History Podcasts and Other Recommended Listening

by Bruce Berglund
A computer, a microphone, and earphones: all you need to record a podcast.
All you need to record a podcast.

Former students regularly ask me for suggestions of good books.  Surprisingly, once they leave college, students miss having a slate of required books to occupy their time and exercise their brains.  But rather than recommending some compelling reading, let me offer instead some compelling listening.

I am a regular podcast listener.  My mobile device is always stocked with episodes of various podcasts, which I play while driving in the car, riding my bike, or exercising at the gym.  When I make research visits to Europe, my airport layovers and train rides are devoted to binges of back episodes.

Podcast-listening is a solitary experience.  I often find myself wishing, though, that I could hand my ear-buds to the person next to me and say, “Hey, you need to listen to this!”

So, minus the ear-buds, I’ll take the opportunity here to say, “Hey, you need to listen to this!”

The intellectual omnivore will find a listening feast with In Our Time from BBC Radio 4, hosted by Melvyn Bragg, a longtime editor and presenter for ITV and the BBC.  Each week’s episode is devoted to a topic in history, philosophy, religion, culture or science.  Bragg mediates a conversation among three specialists in the particular subject, typically all academics at British universities.  The discussion offers both a primer on the topic as well as a window into the current state of research.  Among my recent favorites are the episodes on Spartacus and The Book of Common Prayer.  Bragg is a lively host, who clearly enjoys the opportunity to visit with top scholars.

Another BBC offering that I enjoy, one that is not as lofty intellectually but no less though-provoking, is the stalwart program Desert Island Discs. First aired in 1942, Desert Island Discs features a weekly “castaway” from the world of entertainment, politics, the arts, sciences, or business.  The guests select eight pieces of music (a popular song or classical work) as well as a book that they would bring with them to the isolation of a desert island.  The current host of the program, Kirsty Young, is a fearless and probing interviewer.  Her interviews with people of fame and power reveal their humanity in ways that often surprise and move me.  For starters, I recommend Martin Sheen discussing his Catholic faith and his son Charlie’s struggles with addiction.  Then listen to two very different episodes, with Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the most remarkable interviews with a politician that you’ll ever hear, and with rugby player Brian Moore, one of the most remarkable interviews with an athlete that you’ll ever hear.

These two BBC offerings both originate as radio programs.  A favorite of mine that is conceived and produced as a podcast (that is, with less professional polish and an irregular schedule) is the theology question-and-answer program GodPod. Produced by St. Paul’s Theological Centre in London, GodPod has a regular cast: Mike Lloyd of Oxford, and Graham Tomlin and Jane Williams of St. Mellitus College (note: Williams’ husband is the former Archbishop of Canterbury).  The three theologians answer questions emailed from listeners around the world on various sticky issues of doctrine and scriptural interpretation.  As with In Our Time, the conversation ranges from basic lessons in Christian teaching to the heights of academic theology.  And Tomlin, Lloyd, and Williams are not averse to expressing their disagreement with each other.  My one complaint with GodPod is that the episodes do not come more often.  When a new one appears, every six weeks or so, it’s always welcome listening for my morning workout.

A podcast that focuses solely on history is the appropriately titled New Books in History. Since 2008, former University of Iowa professor Marshall Poe has been interviewing fellow historians about their recent publications.  Although Poe is a specialist in medieval Russian history, his book selections range across every area of history, and his interviews show his genuine curiosity, his desire to learn more about topics outside his area of expertise.  I’ve learned a lot from interviews in my area of expertise, such as Edith Sheffer’s conversation about the making of the Iron Curtain and Rodric Braithwaite’s history of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.  But I’ve particularly enjoyed getting an introduction to research in other fields, such as Amanda Podany’s history of inter-state relations in ancient Mesopotamia.

Logo for New Books NetworkThree years after launching New Books in History, Poe decided to extend the model of author-interview podcasts to other subjects and launched the New Books Network.  Among the network podcasts that I regularly listen to are New Books in Religion, New Books in Politics, and, for a decadent treat, New Books in Popular Music.

In the interests of transparency, I should say that I also record a podcast for the New Books NetworkNew Books in Sports features interviews with journalists and academics of various fields, speaking about their new publications in different areas of world sport. In the three years of the podcast, I’ve interviewed several historians who view a period of history through the lens of sport. For a taste of the best scholarly research on sports history, check out the interviews with Tony Collins,Brian Ingrassia, and Theresa Runstedtler.

Most likely, my own work in podcasting gives me a greater appreciation for this form of media.  Professors who set aside time to record a podcast, such as my New Books Network colleagues or the hosts of GodPod, see their work as an extension of their scholarship.  Rather than reading the latest book to integrate within our own research or perhaps our courses, academic podcasters are seeking to bring these new findings—typically the products of years of work—to new audiences.  Some listeners have contacted me with how much they appreciate hearing from the authors. A favorite note came from a man in France who listens to the podcast to help improve his English.  He complimented my pronunciation.

Bruce Berglund’s area of focus in his doctoral studies was East European and Russian history.  He hosts the podcast New Books in Sports, which features interviews with scholars and journalists about their new publications on world sport. He is also the founder of The AllRounder, a new online journal that brings a distinct perspective to sports opinion and analysis. 

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