the iconic, pulsating string-section opening to Lauryn Hill’s “Everything Is Everything.” From there, the episode is off and running, with a steady stream of hip-hop classics alternating between background and foreground, as the voices of interviewees come and go. If that audio sequence doesn’t get you amped up about historical preservation, I’m not sure what will.
Recommended episodes: Um, all of them? Certainly the episode on the Hiphop Archive. Other favourites include: “The Pack Horse Librarians of Eastern Kentucky,” “The Unrelenting Oral Histories of Eddie McCoy,” and “The Lou Reed Archive.”
Produced by Annabelle Quince and Keri Phillips for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Rear Vision is a weekly half-hour radio show and podcast that, for the most part, examines the history behind contemporary events. I say for the most part because some episodes are certainly more contemporary-focused than others.
Like The Keepers, this podcast integrates the voices of narrators and interviewees with archival footage and music, to create a very polished final product. But where The Keepers adopts an artistic, story-telling approach, Rear Vision is much more firmly in the genre of conventional radio news programme. But it executes that form exceptionally well.
Rear Vision tackles stories not only from Australia, but from around the world. Recent episodes, for example, have covered Benjamin Netanyahu, Hindu nationalism in India, and the Australian wildfires.
Recommended episode: “The Story of Fire in the Australian Landscape.” I would expect there to be an episode soon about the history of pandemics, but as of now, the show’s coverage of COVID-19 has been limited to a mostly non-historical discussion of the origin of the disease and China’s wet markets.
First Words on Unreserved
First Words is a spin-off podcast of the CBC show Unreserved (hosted by Rosanna Deerchild), in which Indigenous language speakers share some words from their languages and talk about learning, speaking, and preserving them. While not a “historical podcast” in the same way that the above two are, First Words nonetheless provides a fascinating window into an essential component of the preservation of culture and history, projects inseparable from language. Indeed, in speaking about their ancestral languages, guests on the show frequently blend discussions of their languages with stories about their community’s past or the teachings of elders.
The only voices that appear on First Words are those of the featured guests, with occasional musical interludes. This sparse, crisp production style ensures that their voices, and hence languages and stories, are front and centre.
Recommended episode: Anthony Johnson and James Makokis (Team Ahkameyimok, winners of the Amazing Race Canada, 2019).
Consider these three shows – along with the three I profiled in last year’s post – a starter pack for your podcast lover’s quarantine survival kit.
There are hundreds more historical podcasts out there. Share some of yours in social media replies or in the comments below!