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Three History Podcasts That Aren't "Hardcore History"
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Three History Podcasts That Aren't "Hardcore History"

Nick Douglas, Gawker Media

The execution of Robespierre (Image via Wikimedia Commons)

Nothing against Dan Carlin's "Hardcore History," but it seems to eat up all the publicity for history podcasts. That's a shame, because the podcast format is a fantastic way to dive into a thirty-hour history of the French Revolution, or snack on a 12-minute account of how Warren G. Harding, betrayed by his corrupt Cabinet, publicly projected all his feelings onto his dog Laddie Boy.

Something True

"Something True" proves that the details of history are hilarious, even unbelievable, to the modern sensibility. Each story in this grab-bag of historical marginalia is so weird and so whimsically described that I had to check them all on Wikipedia.

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Stockholm kept executing women because a preteen called them all witches? True. A leading rocket scientist thought he summoned his wife through a magical masturbation ritual? True.

Each of the eight episodes is about 15 minutes long. Writer Duncan Fyfe's scripts are engaging, and host Alex Ashby delivers them with professional flair. (The two gave Vulture an engaging interview about their process.) In their hands, these stories don't feel like quirky trivia but like adventure tales full of colorful characters. Each story would be satisfying if none of the details were real-but they are.

Crimetown

While it's filed under "News & Politics" on iTunes, Gimlet Media's "Crimetown" is about recent history: an era of corruption in Providence, RI under mayor Buddy Cianci and mobster Raymond Patriarca.

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Cianci was elected mayor as an anti-corruption crusader in 1975 and resigned in disgrace twice, first in 1984 after pleading no contest to an assault charge, then again in 2002 after a racketeering conviction. He made his name as a state prosecutor fighting Patriarca, who kept running the Patriarca crime family during his stint in prison for murder.

But both Cianci and Patriarca were beloved pillars of Providence society, according to the many old-timers who speak to producers Zac Stuart-Pontier and Marc Smerling in rich, cigar-coarsened Providence accents. Stuart-Pontier and Smerling build up a flavor profile that recalls Goodfellas, The Wire, and The Night Of. "Crimetown" deserves its own prestige TV adaptation.

Keep an eye out for Gimlet's next history podcast, Uncivil, which will tell "stories left out of the official history" of the Civil War.

Revolutions

Get a thorough explanation of history's major revolutions, one by one, on Mike Duncan's one-man show Revolutions. Each revolution gets an entire season with 8 to 20 half-hour episodes, with one exception: the French Revolution spans a whopping 55 episodes. I'm currently 16 episodes in, and Duncan has managed to keep things exciting even though he hasn't even gotten to the first beheading.

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Each season is structured and styled like an accessible history book, with no prerequisites beyond the most basic grade-school grasp of history. Terms are explained, historical figures introduced and glossed, context provided.

Duncan delivers his text with a bit of vlogger John Green's friendly-teacher lilt. He adds the slightest editorializations, sometimes just with a tone of voice or word choice, that humanize the drier parts of bickering parliamentarians and royal decrees. He comes across like a wry bespectacled tutor, reading to his student next to the fireplace in a country palace.

Duncan leads occasional tours of revolutionary sites, which are announced on the podcast. He previously created the 179-episode podcast "The History of Rome," which inspired his upcoming book The Storm Before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic.

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