SPEAKER: We are here today with Dan Carlin. He is the host of two very popular podcasts, “Hardcore History” and “Common Sense.” Believe it or not, he’s been in this business since 2005.
DAN CARLIN: 2005
SPEAKER: And he’s had a tremendous amount of success in the podcast world. Influence in the historical world, as well. So join me again to welcome Dan.
DAN CARLIN: You have a wonderful facility here.
SPEAKER: So most of you guys are probably all familiar with the “Hardcore History” podcast series. It focuses on deep dives into historical events, and puts them in context so that we can understand them better. So I wanted to throw Dan a little bit of a curveball, and ask him– he always talks about what happens if you were there. What would the experience be like if you were on the ground experiencing that history.
So I wanted to ask Dan to tell us about a historical experience that he experienced, on the ground, in Dan Carlin’s voice, live today.
DAN CARLIN: Well, when I got into news– I got out of college, I didn’t know what I wanted to do specifically, so I got in the news business somehow. And I remember– I was a history major. And when I was a history major at University of Colorado, they actually had, in the history department, these pamphlets that said what to tell your parents about choosing a history major. Because everybody said, what are you going to do with this? So I got to news, and then found out that so many of the reporters– I was a news guy in LA.
And in LA there’s two kinds of reporters. There’s the kind that you send out on real deep difficult stories, and then there are the ones, you know, you send out to do the Hollywood stories, and all that. And they’re really two different kinds of reporters. And the kind of reporters that I wanted to be like, I found out an amazing amount of them had history as their background. I remember seeing Connie Chung. I think she spoke at college. And I went to the get-together, and it was a journalism department get-together. And somebody raised their hand and said, what courses would you suggest we take that will help us when we get out into the news business? And she said — I’m paraphrasing here– but she said this is going to be a really unpopular answer to tell a bunch of J students, but I would take all the courses you’re not getting right now. I would go to the geography department. I would go to the history department.
She goes, because anything you’re learning in journalism, they’re going to reteach you, your first six months on the job. She says, the stuff you’re not going to get is the background stuff. So when I got in the news, all of a sudden I felt like, OK, maybe this is a place for people who’ve studied history. And I didn’t really realize why until I’d done it for a while. And it’s because you have the context. Right? And what was fun for a history major is, you had this opportunity to be at events– to answer your question– where history was taking place. So you’d do these horrible stories that made you feel bad at the end of the day, that had nothing to do– you know, coffee roasters downtown opened a new building, or whatever. But then sometimes you’d have an LA riot. And the LA riots were the biggest thing that I ever personally witnessed. And I remember being in college.
And I was in college in Colorado, and you’d hear these stories about earthquakes and fires in Los Angeles. And I’d call home, and I’d say, I hear things are just awful. And my mom would go, they’re nothing. They’re just hyping that story up. I would say the LA riots were the only story that was really as big on the ground as everybody thought it was.
I mean, that wasn’t being hyped up at all. And the story was so weird, because– and this was the lesson, I guess, when you’re talking about what it’s like to go through history. Because you have no idea what’s really going on while you’re in it. And you’re trying to make sense of it. So on the first day of the riots– you had to go in to work.
Now you guys will all understand this, you have to go in to work sometimes when there’s big news stories breaking. So there’s this unconscious bias to downplay the importance of the news story if it’s your day off. Right? Because you kind of think there, oh, this isn’t so bad. I remember looking out over the horizon, and there’s multiple fires burning. And I’m thinking, I don’t have to go in. This isn’t a big deal. I don’t have to go in to work. So two days later they call me, and scream at me, and say everybody’s at work. Where are you? So I get in the car, head down to work, and it’s like a nuclear bomb went off. And it’s traffic– I mean, I lived 15 minutes from work. It took me an hour and a half to get there. And I remember thinking, OK, if there were ever a nuclear war, nobody’s getting out of anything. So I went to the building, and in the first day were interviewing looters. And again, this is an example of how a story of a giant historical importance, at least for that city, didn’t seem like it at the time. Right? You walk up to people carrying stuff out of buildings, and you stick a mic in their face, and you start interviewing them.
Two days later they were shooting at the reporters, and we were interviewing anybody anymore. So we started covering things from the air, with just helicopters. So I still remember Laura Diaz– who was an anchor at KABC then– coming up the stairs, white as a sheet, saying they just shot the helicopter. We’re not going out there anymore. And that’s when we knew we couldn’t go home. They brought in cots, they brought in food. And then they put a curfew in my home city. And I’ve never seen a curfew in Los Angeles. They also shut all the lights out in Hollywood. And I’d never seen the lights out.
But they shut the lights out because it was back lighting the soldiers that they’d brought into the city, and making them targets. And so we had a pass to be out after curfew. And I’m driving in my home city, and it’s dark, and there’s soldiers on every street corner. And I have a scanner in my car, and you can hear these– this guy’s being shot here. We have somebody charging the– and it was surreal.
And so I remember thinking that this is maybe what it must be like when you’re living through history. Because you don’t know what’s going on. And you’re piecing it together with other people who are living through it at the same time. And I remember, a couple of days later, feeling like, was that all real? Did that really happen? And I remember going to pick up my dry cleaning. I had, like, three things in my wardrobe that could be dry cleaned– all my nicest clothes.
It was right by the TV station. And I walk into this place– remember, thinking, did this even really happen– and I walk into this dry cleaners, and there wasn’t a stitch of clothing in the place. And the windows were all boarded up. And like an idiot, I still presented my ticket to the guy. And like an idiot, he looked at it like he was considering the fact that maybe there were some clothes in the back on the floor that hadn’t been taken.
And then he handed it back to me, and he said, no clothes. And that’s when I remember thinking, OK, I get it. And then I walked out of the building, and I looked at the street. And the riot had literally taken out one side of the street, and stopped right there. And the other side of the street was pristine. And I remember thinking, OK, this really happened. It took me a couple of years to really absorb– and I had actually watched the TV specials, and everything on this event– before you could really see it the way it was. You know they say you shouldn’t write history for a certain period of time afterwards? I still don’t think I fully understand that, and I was in it. So that was the biggest historical event I ever saw up close. And it’s funny how– it’ll be interesting, I guess, is what I’m saying, to read about this in 50 years and see how the story’s 50 year– well, as if I’m going to be here.
But you know, how it will differ from the experience I saw on the ground. And I think that’s probably a pretty good analogy of what it must be like. It’s a little confusing, and a little hard to put in perspective.
SPEAKER: Absolutely. That makes a lot of sense. And a lot of your episodes, they really covered a vast swath of time. Everything from the Mongols to the recent world wars. How do you hear back from readers who have actually been in those events? And how do they respond to hearing about their experiences retold?
DAN CARLIN: In that sense, it’s kind of easier to do earlier stuff. Because if I get it wrong, I don’t have to hear from anybody who was there. We were talking, before we did this, about– I did a show called– three shows, I guess it was, called “Ghosts of the Ostfront,” once. And it was about the Eastern Front in the Second World War. And I was looking at it from the perspective of, if you’re an American, or someone from Britain, or France, or any of the Allies that weren’t the Soviet Union, you have a specific view of the war. And to us it’s hard to see, either the Russians– or certainly the Germans– as the good guys, or the aggrieved, or victims in any way, shape, or form. So I was trying to do this show where I tried to look at it from the perspective of people who are, like, caught in the gears of history. Right? I mean, the average person in that war had no say at all.
Especially in these dictatorships, right? There were few conscientious objectors in Germany. I said there were none, and heard from a bunch of Jehovah’s Witnesses who said they were beheading Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany who wouldn’t go into the war. But I did the show. We tried to do it from the perspective of a bunch of people trapped in a horrible situation. And a guy wrote me– I heard from a lot of Germans. One guy wrote me, he said, my grandfather was on the Eastern Front. He’s never spoken about it. So he said, I got in the car and I took a chance. We were going to have a long drive. I put your show in.
We drove for six hours. My grandfather said nothing. He said, we parked at the location, I turned off the audio, and he starts babbling about everything that happened to him that he’s never told the family. And I guess– I’m trying to remember, this is years ago now– but the guy’s point was something to the effect of, these are people who never felt that they could recount the horror, and the things that happened to them, because who wants to hear it from the bad guys? Right? They’re human beings who suffered, but they were the bad guys. And anytime anyone brings that up, all you can think about is, yeah, but what about the people on the other side? Remembering, I think as we must, that truthfully, by an accident of where you were born and when you were born, it could have been you.
Could have been me. And so this idea that somehow somebody who was there listened to this and got something positive out of it, was so different from saying the 15-year-old, today, living, downloaded it got something positive out of it. The problem, of course, is you feel kind of like you’ve got this responsibility now. And it makes it a heck of a lot harder to walk in the studio next time and just blithely talk about the Eastern Front in the Second World War, when you realize people that are still trying to deal with the scars that were inflicted on them then, are listening to it, also. So there’s something a lot easier about doing a show on the Mongols from the 14th century, than doing a show like– we were considering doing one on The New Left in the late 1960s.
The Weather Underground, the bombings, and all that. And I said, do I really want to hear from all those people? Because they’re literally going to write you and say, I was there. You’re an idiot. You don’t know what you’re talking about. And Mongols are easier. But there’s something, if you do it right– and that’s a bit of a crapshoot– but if you do it right, there’s something really satisfying about somebody saying, yeah, we got something really positive out of that.
DAN CARLIN: So that, to me, is an example, maybe, about what the new media can do, a little bit. Because that’s a really niche market, speaking to Eastern Front veterans that are still alive. But the fact that they got something out of it was neat.
SPEAKER: And so what happens if you kind of follow this trend? You’re finding a lot of positive experiences from people who do learn about it. People who learn about it differently, despite actually being there. What happens if we go the other way? What if we don’t know all this history?
DAN CARLIN: You, know I’ve been thinking about that a lot, too. Because I have kids, and my youngest daughter, for example, is not a big reader. Doesn’t like all this kind of stuff. And you think to yourself, OK, if this is representative of her generation– and I don’t know that it is– what would happen if the great mass of society really didn’t know anything about the past? If this became a specialist endeavor, like biologist, or something where if you want to know what happened 10 years ago, you go to a specialist, as opposed to having some sort of context. And I feel like it’s a little bit like a great experiment. Because on one hand, I keep telling myself, OK, most people didn’t know real history throughout most of human experience. So maybe there’s nothing different about it. And yet– we were talking about this great concept about, in the world of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
If you’re the person– the one out of a hundred of your generation likes history– and you study it, and you learn context from it, does that give you a leg up in your life? It’s hard for me to know, because I have this weird theory that’s totally unsupported by any evidence that I know of, that different people have different ways of organizing their mental framework. So I have a friend who’s a mathematical genius. To him, everything is numbers. Right? He organizes his whole frame of thought through numbers. I organize mine in a historical sense.
And a lot of the people I went to school with that were history majors did the same thing. So I think there’s got to be a whole bunch of different ways to organize your mind. But the problem is, is it makes it really hard to imagine how other people, who don’t organize their mind the way you do, organize their thinking. So for me, it’s all linear A equals B, then B happens, then C happens. And that’s how I think. So I think with the podcast we keep thinking about, how do we make a podcast for the audience that the audience likes, when we don’t know about the audience? And so we decided that the only thing we can control is what we like. And that if we talk about what I like to talk about, and that interests me, eventually you will self-select your audience, and they will be people who like what you like too. So you will be able to say, OK, I’ll talk about this, because I like it, and I know these people will like it also. And so I think that the people that like it tend to be people that organize their thinking in a historical linear framework.
I think if you’re a numbers guy you might listen to my show and find 900 things wrong with it. If you’re a history guy, you listen to– it or gal– and you go, oh yeah, that speaks to me somehow. And so, I mean, I think part of the new media is the ability, instead of broadcasting and having to appeal to everybody out there, you can say, no, no, no, I’m targeting this little teeny narrow demographic. And I like to say, you’re a “Harry Potter” fan, what are the networks giving you? Right? OK, but there’s like three or four podcasts just on “Harry Potter.” So if that’s really what you like– or 1950s science fiction comic books, or classic motorcycles, or whatever it is– it might be a small audience that’s interested in that, but they’re passionate about it.
Right? It’s one thing to say, I watch this TV show that everybody likes, and I like it too. It’s another thing to have somebody speaking right to your soul, in a way that you can relate to, about something you love. And I think, for me, when I think about what we’re getting to, history-wise, I’m not teaching anybody anything. We’re reveling in this information. And some of it’s false.
And we have to acknowledge that some of it’s false. But that doesn’t change– I read these histories from a hundred years ago, and they’re full of falsities, and romancing, and racism, and all these things that 100 years ago, history– but it’s colorful. And if you can say to yourself, OK, I’m going to put aside the question of facts for a minute– because I’m not so sure our facts today are all that factual, sometimes– you can really sort of swim in that kind of thing. And if you love history, it’s immensely satisfying. And so we try to draw some of that– because I’m not a historian.
And I think historians today, and I’ve said this before, are better than any historians we’ve ever had. It’s all peer reviewed. They savage each other. It’s like a science, which is great if you’re looking for factual information. But you lose something. You lose that– you know, history used to be a part of the humanities. It still is at a lot of colleges. But if you looked at the list, it would say, humanities, history. Well, that puts you in the same category with law, language, religion, poetry, and all those kind of things. It’s a very different subject than if it puts you in the social sciences, which puts you in with anthropology, archeology.
And, again, more scientific, more facts. But do you lose something in the transition? And what I’ve always wondered is if maybe you don’t even have two disciplines there. History as a humanity, and history as a social science, because they almost do different work. The history as a social science is rigorously fact-based, and it’s wonderful. But if I open up a history book from 50 years ago, it fails every test you would have to pass to be in that category.
But it’s immensely more satisfying to a non-specialist reader. And you ask yourself why. Because there’s something more human about it. But whenever you’re dealing with people, we are so variable and weird I mean, how do I put you versus you in these– I mean, it’s just– you’re dealing with an inherently unstable situation.
And as long as you can enjoy that, history becomes immensely satisfying, I think, to non-specialists. But you’ve got to be careful, because it’s certainly not the way history is done today. So I often think, when you go into a bookstore, and you look at the new books that are out, you’re going to see a bunch of books about historical figures, and history, and everything else, from authors. Not historians, just authors, because they’re great storytellers. And they know how to tell that story in a way that relates to a non-specialist.
And I think the specialists must hate that sometimes, because they generalize, and they do all the things. But if you’re creating the next generation history fans– and let’s be honest, if you’re a history professor and you want to teach people who are interested in history, somebody has got to appetize them, for lack of a better word. Right? Somebody’s got to create the next generation of history professors Victor Davis Hanson, the historian, he’s a classicist. And he wrote about how the classicists are destroying the next generation of people who want to learn classics, by making it so devoid of that things that an average person would care about.
So I think, and I would hope, that we’re appetizing people, for lack of a better word. And people tell me that they’ve become history majors because of this stuff. That’s wonderful. And then they can write me later and say, I used to love your show, till I found out all the things wrong about it. And now that I’m a historian. I can explain those to you.
But, yeah, from a standpoint of what we’re doing, I mean, I think it’s a little bit like the way an author writes a book about a historical subject, and knows how to bring out the things that appeal to someone who’s making a TV, or a movie. It’s a different thing, I think I think history’s become a science. And I think by becoming a science, you lose some of the elements that impact people on a human level. Does that make sense?
SPEAKER: Makes sense.
DAN CARLIN: Not intentionally, just because some things are very hard to quantify.
SPEAKER: And coming back to that human level, we’ve also transitioned to an age where some of the things you wish you had– on your episodes where you say, I wish I had known what this person was thinking, writing, feeling. Some of that, we have now. We have people being able to directly record their feelings– record what happened in digital media. How do you think that changes how we’re then going to look back at history, at these time periods, with this wealth of additional direct information?
DAN CARLIN: Well, I’ve started to adopt a term for what I do, that other people use. I don’t like it. But when I deal with people who are talking about TV shows, they all talk about storytellers. And there’s this real dearth, apparently, of professional storytellers. Which is why you have these movies coming out that are 1970s cartoons turned into a feature length film, and part four. It’s just a dearth of storytellers, they tell me.
So I was breaking down what a storyteller means, if you just use the words story and telling. And you think about the modern world, and how it opens up the possibilities for anybody who has– we’ll just play with the idea of a gene, but you know what I mean. A storyteller gene. Some of you out there are great storytellers, and it’s almost an innate quality. Doesn’t mean you can’t improve it, but it’s an innate quality.
I had a grandfather who was a great storyteller. This opens up the door– the new media, and everything in it– with no gatekeepers. We’ve gone away from the whole idea that someone can prevent you from telling your stories. Or that you somehow have to please them before they let you see if an audience likes what you do. So for storytellers, this is a golden age.
Because you’re going to have more storytellers working and telling stories than you’ve ever had in the history of the world. And I always quote this quote that may or may not have been a Napoleon quote. Some people say it’s a Joseph Stalin quote. But it’s that quantity has a quality all its own. And I used to go around selling the idea of amateur content in the 1990s.
And I would go to these executives, and they would say, nobody’s going to like this. It’s going to be juvenile. And if they were any good, they’d be they’d be making money for what they’re doing. And I tried to explain that, listen, you’re going to have so much stuff, that if even 0.05% of it’s good, there’s going to be a ton of good things made out by 15-year-old kids in their basement.
So from a storytelling standpoint, the amount of people doing this has exploded. Which means even if a lot of it is crap, for lack of a better word, a lot of it’s not. And that you have a lot of people that are working now, and telling stories in a business where there aren’t that many jobs for that. So we’ve improved the number of people who have access to telling their stories who are good at it. The other side are the stories, themselves.
There are a lot of people who aren’t good storytellers at all, but have lived through things– or have relatives, or friends, or people they know who have lived through amazing things– who would love to document that. Your grandfather fought in the Second World War, lived through some amazing things. No one’s going to know that, right, after they’re gone, and after you’re gone. But that doesn’t have to be the case anymore. You can record a terrible podcast with awful audio and horrific storytelling skills, but get that information down in a way that future historians will see as nuggets of gold that they can mine later.
Because if you imagine how, 200 years from now, they’re going to look back on this era, and think about what the historians are going to have to work with, compared to what we have now. If you had TV shows that you could view now from 1750, how would that change your view of people 200 and some years ago? So I mean, I think from a storytelling standpoint, on the story side, we’re going to have stories for historians that dwarf any material they’ve ever had available. And we’re going to have storytellers who would have died on the vine somewhere telling their friends in a bar great stories, who are going to be able to tell those stories to thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, or millions of people. And not just now, but I always try to say if we do a show today, how many people are going to have heard that show 100 years from now? So I mean, there’s a long game going on here that old media doesn’t deal with Old media does, what’s the next ratings period, is this show going to be around in a year? When you put your grandfather’s World War II experiences in an audio form, set in digital stone, for lack of a better word, you die, he dies.
200 years from now, some historian finds that, and your grandfather’s story becomes part of a larger mosaic of experiences that gets added somewhere else. In other words, people are creating history every day now.
DAN CARLIN: In a way that would have been lost, even 15 years ago.
SPEAKER: And that storytelling, I think, you focus a lot on your Martian perspective. Have you been there?
DAN CARLIN: Yeah, that’s a nice way of saying I have a really weird way of seeing things.
SPEAKER: How do you ensure that you retain that Martian perspective in media that’s increasingly polarized or homogeneous?
DAN CARLIN: Well, I mean, I’m having this problem with the political show that we do, right now. The show that we started doing first was “Common Sense,” and that was a show that grew right out of the radio shows I used to do. And for lack of a better word, politically I’m a reformer. I think we have some systemic problems that require us working together to fix. Now anything that requires Americans working together is a long shot, right from the get go.
But I talked about this for years. And then what was really weird to me was that what was a long shot when I started doing it in the early 1990s, all of a sudden– because I think the trends became more obvious to people– started looking like it wasn’t such a long shot. And maybe history was turning my way. And a couple of years ago I thought, this is crazy, right? I mean, we started this show when nobody cared. But the trends have luckily fallen into place, to where what I’m talking about is actually more relevant to people than it was when I was in radio.
And then, of course, strange things began to happen in our political system. And I sat down, not that long ago, and I said, I feel like my political viewpoints have been blown out of the water by events. And that somehow what I was talking about went from, hey, you could actually see it potentially falling into place, to forget about that. We are now so far away from that, that what I’m talking about politically maybe isn’t relevant anymore. And so I haven’t done a “Common Sense” show in a while, because it’s an inspiration-based program.
And I feel, to be honest, as lost as a lot of the country does I don’t feel like I have anything to share. I feel like I’m an observer, like everyone else. So you kind of have to feel like you know what you’re talking about, to talk about these kinds of things. And all of a sudden I felt like as much of a novice as everyone else.
I mean, I feel like we’re in an uncharted situation. That I have no more ability to understand where we’re going than anyone else. And so I haven’t felt comfortable doing it. And so, from a politics standpoint, I don’t know what to do about that show. In terms of Martian perspective for the history standpoint, I mean, I feel like that’s who I am.
I’m not sure I could be anything but that. And just so you guys know, I picked Martian because there are no overtones to it. I mean, I tried to think, how do you explain an outsider’s perspective without having some baggage attached to any term you can think of? And I thought, well, what’s the baggage attached to Martian? So it was a good way to say, I’m different, but not in any way you can easily classify.
SPEAKER: Makes sense. Makes sense. And how has that perspective evolved from the radio days? I think a lot of people here are obviously– they’ve been sampling from a variety of media. Radio is still a part of our lives. How do you feel working in radio versus podcasts gives you a different perspective?
DAN CARLIN: Radio was awful for me, so the perspective is very different right off the bat. Listen, we all understand, we’ve all heard radio. It’s a very specific kind of medium that’s developed, over 50 or 60 years, a certain way. If you go back and you listen to old radio shows, obviously there’s a lot more creativity. There was a lot more theater of the mind, as they called it. The ability to have you sit by a box with a voice coming out, and you, in your head, determine everything. I was trying to explain to my kids, the difference between reading a book or going and seeing the movie about the book. And the difference is, is when you read the book, you’re all reading the same words, but you’re conjuring up different images in your head.
What does the main character look like to you? Right? If I show you the main character, you don’t have to think about that anymore. In radio, when you look at the way stories were told– and it was storytelling a lot of the time I mean, radio obviously had news, sports, all the things it has now. But it also had dramas, and all these kinds of things that the radio format really doesn’t allow for now. And I remember an older person who grew up on radio said that it’s like a muscle.
And if you don’t use it, you lose some of that ability. So if I played an old radio show for my 12-year-old, she’s going to be bored to tears. She’s not going to get it. It’s not going to mean anything to her. And so by the time I’m in radio, we want to play with some of the creative tools that audio allows you to have, but it’s such a restrictive venue.
It was then, and is more now. Right? You have a top of the hour news break. You have a break 10 minutes after the hour. I mean, there’s all these things that constrain what you can do, and then add to that the fact that you have to assume that your audience is turning over every 15 minutes, in large number. Right? You’re getting into the car.
You’re getting out of the car. So what does that mean I have to do? I have to restate the same things over and over again. I mean, my moment in radio, where I knew I was doomed, happened when I had yet another fight with a consultant who told me that everyone in the audience has to know where I stand on every political issue within five minutes of turning on the program. Now, first of all, nobody’s saying, OK, here are my views on all the subjects of the day. In other words, what they meant is, you have to be so obviously identifiable, that when they hear you, they can tell what your views on abortion are, because of what your views on this other thing are.
And I said to him, that’s a cartoon character. I said, that’s not a real human being. He goes, we’re not in the business of marketing real human beings. In other words, they were looking for a cartoon character. Now I didn’t get fired, so I must have been at least passably OK. But I never went the cartoon character route. And so when the chance to do media on my terms showed up, and you said, OK, this is your creative white space, and it’s a giant space that’s all white. There’s no top of the hour news breaks. There’s no resetting what you’re talking about, or who you are. From a creative standpoint, I lost my mind.
I would do 20 different podcasts, if I could, because I have ideas for all these things. Because it’s just such an amazing– we do six hour shows sometimes. Who does six hour shows? Who lets you do six hour shows? Right? And so I’m intoxicated by the creative white space. And one of the things about radio was that that white space was diminishing the whole time I was in it. By the time the 1996 Telecommunications Act was passed, and we went from having a radio station owner that was in the building with you, to an owner that’s on Wall Street selling stock and owns 1,000 radio stations, I mean, we went from little white space to none.
DAN CARLIN: And so, for me, this opened up at just about the same time, and it was like an escape hatch. It’s perfect.
DAN CARLIN: It’s perfect.
SPEAKER: And how did this change over the time that you worked in the space? In 2005 you started your podcast 2015, that’s 10 years later, “Serial” comes out “Serial” hits mainstream media. You guys both win the best podcast, in slightly different categories, 2014, 2015 Bringing a whole new set of listeners, and changing what it means to be a podcast. How did that affect your show, and how did it change how you approach the problem?
DAN CARLIN: It was the continuation of a trend that was already going on. So when I got into podcasting in 2005– we always say we started podcasting the same month that iTunes started supporting podcasts. And when we did, there were no professional content on it. One of the great things that was done to nurture the podcasting space was not dividing professional and amateur content, and separating us. So you don’t have a big link, when you first go on there, that says, do you want professional stuff, or amateur stuff.
So by allowing us to compete with anyone in the same space, it became more of a meritocracy. Now it didn’t mean that ESPN didn’t have huge advantages over you. But it meant you’re still competing in the same space. Now I always said that once the pros got into podcasting, it was a good thing for everybody. Because we’re all raised on– at least I was, in my generation– raised on this idea that media is a zero sum game.
And if you’re watching one TV network at 8 o’clock, you’re not watching the other TV network at 8 o’clock. So no one has any interest in telling you about what’s on the other network. Podcasting’s not like that. You can promote somebody else’s podcast, it doesn’t hurt your podcast at all. So when the big boys started coming in– and I don’t remember who was first.
I think some of the sports networks were the first ones. And all they were doing was rebroadcasting their other content using podcast as a distribution vehicle. I said, this is great. Because once you download a podcast, you’re a podcast listener. It’s no longer foreign. You know how to do it. And the biggest impediment we had, when we started is– I would go to dinner parties. You want imagine uncomfortable, you sit at a dinner party, and the first question anybody asks is, so what do you do for a living? In 2006, this is a 45-minute conversation. And at the end, the guy still doesn’t know what I do for a living. Now it’s not. Right?
And so I think what helped us in that space is all of the professionals saying, yeah, download the podcast. And then once you do, you go, what are the podcasts are there out there? I know how to do that I’ve got a pod catcher. I’ve got all these things. So I think the pros coming into it ended up increasing the size of the people who are potential listeners, and then we could grab them.
So how the industry has changed is that we went from something that no one knew what it was, to something that everybody below a certain age does. And the respectability’s gone up. No one assumes you’re some kid in a basement– although kids in basements can do wonderful work. They think that this could be anything. And they’re right. I mean, when you talk about the numbers of listeners, it’s insane, sometimes. Some of these– “Serial” has an insane number of listeners.
SPEAKER: Yeah, right. And here at Google we certainly cherish and celebrate the kid in the basement with anything. So I think a lot of people here, especially engineers, would love to know a little bit more about how do you build it. How do you put together that podcast, from idea to episode coming up?
DAN CARLIN: It’s changed. Once upon a time I could walk into the studio, and I would sit down– or stand up– and I would record the whole thing, boom. If I made a mistake– a fatal mistake– 35 minutes into it, we turned it off and we started over. So finally the engineer said, why are you doing that? Why don’t you just use– see, the problem started, actually, with no cough button. So in radio, you have a cough button, or a clear your throat button. So you push it, clear your throat, you’re off air. So there wasn’t anything like that. So you try to clear your throat 35 minutes into it and say, ah, had to clear my throat. We have to start over. So the engineer said, what? Why don’t you just clear your throat, and tell me about it, and I will get rid of that later.
Which started the process of, OK, this show was great. I wanted to do 50 minutes 49 minutes were great, the ending sucked, let’s start over. And he’s like, no, no, no, we’re not starting over. We’re going to just record the one minute that you didn’t do. And so slowly but surely it became more that way. And I was scared. Because as a radio guy, not knowing where this podcast was going, I’m thinking, if this doesn’t work, I’ve got to go dive back into radio. And what if I lose my chops? What if I can’t– now I need editing Right? I can’t go in there and speak for 20 minutes off the cuff anymore.
He said, do you really care so much about– so I mean it was a process of me embracing this new opportunity wholeheartedly in a way that said, what do we need to do in this kind of venue to do the best show in this venue? And forget the idea that you have to worry about, I’ve got to go back to radio someday, so I better do– you know. And once we did that, there was not only a liberation, but unfortunately, maybe, for the listeners, an extended– I mean we’d get longer and longer. And these shows just got so– I mean, like, when I do six hour shows, I don’t want to do a six hour show. That’s not a feature, that’s a bug. But if I had to record them all without stopping, there would be no six hour shows.
There might not be 40 minute shows. So the way it’s changed is the embracing of the techniques of how to do this, which we’re learning. One of the things that I talk to other big podcasters about is, we kind of try to share the information, because there are no metrics. Right? So you go, what are you guys seeing? And how do you make money? And how is this working for you? And the funny thing is, is that if you looked at all the top podcasts and say, how do you make money, they actually have different models. Because it’s really tied to what you do, and the kind of production you have.
I mean, for example, I get out– I’m ashamed to say– about 25 shows a year at this point– history shows If I had to live off advertising– and I will do more than one ad per show– OK, well you can’t do that. But if you do three shows a week– like Joe Rogan does– and you could do four or five ads per show, that’s a viable monetary solution for you. So we actually all have different kinds of approaches. So we sell the old history shows. After a couple of years, take them off the free feed, and we sell them. Well, most people have different kinds of shows. These are evergreen, right? They’re as good when you get them a year from now, as they were when we released them. If they sucked, they suck just as bad.
But most people can’t do that If you’re talking politics, like I do on the other show, those shows are like a car, and you drive them off the lot, and they lose half their value right away. And so I guess what the long answer to your question is, we’re learning. And we’ve been learning. And it’s a unique medium, and so there are unique things.
And there are no metrics, and so we’re all learning together. I was just at the podcast convention two weeks ago, and it’s really interesting hearing the different lessons that people learn, because they’re doing different things, but stuff that might apply to what you do too. So you and I were talking about the infancy. You’re all employees at Google, and you’re used to all this. But if you think about the fact that we are literally at the very start of this– it doesn’t seem like it, because I’ve been doing it since 2005.
But what is this going to look like in 50 years? And what’s the societal impact going to be? And you may just think it’s a podcast, but if you’re the government of China, and you’re thinking about your people doing political podcasts, that is a destabilizing force. And so I think what we’re going to find out later– and I think we’re seeing it even now in its infancy– this is dangerous stuff Like every de-stabilizing technology is, right? Letting people communicate to broad masses of other people is untested stuff, and no dictatorship in the history of the world ever wanted that. So I keep trying to tell myself that as far as we think we come in this, we’re at the very beginning of the beginnings, still.
SPEAKER: Right. And we talked earlier about how some of this content is so appealing, because it feels like you’re filling a void, potentially, in the education that a lot of your listeners have, in terms of getting the context of the history that you describe. How do you view your role in the broader education story?
DAN CARLIN: Yeah, I’m uncomfortable with that. And I’m uncomfortable with it because I was a history major, as I said. And one thing a history major with a BA in history knows is that you’re not a historian. Right? And you really understand that really well. So I’m having dinner with my mother-in-law one day. And I always give her credit for this, because I’m doing the political podcast at the time. And I’m regaling her with one of my wonderful dinnertime stories, which are bloody and horrible, and they sound a lot like the podcast. And I think as a way to dissuade me from talking like that at dinner, she said, why don’t you do a podcast about this? And I said, because I’m not qualified I said, I’m not a historian.
I can’t teach history. She said, I didn’t realize you had to have a PhD to tell stories. This is the first time the storytelling thing came up. And I went, hmm I said, OK, that’s an interesting point. And then I thought, well, OK, how you tell the stories? So if you go listen to the first history podcast we ever did, I think it’s 15 minutes long. It shows you what I was thinking at the time. We thought we would do a show just talking about all the weird stuff in a story. But we weren’t going to tell you about the story, because we assumed you’d show up as a history fan, you’d know the story. So if I’m talking about Alexander the Great and Hitler– which I was in the first show– I assume you know that.
So we just talked about the weird things Right? So the feedback starts coming in, and people are saying, yeah, we like these twisty weird “Twilight Zone” things you say, but we don’t know the story. So you kind of go, OK, well I guess I’ve got to give enough of the story so that you could enjoy the “Twilight Zone” things. And slowly but surely that leads to us telling more of the story. So we had to figure out why on Earth you should trust me telling you the story.
And so we had to invent things. One of the things we invented– because I think we’re the only one who does it, because I can’t imagine anybody needs it– we call them audio footnotes. So if I was writing a book, and I’m just Joe Blow with a BA in history, why should you trust me? I’m going to say a fact in the book, and then I’m going to have a little footnote at the bottom that says, well, I got this information from somebody who you should trust, and you can go look it up yourself. And there was nothing comparable to that in the audio space. And so that’s when we started quoting people.
And once again, you’ve got to be careful about doing that, too. You don’t want anybody’s work to be plagiarized, or anything, but you want to make sure though, that when I say this happened, that I give you somebody who you can believe. You know, so-and-so said this happened, and then you integrate that into the story. Now all of us understand that every historian self-selects. And so just because historian A says this happened, that doesn’t mean historian B agrees with them.
So then you get competing audio footnotes. So we developed this idea of, OK, well this historian says this, and this one says that. Well, this turned out to be great. We had no idea that people didn’t get– because they’re not history majors. They haven’t spent a lot of time on this. They don’t realize that there’s not one view of history. So one guy wrote me, and he had a great line. He said I didn’t realize there was like an MSNBC Fox News version of history, and there always was. And so this is something that in history they call historiography. Right? The practice of writing history.
The practice of selecting sources. Because there’s always a selection process. Right? And this is something historians have been criticized forever. So once we started highlighting this element of history, people were like, I had no idea. But it became something that was part of the audio footnotes. And so learning how to do this gig– and I would suggest we’re still learning how to do this gig– required us to invent ways to get around our own limitations. Limitation number one is I’m a storyteller, I guessed, and I know I’m not a historian. So how do I assure you that you’re getting something that you can trust? I quote somebody who’s valid, and who you should trust. And then I quote somebody who disagrees with him, who’s also valid, you should trust. So learning how to do this job.
SPEAKER: Makes sense. So I have really enjoyed getting a chance to ask you some of the pressing questions on my mind. I’d like to open it up to the audience.
DAN CARLIN: Yeah.
SPEAKER: If you’d like to ask Dan a question, please step up to the mic.
DAN CARLIN: Love to hear from any of you.
SPEAKER: Yeah. And just line up behind the mic.
DAN CARLIN: Thank you for coming, by the way.
SPEAKER: Perfect. If we get started right there?
AUDIENCE: Hey, Dan, huge fan.
DAN CARLIN: Thank you.
AUDIENCE: I have a serious question But just first, is Ben up there with you right now?
DAN CARLIN: Did you ever want to meet him? He’s been here the whole time.
AUDIENCE: Just checking. Good. So my question is kind of about how you pick what you talk about. In July I was actually sitting on Cemetery Ridge, looking over Pickett’s Charge—
DAN CARLIN: Wow.
AUDIENCE: –and thinking about “Blueprint for Armageddon,” because that was a huge cannonade, and it was a huge artillery action. Well, one, could you please do the Civil War? But two, how do you pick?
DAN CARLIN: Well, first of all, isn’t it interesting that all of our shows sound like they would make great heavy metal band names?
SPEAKER: Yeah, right.
DAN CARLIN: You know, here’s the problem with that. And like a guy wrote me the other day, he said, would you please talk about 17th century India? And it’s such a compliment to think that I could speak about 17th century India. Because what happens is, is that we have this period of time where I can do research for program. But it’s not enough time for me to educate myself from scratch on anything. So all the topics we pick are things that I have a good foundation on, myself.
And it’s funny I have two kids, and one of them has a brain that’s a little like mine, in terms of how it works. And it’s funny, because she’ll get into a subject intensely, and stay into it for several months, or a year, and then move on to something else. But she will remember every single thing she learned about it then. And that’s how my mind works.
And so all these subjects we talk about in the show are things that I was really into once, and have a pretty good foundation about. And then what I have to do after that is begin to re-educate myself on all the new stuff that’s been discovered or written about since the last time I paid close attention to it. And so all these subjects we talk about are things that I’ve already been interested in, and I know something about. The Civil War has never been an interest of mine, because I don’t like civil wars. And I don’t like civil wars, because when I was a military– I still am a military history nut– I don’t like armies that are fighting each other that are mirror images of each other.
This is the silliest thing in the world to base what you’re interested on. But I like the contrast of Greeks against Persians. I don’t want to see Greeks against Greeks. So I’m not going to talk to you about the Peloponnesian War, because it bores me. Right? So that’s my problem. Civil wars are interesting in a societal sense. But from a military sense, I don’t want to watch two armies that are mirror images of each other go at it. So people keep thinking, when are you going to the Civil War? I might do reconstruction afterwards. I might do the period leading up to it. But I find both of those more interesting than the war itself.
I know that heresy, but—
SPEAKER: Thank you. Next question.
AUDIENCE: I was wondering if you could speak more about the structure you’ve developed for the stories. And maybe how you take content and put it into buckets to create something that’s compelling and hooks listeners.
DAN CARLIN: That’s a really good question. And I don’t know– I wish I could claim more of a conscious desire. I mean, sometimes I’ll sit down and I’ll say, could we tell this story backwards? I mean, there’s fun ways that you sit down right at the outset, and you look at what you want to say, and you say, OK, there are multiple ways to tell every story. The most obvious way is the linear way. The problem is that that’s a very boring way to tell a story. But if the story is very complicated– like we mentioned the First World War– that’s a really hard story to follow.
So you end up sometimes having to choose the linear option, because it’s easier to make sense of. But we often do sit down– and the one thing I don’t ever want to do is have a template for this. So sometimes we’ll deliberately do something as a way to screw up any idea in your mind that we have a plan. Right? We’re going to make sure that the last show was like this, so this other one’s going to be like that. So that you get this idea that you don’t know what’s coming, and you don’t know how we’re going to do it.
And it keeps us from getting bored, and keeps it from turning into a formula. So the first thing we do is we look at what we’ve done lately and say, OK, can we do this new one differently than that? And that’s truthfully the part that’s most satisfying, because that’s the creative process. And that’s when you sit down– and these are really hard to do, needless to say I mean, six hour audio is really hard to do. But afterwards the feeling of satisfaction, if people like it, there’s not much that compares to that.
And I tell my wife all the time, because I’m such a wreck when these things are done. I mean, the studio looks like college finals week. There’s pizza boxes. There’s caffeine everywhere. And you’re so burnt out that there’s a week of recovering afterwards. And she said to me once, she said, do you really like this? And I said, I really like it. And I said I really like the idea that I can look back on this and say I used every brain cell. Right? It killed me, but that’s how you know you really– whatever potential is there– and potential’s a weird haunting thing, isn’t it? Because you could become the president and not live up to your potential. But I like the idea that I’m kicking my rear end and using everything I have. And then when people like it, on top of that, well, I mean, listen, we should all be– I mean, that’s a real gift.
I mean, it’s really lucky. And when I think of how upset I was in radio for so long, to be doing this and have people reacting so well, I hope everybody gets to feel this, because it’s a great– and that’s the creative thing. I mean, to be able to do creative work, and have people like it, and make a living doing it, I mean, who wouldn’t give your right arm for that? So I hope that answers the question. That doesn’t really help you understand the creative process. But there’s no scripts.
Because it would sound scripted, wouldn’t it? I think that’s probably how you get a six hour show, too– no scripts, it’s just a lot of rambling on. But I simply write down the things that I’m interested in. And I will say that I thought about the difference between history and storytelling in this sense, that it’s a different criteria. So if you’re a historian writing, say, the history of Julius Caesar, you’re going to do a triage, and you’re going to say, OK, what has to be in this story, versus what doesn’t. Some of the things that aren’t going to make your triage list as a historian are going to make my list as a storyteller.
So for example, I read something once that said Caesar, in his home, grew up with an ancestor wall. And I think you might have seen this in “Game of Thrones,” or something, because my friend Dan Weiss ripped that off. But it’s a wall of– I think it was wax faces of his ancestors– with bios underneath him. So when you grow up as a kid, you look at this, and you see what your family’s done. And it’s supposed to prompt you to want to emulate that.
Now, if you’re writing a history book about Julius Caesar, and you’ve got 400 pages, and no more, you might leave that out, because it’s not really important to the history. But in the story, it’s fantastic, and that makes it in the story. So as a storyteller you’re self-selecting different things. I want to blow your mind from a historical standpoint. If I’m writing to an academic audience, different things make it into the story.
Drier things, maybe, less interesting things. But so when we’re coming up with how we do this, I read all these books, I write down all the weird things– including all the important things– and then you try to figure out what makes it in. And because there’s no scripts, sometimes things I really want in the story don’t make it in. And sometimes things that I thought, maybe I’ll steer clear of this, somehow make it into the audio when I’m on autopilot. And so there is an improvisational jazz format to this, where there’s certain points I need to hit, but within those points I can freeform. And that’s kind of the design, if that makes sense.
AUDIENCE: Thank you.
DAN CARLIN: Sure.
SPEAKER: I think we can just try to squeeze in a couple more, real quick.
AUDIENCE: So one of my favorite episodes was the talk you had with Sam Harris.
DAN CARLIN: That’s interesting, OK.
AUDIENCE: And I was wondering if– two things. Are there any future plans to kind of continue that? And is there anyone that you would like to kind of collaborate with on a future episode?
DAN CARLIN: I forgot how the Sam Harris thing came about. But Sam’s got a podcast, and I have a podcast. And we did something. Sam called a cross-cast, where we basically did the same show for our audiences at the same time. There’s someone who works with Sam that got a hold of me recently, and wanted to do something on video. I guess this, to me, boils down to the same thing the political show boils down to, a little bit, in the sense that I don’t know how comfortable I am in political discussions anymore, because I feel like we’re a little off the map, if you will. And the normal parameters with which I’m accustomed to discussing things aren’t normal anymore. And I have to be honest. You think, OK, I’ve been following this political system for years.
I was basically a PoliSci minor. You think you know what you’re talking about. But if you’d asked me five years ago about the idea, for lack of a better word, of racism coming to the fore the way it has, I would have told you you were crazy. I mean, I thought this was dying out. I mean, I really thought that– I grew up watching “All in the Family,” and you had this Archie Bunker character that was supposed to be a middle aged man who had all of these views from another time period, running into the new way of looking at things, which is much more the way we look at things now.
And the implication was that you can’t change these people, but eventually they will die out. I could not have been more wrong. So why would you listen to me? Why would I talk about this, when I didn’t see that coming? And so to discuss something with Sam Harris– listen, he’s a fabulously intelligent guy, and I enjoyed our conversations. You know, if you heard it, I think Sam was pretty serious. But I was laughing.
I was having a good time. But I’m not sure laughing and having a good time about the political situation right now is the proper approach. And I don’t know what the proper approach is. So in answer to your question, I think until I figure that out, I’m not sure how much of that I want to do. Does that make sense? I really feel like an observer at this point, when it comes to that, rather than somebody that can explain what it means.
Because I didn’t see it coming. Make sense?
DAN CARLIN: Do you really want me explaining something I’m not sure about? That might be a better way to put it.
AUDIENCE: Hi. So I actually came up here to ask about how you draw the line between what historians do, and what historical storytellers do. But I think you already answered that in a previous question. So as long as I’m here, I’m going to go to a backup question.
DAN CARLIN: Sure.
AUDIENCE: You mentioned being excited about the possibility of essentially producing a much larger volume of source material for future historians. That anyone can get their story down. There is no end to how much of it we’ll produce. But you’ve also mentioned that historians see history differently, partly because of their perspectives, but also partly because they’ve absorbed different sets of source material to different degrees. Right? So putting those two things together, do you think the practice of history, as it’s done today can, survive the explosion in the amount of source material? Is there going to be any one that can absorb all of that and synthesize it?
DAN CARLIN: It’s an old joke, but it concerns with the difference between modern and ancient history. And someone once said– it may have been one of my teachers– had said something about that if you’re a historian of the ancient world, your job is to find needles in haystacks, but there’s almost no haystacks. Whereas your job as a modern historian is, there are haystacks everywhere, which haystack do you pick? I ran into the same problem in news.
Because I was in LA, and when you open up the news file in Los Angeles on what to cover that day, it’s that big. And your job is to go, no, no, no, no, no, and what makes the final cut. So then I get a job in Western Oregon. And I show up, and I look at the file the next, morning and there’s one piece of paper in it. And the entire job is different.
Your job is to go find news stories, as opposed to weeding down. So the historian’s job is the same problem. Where if you talk about a historian 100 years from now, think of all the podcasts that they’re going to have to weed through. The blog posts, and– so it’s not a needle in a haystack job anymore. It’s oh my god, a field full of haystacks, which one do you think the needle’s in? And the process of selection as a historian is often– not to speak for them– but is often concerned with what they’re talking about.
So let’s say you’re doing the history of the New York Yankees baseball team. OK, there’s a self-selection right there, that helps you winnow things down. Right? So you found three haystacks, and those are your haystacks. And you start working within that realm. The problem is, is if somebody’s writing a history book on baseball, OK, there’s going to be crossover.
But there also might be disagreement. The guy writing specifically about the New York Yankees may come up with ideas, concepts, views, or conclusions that are different from a guy looking at it on a more macro level, with baseball history, in general. In my mind– and I think this is how historians would do it. I’m not going to speak for them. But, I mean, I think the collage of all the different historians together– this mosaic, that if you add them all together– helps give you a more 360 view of things.
So that in the same way today, I think if you’re an intelligent well-rounded person you’re reading multiple news sources. Hopefully from multiple angles, and if you’re really good, from multiple countries. Take that, and do the same thing with history. Where you’re saying, OK, here’s a Roman view of somebody who liked Julius Caesar versus, Suetonius, who’s a gossip columnist who writes all the bad stuff about him. And you throw all this stuff together, and you realize, OK, a lot of this may be false.
But when I look at the mosaic and stand back from it, what does it convey? And so I think that’s a good way to describe, like when we do the audio footnotes, but we’ll give you two historians who disagree about something. And the tendency is to go, well what did I just learn? Right? One said it was black. The other said it was white. Did I really learn anything? But being able to understand that two intelligent people who’ve looked at the source material came to different conclusions is, in of itself, a useful piece of information for you today. Does that make sense?
I mean, if 500 years from now, the historians have to try to figure out 21st century US politics, and all they have to go on is an MSNBC feed and a Fox News feed, you’re going to have to blend those somehow, and come up with a mosaic. And the funny part about it is, 500 years from now, you can still have as divided a viewpoint over what that history is, as you do now. Right? The ones who say, well that MSNBC version is much more close to the truth. And I think maybe that’s the part that people listening to the podcast found most interesting, was that there isn’t just– I mean, that history’s not like math. Right? Two plus two equals four. The Roman Empire did this. And it isn’t like that, because it’s composed of human beings, and we’re variable. Right? And open to interpretation. Hard to quantify.
SPEAKER: Yeah. All right, thank you so much. Thanks for all the questions. Thank you for your detailed answers.
DAN CARLIN: That’s it?
SPEAKER: So I just want to remind everybody “Hardcore History” is available on your favorite podcast platform, including Google Play Music. We’d like to –thank Dan again for your time, and all your considerations.
DAN CARLIN: Thank you for coming. Thank you, everybody, I appreciate it. Thank you so much.