A little more than two years ago, three historians were frustrated with the lack of historical analysis in the 24-hour news cycle. We decided to stop yelling at the TV and to learn to speak evenly and with fewer profanities, into a foam-covered microphone. And so the history podcast Past Present, a weekly broadcast which turns hindsight into foresight, was born. Nearly 100 episodes later, co-hosts Nicole (Niki) Hemmer (Miller Center, University of Virginia), Neil J. Young (George Mason University) and me, at the New School, have historicized topics from constitutional originalism to Crossfit. Our 50,000+ downloads every month suggest that media-obsessed historians aren’t the only ones hungry for historical perspective on current politics and culture.
In the spirit of historical precision — after all our stock in trade — there is more to our origin story. Back in 2015, Niki was beginning a new job centered on research and journalism and knew she would miss the unique thrill of teaching. She and Neil had been early podcast enthusiasts, and were excited about the possibilities of a genre in which few historians had a presence. I had never listened to a podcast before, but I’d always dreamed of having a public voice in the popular media beyond print. When Neil and Niki approached me to be co-host, I was all in.
Then historical events smiled upon our small, unfunded venture. An unlikely presidential hopeful declared his candidacy from Trump Tower a few weeks before our launch; Hamilton fever hit just after. When I told an acquaintance in PR we’d recently launched Past Present, she effused, “GREAT move. History is so hot right now.” Before long, it wasn’t just historians who “got” what we were trying to accomplish with Past Present: headlines declared the “unprecedented” nature of our moment so often that even those who “hated history in high school” (as some of our listeners have confessed) began to ask historical questions about how we got here. At the same time, it’s been gratifying to learn that our colleagues use Past Present in the classroom and find it entertaining and informative themselves.
One hundred episodes in, our fear that we would run out of things to historicize has (for better or worse) been in vain. From the dramas of the White House to Whole Foods, Silicon Valley machismo to SoulCycle, police brutality to pornography, we not only teach about these topics but also continue to learn a tremendous amount ourselves. We are thrilled about our upcoming live show at The New School and hope you will join us for the conversation (IRL or on our Facebook page via FB LIVE) and our 100th episode party to follow!
The live broadcast will be on Tuesday, September 12, 2017, from at 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm, in Klein Conference Room (Room A510), Alvin Johnson/J.M. Kaplan Hall, 66 West 12th Street, New York, NY 10011. Co-Sponsored by Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts and Public Seminar, it is free and open to the public.