Do you think the events of the past influence the present and future? If you do, Now and Then is the podcast for you. Hosted by Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman, two well-known historians , each episode delves into a present event, drawing connections to historical contexts. As someone who loves to explore patterns emerging over time, I wanted to understand how this podcast is different from shows with similar premise like BackStory.
Both Dr Richardson and Freeman are very popular academics and long-term friends, with a combined social media reach of millions and have worked independently on other podcasts hosted by CBS and NPR. Dr Richardson is a professor of history at Boston College, specialising in nineteenth-century American history and Dr Freeman at Yale University, specializing in the politics and political culture of early American History. Here is a snippet from Now and Then’s trailer where they both describe what led them to start the podcast.
Heather Cox Richardson:
… we quickly became, certainly, 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 very similarly, and that we liked working together.
And even before that point, we were sending messages back and forth and talking to each other because we, at some early point, sort of realized that we really had opinions we wanted to bounce off each other. And whenever we did that, there were so many similarities and there were so many ways in which, you and I have talked about this another time, in which I thought something, and then I said something about it to you, and you responded, and I thought, “Yeah, that’s what I meant.”
Though the podcast ended on September 13, 2023, it was a weekly podcast and there are 225 episodes. There is little information as to why the podcast ended, since the hosts stated the decision wasn’t their choice. Now and Then, was produced jointly by Cafe Studios and the Vox Podcast Network. The podcast is also available on popular platforms such as Spotify, and Apple Podcasts. Due to this, the information such as the show notes and transcription, are also hosted in the Cafe website. The show notes are extremely detailed, with many resources encouraging listeners to learn more.
From listening, it’s obvious that it was a very topical podcast, the news cycle had a very important role to play behind every episode. I was curious to see if this would affect my experience, since as a listener I am reaching the podcast a few months after it has ended. After listening to a few episodes, I understood that the topical nature lends itself perfectly as a conduit for the hosts to delve deeper into American history and culture.
If I had to use one word to describe the podcast it would be ‘compelling’, it is fascinating to listen to. Despite my initial reservations about the timing (each episode is 50 mins long!), I found myself engrossed, binge-listening through an alarming number of episodes. I tried to listen to it while doing mindless tasks, like cooking, cleaning, but I would find myself stopping and reflecting on the points made. This happened when I was listening to an episode on ‘QAnon, Cults, and Cutlery’ in which the hosts delved into cults with a historical context, Dr Freeman made a very interesting observation, that cults emerge due to the actions of an unjust government. Here is a snippet of that conversation-
.. when I think you sent over the word cults, I said, “Ooh, cults.”
Heather Cox Richardson:
That’s actually right.
Because it was such a fascinating topic. So seemingly irrational and yet to the people in it inherently rational to a degree that some people would follow it to death. And one of the themes that Heather and I found in talking about cults was it seems that in one way or another cults are formed in opposition to government, an unjust government. It’s people stepping forward in one way or another to fix things, to act against a plot, to put themselves in power. But in one way or another cults often define themselves with that kind of opposition.
Dr Freeman and Richardson’s mutual friendship gives the podcast a distinctly conversational quality but make no mistake each episode is chock full of information. During its time, the podcast had a robust social media coverage since both the hosts are very active on social media. The show is made for a demographic in mind- for those interested in American history, culture, and politics. Both the hosts have excellent banter, and their conversation stays on topic, the podcast doesn’t use too many sound effects or dramatic pauses to add to the content. This podcast wants you to pause, listen, and reflect.
The podcast format is straight forward- the hosts introduce the topic, they discuss providing anecdotal evidence, and most of the times align this evidence with audio clips. This does make the podcast dull at times, the hosts do get the momentum back by making interesting connections between the anecdotes and the topic. For instance, in the episode ‘Not a Joke: Humor as Politics’, they introduce Alice Duer Miller’ a suffragist who not only wrote satirical columns but also wrote speeches for the then President. This made me engage with the podcast even after listening, as I used the resources in the show notes to learn more about Miller.
The last episode of the podcast titled ‘Then… and Now’, gave me an understanding of behind the scenes of the podcast. It was exciting to hear from one of the editors, is a history graduate who use their academic knowledge and research skills to add to this digital medium. Let’s listen to the process-
…David, why don’t we start with you. Can you talk a little bit about what it’s like to research the then in Now & Then?
Yes, absolutely. I mean, for me, broadly it’s paradise. I, upon graduating from college, studied American history, thought about getting a history PhD and archival history was my favorite thing. So when Now & Then began and I realized this is going to be my role, for me it was just like candy. So often what we do is we all meet and we decide on a topic and we decide on what our anecdotes are going to be. And usually Heather and Joanne, you’ll give me some kind of guidance over the type of content that you’d like me to find in the archive. So you’ll say, “We want a letter from Hamilton to Washington about some military campaign. We need you to find a colorful line in it.” Or “We want to capture the culture of a certain advancement in trained technology. We need to find some kind of folks in newspaper from the middle of the country that can give us some evidence of how people were feeling about this.” And I go in and try to find a good brief quote that we can read on the air and put that into a prep document that then I send over to both of you in advance of our taping. And the most thrilling part about it for me is that I never know what either of you are going to do with these raw quotes.
The podcast is very factual, and listening to the editor ‘s experience added a layer of the authenticity of the content discussed in the podcast. The comments from the listeners were a wonderful touch, I went back to the various social media posts, and to learn more about the community around the podcast. Almost all the viewers appreciated the banter, the informative nature of the podcast. This is to me is what a podcast becomes over the years, users can come back to Now and Then, and get an insight into American history and politics, of our time, and that’s such a lovely thing! Even as it ends, a podcast becomes a valuable time capsule of not just the present but also of the past, a conversation between two friends , here, becomes elevated a part of America’s cultural history.
The podcast is well produced with clear sound, so if you are looking to learn more about American culture and history and love a no-frills podcast this is the one for you.
For Loyola University Chicago, this is Shwetha Vaidyanathan!