Podcasts: Sarah’s Favourites (Part One)

Over the last few years podcasts seem to have exploded in popularity. This may be connected to the growth of smartphones which (among other things) have allowed people to listen to them on the go, any time, any place. And so people have started talking into the microphone in great numbers on any and all kinds of topics and genres. And at this stage, the majority of podcasts are free to access although followers are asked to support productions in various ways via voluntary monetary subscriptions, buying resources or just sharing the podcast among friends and family. However I can see a time in the not too distant future where a mandatory payment is requested.

Wondering how to describe a podcast I looked up the definition and came across the following: 

… a digital audio file made available on the Internet for downloading to a computer or mobile device, typically available as a series, new instalments of which can be received by subscribers automatically…

Technical detail aside, that sounds as good an explanation as any.

I had a false start with podcasts a few years ago. I listened to a few (mainly BBC produced history related offerings) but never stuck with them. I don’t think this was the result of the quality – they were good. I just wasn’t in the right space, my attention being elsewhere. But now things have changed somewhat and I am a devoted fan and listener.

But what is it in the way of subject that attracts my interest?

Well as I mentioned earlier, History is an area of particular fascination to me, so I am constantly on the lookout for good history based podcasts. And that is not restricted to a particular country or sub genre. For example – of the many that I (currently) follow I would argue that seven have a strong history component.

The most obvious of these is You’re Dead To Me (BBC Radio 4). It describes itself as:

The history podcast for people who don’t like history … and those who do. [It] brings together the best names in comedy and history to learn and laugh about the past.

Episode subjects range from The Ancient Olympics, The Mayflower, Mary Shelley, Neanderthals, Mansa Musa, LGBTQ History, Blackbeard plus much more so there should be something in there for everyone. Each installment is between 45 and 50 minutes long (so they easily fit into my nightly torture routine otherwise known as the exercise bike). While it sometimes discusses difficult moments and events that occur in relation to the main topic , it tries to keep it light and humour filled which I like and appreciate. So this is a favourite.

Now since the instigation of COVID related lockdowns around the world, You’re Dead To Me has gone on hiatus, to be replaced with a shorter, more youth orientated history podcast produced and hosted by the same creative team called Homeschool History. It’s tagline is … fun history for all the family … and it does just what it says on the box. I certainly enjoy listening to it and with episodes at 15 mins in length it’s a great time filler. I especially like the mini quiz at the end of each episode. It’s fun to see how many questions I can get right.

Yet another offering comes from the makers of the magazine BBC History called History Extra Podcast (Immediate Media). This has a heavy focus on interviewing authors and historians who have published books on topics in which they specialise ranging from the mistresses of Charles the Second, the spies who inspired James Bond, the unexpected Vikings, surviving the Great Plague and much much more. It’s fascinating to hear the thoughts and opinions of people in this field and gives the listener a little window into vast and varied areas of research. The episodes can be anywhere from 30 mins to over an hour long so they cater to someone wanting a middle or long distance experience. 

But then there is You Must Remember This (Stitcher and Karina Longworth). It announces itself as:

… a storytelling podcast exploring the secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century …

It tends to have an overall theme to it’s seasons that have included Dead Blondes, Fakes News: Fact Checking Hollywood Babylon, The Seduced, The Blacklist, MGM Stories and The Many Loves of Howard Hughes. Episodes can range from 45 minutes to well over an hour so I tend to listen to these in two sittings. As you can imagine there is a healthy dose of entertainment industry scandal and gossip to listen to and let’s admit it, we all enjoy a little bit of that don’t we.

The next wee group is a genre that I term ‘historical mysteries’,

A super example of a well researched and incredibly interesting offering is Dark Histories (Ben Cutmore). It’s synopsis reads:

Bi-weekly narratives on the unsolved and unexplained, mysteries, historical true crime, touches of the paranormal and cultural peculiarities.

A new episode appears every fortnight and they vary in length, but they are all engrossing with some being quite scary one of which was absolutely terrifying. Honestly it had the hairs on the back of my arms and neck standing on end. I was worried I was going to have nightmares! Look it up and you’ll see what I mean – The Spider Man of Denver: Theodore Edward Coneys. It’s a cracker! Other particular favourites are Joshua Maddux: The Boy in the Chimney, The Fire from Within: Spontaneous Human Combustion and my absolute total favourite Tamam Shud: The Somerton Man Mystery. I actually did more reading about this because I found it so enthralling. I would even go so far as to say it is probably my favourite podcast episode of any I have ever listened to. I really look forward to seeing what Ben comes up with as I love his quiet and precise delivery.

A second entry in this field is Unexplained Mysteries (Parcast Network) and says of itself:

‘We don’t know’ answers too many questions … Unexplained Mysteries investigates the greatest mysteries of history and life on earth because the answer ‘we don’t know’ is always the scariest.’

I am still quite new to this podcast but I like the duel hosts and the regular two part format which has the detail of the mystery relayed in episode one and has a discussion of what might be the cause of the mystery in episode two. Another benefit to this is that each installment is kept to a manageable length of between 30 to 40 minutes approximately. So this looks a promising prospect.

And the last on my history related list is The Morbid Curiosity Podcast which is similar in a broad way to Dark Histories. Episodes have included Victorian Post-Mortem Photography, Skeleton Lake, Ghost Ships of the Arctic, An Unfortunate Disappearance (Roanoke Colony) and Three Stages of Stigma (Syphilis). You need somewhat of a strong stomach for this one as it can get a bit gross in parts but each installment is fairly short at between 35 to 45 mins long so easily doable in a single sitting.

So that’s it for my history related podcast listening. Just a few there to get your teeth into! Watch out for part two in which I will chat about what other areas I like to follow and lend my ears to.

Happy listening everyone!

(Image: Sarah Kreig)