Active Listening: 'Throughline' from NPR

Active Listening: 'Throughline' from NPR

Active Listening is a new series on podcasts meant to introduce your ears to the latest thing and old standouts. Radio is great, again!


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If I was reduced to my formal education I’d be a Journalist-Historian who dabbles in teaching English. So NPR’s newest podcast is aimed directly at my heart, but you don’t need to be me to love Throughline.

Throughline wants to “explain the history that underpins everything happening in this moment,” which is a tall order. It’s not the first to try to inject historical context into a 24-hour news cycle world, though. I was once excited about the historical-context news site, Timeline, which sought to draw the line from current events back in time to the events and ideas precipitating them. Now, Timeline sits sadly on Medium, having abandoned its visual timelines while also focusing less on making sense of current events. It also hasn’t published since June 2018.

The concept was always a tough sell to anyone who wasn’t a history buff. But the presentism of our times reveals the need for a broader view of current events. Our time is unique, yes, but not utterly so, and politics don’t happen in a vacuum. Throughline wants “people to take a step back from the blinding speed of the news cycle and absorb, more profoundly, the historical context at play.” So far, the show has done a great job showing why a podcast might be the perfect vehicle for this kind of mission.

Episodes run about 40 minutes and are immersive in their storytelling and sound design. It sounds very much like an NPR podcast, which I’d say is a good thing, although there are people who are tired of the style. I think the format is perfect for the mission, though. Because the show leans on its hosts and interviews to construct a narrative of the events explored, listeners get engaging retellings of key events alongside the big picture discussion.

The show debuted Februrary 7 and currently has two episodes posted as of writing this, but there are more available now. The hosts are young, fun, and do a great job of conveying information through segments where they talk to each other and ask their own questions about the subject.

You can (and should) give Throughline a listen below.

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