You Know Your History? These Podcasts Aren’t So Sure.Historians in the News
tags: history podcasts
It’s hard to overstate the impact of “Revisionist History” on the podcast landscape. Last year, its three-minute trailer hit No. 1 on Apple’s charts. The show’s success partly reflects the presence of a celebrity host, the proto-TED Talk sage Malcolm Gladwell. When the second season dropped this summer, Mr. Gladwell’s return was feted on the morning shows and in the Sunday Styles section of The New York Times.
But the real draw is the concept. In the show, Mr. Gladwell weaves counterintuitive tales about historical moments he’s deemed “overlooked and misunderstood.” Each episode “re-examines something from the past — an event, a person, an idea, even a song — and asks whether we got it right the first time.”
Now it has spawned its own podcast micro-genre, with seemingly every podcast company starting its own history-bending show. In “What Really Happened?,” the documentary filmmaker Andrew Jenks goes on what he calls a “rogue investigation” aimed at “unraveling newfound narratives” on pop historical moments. In “BackStory,” historians draw connections between current events and the past, throwing out “the history you had to learn” in favor of “the history you want to learn.” There are new podcasts revisiting a 1990s mass-suicide cult (Stitcher’s “Heaven’s Gate”), Charles Manson’s early life (Wondery’s “Young Charlie”), the Watergate scandal (Slate’s’s “Slow Burn”) and the Civil War (Gimlet’s “Uncivil”).
The market is suddenly so crowded, new entrants are arriving with increasingly knotty conceits. The gimmick behind “The Thread,” from the digital news site OZY, is to stitch together events decades and cultures apart through a series of historical links and coincidences; the first season carries the listener from the assassination of Lennon (John) to the revolution of Lenin (Vladimir). And “Omnibus,” hosted by the “Jeopardy!” champion Ken Jennings and the singer John Roderick, pitches the idea forward, billing itself as “an encyclopedic reference work of strange-but-true stories” collected “as a time capsule for future generations.”
The Trump era has had a way of destabilizing America’s narratives about itself — its embrace of the free press, its success as a melting pot and the accessibility of the American dream. It makes sense that podcasters would seize on this moment of uncertainty to try to shop some answers. But is our collective historical knowledge really so backward that we need this many podcasts to straighten it out? And how effective is a narrative twist in a podcast episode at actually illuminating our past? ...
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