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  • Shannon Honl

Podcast Review of "Now & Then"

Listen to the review here.


Hi there! And welcome to the very first episode of my podcast. I’m your host, Shannon Honl. Today I have the honor of reviewing another – far more popular – podcast. Allow me to introduce you to Now & Then.


I’m Heather Cox Richardson, and I’m Joanne Freeman. We’re two historians, authors, and best friends who like to get together and talk history.


As you just heard, Now & Then is hosted by historians Dr. Heather Cox Richardson and Dr. Joanne Freeman. And just as the title suggests, theirs is a podcast about – you guessed it – history. But not just history. These two highly distinguished historians leverage their knowledge of the past to make sense of the present.

Each week on Wednesday, they release a new episode. Typically it’s the two of them discussing a topic. But occasionally, they feature a guest. For example, in October, they did an episode on higher education. This was prompted by President Biden’s recent student loan forgiveness initiative. The episode featured Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Bunch. In a three-way dialogue, they tackled issues such as the cost, politicization, and future of higher education.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before we jump into the review, I think it’s important that you get to know Heather and Joanne. It will help you understand how this podcast fits their professional ethos.

Heather Cox Richardson is a professor of 19th C American history at Boston College. She is, obviously, a podcaster. But she is also a successful author. Her newsletter, Letters from an American, which also interprets today’s “political landscape” through history, has made her one of Substack’s most successful paid contributors. Joanne. Joanne Freeman is a professor of 18th C American history at Yale University. Her emphasis is on the politics and culture of the revolutionary era, and she is a leading specialist on Alexander Hamilton. You may have also seen her featured as an historical consultant on popular documentary films.

So how did these two hook up to do this podcast?


But we quickly became on each other’s radar screens because there were so few women doing political history as we came up through the ranks of the profession. And then, in the last, really since the pandemic, we got to know each other quite well because we did so many Zoom events together and discovered that we really thought about the world similarly and liked working together.


Heather and Joanne are both professors, so education obviously is a part of their aim. But they also care deeply about democracy and the value of an informed citizenry. For them, the solution to fixing the “crisis in democracy,” as Joanne called it, is to engage the public. And for the public to be informed and understand what is at stake with today’s issues, they need to understand the backstory. So Heather and Joanne are essentially the tour guides on that journey through time as a way to make meaning out of today’s events. Preet Bharara interviewed the two historians after their show debuted. Let’s listen to Joanne’s response:


It’s part of a continuing enterprise to make the public aware of what’s going on now, and what the longer roots of it are, and about the fact that people need to be aware to take action.


OK, so how about some quick facts before we get into the meat of this review? Now & Then was launched in June 2021. According to an online source, 73 percent of their listeners are from the United States. Typically, the podcast is recorded and edited before release. But they do have a handful of live episodes. They also feature special “backstage” episodes for Café Insider subscribers. I have not had the opportunity to hear any of these. But supposedly, they offer listeners a sneak peek into the production of each episode and showcase personal anecdotes from Heather and Joanne. Last week, they released their 82nd episode on December 7.

But I digress. Let’s get to reviewing. So I would say this program targets educated adult audiences curious about history. But that certainly doesn’t preclude scholarly or expert listeners from enjoying it. Heather and Joanne make this very accessible to a range of listeners. They take their time unpacking the complexities of history and do an excellent job highlighting the key points. Of course, many of their listeners are repeat audiences from social media, Substack, and classrooms. But even non-history enthusiasts tune in. One reviewer wrote, “I love how Heather and Joanne trace the podcast theme from its origins to today’s relevant issue. I do not tend to search out historical books or podcasts, but this one has me hooked!”

That listener’s review might help explain why Now & Then is such a successful podcast. Especially considering how relatively new it is. They are currently ranked #40 on Apple Podcasts. The show has a 4.9 out of 5-star rating and 3.1 thousand subscribers. For comparison’s sake, BackStory, which Joanne used to cohost, has only 4.5 stars. Now & Then has nowhere near the following of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History at 59 thousand listeners. But it reaches a broader audience than Kate Carpenter’s Drafting the Past or Ben Franklin’s World hosted by Liz Covart, which only has 4.4 stars and 1.3 thousand followers.

And in case you still need convincing, Heather and Joanne just received the Prescott Award for Excellence in Historical Writing. This was bestowed by the colonial Dames of Massachusetts for their work on Now & Then. According to the press release, they received the award “in recognition of their scholarship and their “wide lens of history” that reflects on and informs our society.”

So Now & Then has all the pieces of a solid podcast. The theme song is a catchy mash-up between an old-timey banjo and an electric guitar. A nice juxtaposition of the “now and then” theme. But I found the production to be a little light. Heather and Joanne record in their respective homes. Generally, the sound is OK, but sometimes the quality of their voices does not match, or a mic picks up ambient scuffling. While not every podcast is suited to smoke and mirrors, theirs lends itself to a bit more layered richness. For instance, when they discussed the power of the youth vote, they referred to activist movements in the wake of the Vietnam War. I wanted to hear that! Or, when they talk about the banjo’s history, they discuss picking versus strumming and the different types of musical genres that employ the banjo. These moments of bare dialogue just beg for an audio complement.

Nevertheless, the show is well-produced and carefully edited. The dynamic between the two is excellent. Heather is very straightforward and stayed. While Joanne is animated and light. Joanne’s bubbly persona complements Heather’s dry humor nicely. The two together really create an exciting and engaging dialogue that moves along at a nice pace.

So they obviously know how to podcast. But do they know how to do history? Well, actually, yes. In fact, they are total rock stars at doing history!

They’ve got what it takes to tell a great story. Each episode begins with an introduction to the topic. They warm up the conversation by introducing a contemporary hook from the week’s news. Such as Nancy Pelosi’s resignation as Speaker of the House. Or Lizzo playing James Madison’s crystal flute. Heather and Joanne take turns introducing themes, commenting, interpreting, or counter-interpreting. The show is always upbeat, and the two women obviously have profound personal and professional respect for one another.

But I really appreciate that they don’t shy away from the hard questions. Of course, history is never straightforward. But these two have a way of grasping the salient points, unpacking the complexities, and offering accessible interpretations to their listeners.

A great example of this is their episode on Madison’s flute. First, they set the stage with James Madison. He was a slaveholder, architect of the U.S. Constitution, and proponent of white supremacy. Then they introduce Lizzo. She is a Grammy-award-winning black female musician. The Library of Congress invited Lizzo to play Madison’s 200-year-old crystal flute for a concert audience.

Heather and Joanne have set up the grand narrative. They introduced the characters and framed the conflict. In this case, the discord centered on race. Leading into the conversation, Heather asked Joanne, “What would James Madison say about this?” Joanne didn’t hesitate. First, she offered the easy answer. That is to say that James Madison would be “offended.” But she pressed ahead with a more complicated possibility. Let’s listen:


You could also say there is a long tradition of white people sitting back and enjoying black people playing music. And taking that as a kind of fake submissiveness instilled in that by some of the white audience looking on. So, it’s hard to know, I think, what Madison would think. I think the easy answer is that he would be offended that there is not only a black person playing his flute but a black woman. But I think the answer might actually be more interesting and more complicated.


But Lizzo and Madison’s flute were not really the topic of that episode. Instead, the hosts took the controversial moment to grab our attention. They went on to talk about the bigger question of who owns music. How instruments and genres are adapted and adopted across geography, race, and culture. Then in the last 5 minutes, they brought the episode full circle. They related it to the Lizzo-Madison hook they opened with.

On that concluding note, I hope that you enjoyed this review of Now & Then. You can find all the episodes of Heather’s and Joanne’s podcast on Apple, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Thank you to Loyola University’s Digital Media Services for providing the equipment that made this production possible. And to Dr. Cantwell’s Public History and Media class for the training and support. The music was provided by Scott Holmes. And the show was produced by me.

It was my pleasure hosting you today, and I’ll catch you next time. For Loyola University Chicago, I’m Shannon Honl.


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