We spend a lot of time thinking about the future of history here at HistoryBuff. One of our most firmly-held beliefs is that even though mainstream media seems to think the American public is too dumb to care about the past (Exhibit A: The History Channel's current lineup), people will always be hungry to learn more about the history of their world.
Because of our hope for the future of history, we're beyond thrilled that several of the most popular podcasts out there are about history, like Dan Carlin's Hardcore History and Mike Duncan's runaway hit The History of Rome. Even podcast poster-child Serial has a historical sensibility—as Sarah Koenig walked listeners through the background of Adnan Syed's murder conviction in Serial's first season, she dove into archives and pored over mountains of evidence like a historian.
So what history podcasts are the history podcasters listening to on the way to work? There's a good chance they're all dedicated fans of Memory Palace. According to Kerri Hoffman, the COO of PRX—the nonprofit public radio marketplace that distributes Memory Palace and other high-quality, innovative podcasts through its Radiotopia network—the podcast is already something of a legend among people in the business.
”When we hire people at PRX, we ask them, 'What’s the podcast that you first started listening to that made you really fall in love with audio?' and so many say, 'Memory Palace with Nate DiMeo!' It’s a podcaster’s podcast."
The brainchild of veteran radio producer and television writer Nate DiMeo, whose resume includes such heavy-hitters as NPR's Marketplace and Parks and Recreation, Memory Palace focuses above all on incredible stories throughout history. Recently, DiMeo's covered Civil War-era slave Robert Small's daring steamboat escape, the underwater adventures of the builders of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the butterfly hallucinations experienced by dying lead plant workers in the 1920s. Episodes are short, running from as little as three minutes up to about twenty—meaning listeners get a tightly-edited, compelling narrative without any filler.
While he has no formal historical training, DiMeo credits his historical sensibility to his deep New England roots. He told me,
"Having grown up in Rhode Island [was very influential], and especially living in Providence, which has the feeling of an old place—walking around as a teenager and then later as a young man with the sense that the city not only was a place where slave ships were built and traveled out from a long time before, but also was where my family landed and started their own story. My parents met on this corner, and now I'm having a date and walking past this corner too!"
DiMeo now lives in Los Angeles, which he says has changed the way he ferrets out stories—and made historical discovery even more rewarding.
"When I'm on the East Coast or in London, there's this palpable sense of history that I feed off of that is absent here. Some of that is LA's propensity for erasing its own history and knocking buildings down. But some of it is also on me. There is this wonderful, fascinating, rich history in LA, in California, and because I didn't get that in school as a kid and connect that with my own experience—I didn't have a teacher to explain the history of Chinese immigrants downtown, or the 19th century oil barons. But I recently did something for the Metropolitan Museum about a robber baron and his wife, and realized, oh, these streets that I drive on all the time are named after that same family."
"When it does connect, it's really kind of magical. When you're getting a taco, you don't really expect to be swept away to the mid-19th century in the same way you might when you walk by a house with a plaque on it on the East Coast."