A Love Letter to Mike Duncan: The Tale of One Man’s Falling for Podcasting

In August of 2009, I found myself with a daunting prospect—a daily two hour driving commute in silence. Sure, I had quite a collection of MP3s to keep me company, but, in a time before Spotify and other similar streaming services, my collection was finite and that finite collection did start to wear thin rather quickly. Moreover, I wasn’t always in the mood to rock out while rambling down Interstate 40. 

Enter Mike Duncan.

I had heard of podcasting before and had only just abandoned my beloved Apple products to quickly embrace all things Android. So, I had discovered the concept of free content in the form of a podcast just recently.  Having been rather obsessed with history since childhood and being in a situation where I was using my English degrees but not my History degree, I quickly bumbled my way into the realm of history podcasts in particular. My own slathering hunger for history isn’t discriminating, I’m as likely to listen to a breakdown on the 2008 financial crisis as I am to an explication of the ups and downs of the Aksumite Empire. However, ancient Rome has always and will always hold a special place in my heart, thanks in large part to one of my undergraduate professors, the eidetic memory-having, history-as-compelling-narrative-telling Dr. David Krueger, may he rest in peace.

All this being so, my searches almost immediately meant that I came across Mike Duncan’s The History of Rome (THoR) podcast. At that point, Duncan had been producing and publishing the show weekly for two years, meaning that I had quite a back catalogue to engage with on the four hour round trips that quickly came to consume chunks of my Monday through Friday adult life. 

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Back then, Dunan was a scrappy part time podcaster. He engaged in history for the love of history.  His equipment was low-end. His production quality was low-end.  He was learning while he produced the show, as many of the greats have. Despite that (or maybe because of it), Duncan’s content shone brightly. He is a meticulous researcher and doggedly pursues a balanced version of history, and that came through in his no-nonsense, everyman-but-still-expert delivery of the Roman story.  This history was accessible, but not watered down. Easygoing, but exciting. I was hooked. 

Myriad articles have been written about THoR’s trek from the mythical founding of the City of Seven Hills (Episode 1 – “In the Beginning”, published 27 July, 2007)  all the way until the anticlimactic end of the Western Roman Empire (Episode 178 – “Not With A Bang But A Whimper”, published 29 April, 2012). Needless to say, the podcast became one of the most successful, celebrated history podcasts to date, and innumerable podcasters, both history and non-history, point directly to Duncan as the inspiration for their own impetus to begin podcasting, not to mention the structure of their programs, nature of their research (i.e. dogged/exhaustive), and scope of their writing and production.  If there is any doubt to the program’s success, one need only reference his successful books born of the program (The History of Rome, Books 1-5 and the NYT bestselling The Storm before the Storm: The Beginning of the End of the Roman Republic), his highly popular THoR-focused tours around important ancient Roman sites, and the proliferation of his podcasting philosophy of never wavering from a publishing schedule as a form of respect for one’s audience. (The lattermost of these measures of success is now so ubiquitous that it’s almost become ipso facto in the podcasting realm.)

Had Duncan stopped producing podcast content with the end of THoR, he would have gone down as a podcasting legend.  By the time 15 September, 2013 rolled around, I had listened to the entire catalogue of THoR at least three times. So, imagine my surprise and delight when Duncan took another leap into podcasting with the release of his introductory episode of his new show Revolutions. As with THoR, Revolutions was a passion project for Duncan.  Unlike THoR, Duncan had the knowledge and skills to launch the show with immediate high quality audio and all the other frills that audiences expect from professional podcasters. This series broadened its scope, focusing on modern history’s political revolutions. It has covered the English Revolution (which Duncan argues adamantly is a revolution and not strictly a civil war), the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, the series of Revolutions in South America, several of the smaller revolutions/revolutionary actions born of the French Revolution, the Mexican Revolution, and the still-ongoing Russian Revolution. Though my commutes have shrunk, I am still as eager to listen to his weekly content as I was when I first discovered THoR

As with THoR, Revolutions has seen success, the most visible demonstration of that success being Duncan’s second NYT bestselling book, Hero of Two Worlds: The Marquis de Lafayette in the Age of Revolution. This series is already moving to its conclusion.  Duncan has announced that the Russian Revolution will be the last covered in the program, so its end is nigh.

To say that Mike Duncan has influenced me is an epic understatement.  Certainly, he entertained me through more long drives than I can recount and continues to engage me now that my commute is a bit more cosmopolitan. (Revolutions soothes me as I trundle along on the B Train in Manhattan these days.) But, his influence goes far beyond these countless hours of entertainment and edification.  

I have used and continue to use his podcasts as learning tools in my classes, employing THoR and Revolutions in both the university and the secondary classroom. I have purchased his books several times over for family and friends who want to broaden their historical knowledge but can’t quite make it through the usually dusty historical tomes. Maybe most importantly to me personally, following his example, I launched my own biweekly podcast of narrated short fiction five years ago and have steadfastly released those episodes without fail across the half decade, as per Duncan’s publication rule.  My own podcast is humble in both its aim and its execution, but it is something of which I am immensely proud. Writing, producing, and publishing the podcast has become a healthy and necessary artistic outlet for me. Without THoR, I know that I would have never pursued such a project. 

My podcast playlist is large and varied. I consume true crime, politics, economics, philosophy, history, and far more these days, but Duncan’s calming voice is still, by far, my favorite to hear beamed into my ears. For those seeking diversion, enjoyment, inspiration, and/or edification, I cannot recommend Duncan and his podcasts enough, even if history isn’t your thing. 

Mike Duncan may not be your portal to the wonderful world of podcasts, but I wholeheartedly believe that everyone should go find their Mike Duncan, their flame to light a fire of diversion, enjoyment, inspiration, and/or edification through this medium. Maybe it will be the dark historical tales of Aaron Mahnke. Maybe it will be the true crime discussions of Ashley Flowers and her partner-in-podcasting Brit. Maybe it will be the sundry intellectual ephemera of Josh Clark and Charles W. “Chuck” Bryant. Or, maybe, just maybe, it will be a little known, scrappy part-time podcaster who has taken his cues and motivation from Mike Duncan for the past twelve years. Any which way, Duncan’s reach will be felt, and I know I, for one, am better for having his creations in my life. 


If you enjoy podcasts which delve deeper into history, why not give HedgeRadio a try? HedgeRadio brings you sparkling podcasts and narrative stories to keep your ears on edge. Produced by Crannóg Media it is presented by Chris Hayes & Alan Boland.

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