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Identifying a Quality (History) Podcast

The history podcast world is booming, and that's a great thing for listeners. It means that you can learn about pretty much any topic you want through the simple search of a podcast site or app. The problem is, not all history podcasts are created equal in terms of quality. It's tempting to trust a podcast immediately - especially if it's listed at the top of an app, has corporate backing, a well-known host, or a shiny logo. But none of these guarantee that the information you will hear is well-researched or accurate...and you want good, solid history.

As long as podcasting remains a completely open-access medium, in the sense that anyone can start one, there are no means of quality control outside of parameters set by the creators themselves. Certainly no creator is going to tell you they are providing you with bad, poorly-researched, or blatantly inaccurate history, but there are often signs. Below are a few questions I ask myself when I listen to a history podcast for the first (or the first few) times. Although there's no such thing as a perfect system, they should help you become attuned to identifying the warning signs of a low (or bad) quality history podcast.

Does the host provide their sources? This, to me, is the single most important thing a podcast host can do to show they've done their research, and there's no one way to do it. They can name the sources in the episode. They can provide them in show notes on their website. They can do a mixture of both. The crucial part is that they communicate to you, in some way, where they get their information. If they don't, why should you trust them? I have heard about podcasters actually lifting quotes from Wikipedia. You do not need those in your rotation. This leads me to...

What sources are they using? Some people believe you should only use sources from the last 5 years. I've never agreed with that. What I do think is key is being thorough. Old sources can be useful, sometimes more useful than new ones. A mixture is often a good idea. If multiple types of sources are available (primary and secondary) - which isn't always the case - and they are listed, that's fabulous! Utilizing sources from the culture being discussed is also a good sign (for example, I would have been a poor historian indeed if I did an episode about Pocahontas without consulting a source like the Mattaponi oral history of her.) As a listener, you are not expected to be able to identify the "best" and "worst" books on a topic, but a skim of the sources provided or mentioned should give you some feelings about if the host did their homework.

Who is the host? Let me be very clear: I do not think degrees guarantee good podcasters. I know far too many academics who are absolutely awful at podcasting (both in the presentation sense and yes, sometimes, in the research department) and quite a few people without advanced degrees who are really great at what they do with public history. The thing I'm looking for with this question isn't some sort of magical amount of experience, but I am looking for transparency. You don't need to know your host's last name, but you should know something about them, their background, and their approach to history. Some podcasts will have websites with bios to help with this, but for ones that don't, you'll want to listen to how the host speaks about both their experiences and history itself.

Does the host admit errors or that we can't/don't know something?

With history, we can simply never know everything. Some topics have more gaps in them than others and acknowledging those gaps is important. Does the host appear to know absolutely everything about every topic with complete confidence? Do they admit when they simply do not know what happened or that there is disagreement among historians about what occurred? A good historian will be aware of the conversations around the topic they're covering. While they can (and should) form an opinion on the narrative while researching, it's always a good thing when a host acknowledges other prominent arguments. It demonstrates their knowledge and shows you, the listener, the way history really works. Further, when faced with something we do not know for sure, we use what we do know to fill in the gaps - but admitting what we know as fact and what we are speculating is important. Acknowledging these things is a sign of the strength of a person's work, not a weakness. Further, if the host makes an error (we all do, no one is perfect) do they admit it and/or correct it? Humility is also a good thing for a host to have. What do their reviews say? A podcast should not live and die by its reviews, but if you scroll through them and see multiple that mention questionable sources or methodology, it should give you pause. Keep in mind, every podcast will have someone who just doesn't like it, but when a pattern emerges that indicates bad history, approach with caution.

With history podcasts being so plentiful these days, identifying one as below the quality you want does not mean your choices become limited. If anything, the fact that there are so many options means you should not have to settle. Doing a little bit of research at the beginning of your listening journey might help you have a more fulfilling experience in the long term. If you're listening to a podcast, and alarm bells start going off in your head, pay attention to them. Every host/every historian is going to have their own lens through which they present information to you, and you may not enjoy all of them, but with a little bit of effort you should be able to find many that are not only stylistically enjoyable but which also stand on the foundation of solid research that you deserve.


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