Hardcore History host Dan Carlin reflects on 13 years of podcasting
Dan Carlin has been creating podcasts for pretty much as long as podcasts have existed.
He launched his first show, Common Sense, way back in 2005, when you still could only listen to podcasts on a desktop computer or an iPod — because smartphones hadn't been invented yet.
Dan is probably best known as the host of Hardcore History. It's a longform podcast that dives deep into moments from world history, from the ancient world to the 20th century. The episodes are as epic as the stories they tell — they often run more than five hours long.
Now, after many years behind the mic, Dan Carlin has released a book. It's called The End Is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments, from the Bronze Age Collapse to Nuclear Near Misses. Podcast Playlist associate producer Julian Uzielli recently spoke to Dan Carlin from a studio in Eugene, Ore.
Julian Uzielli: In your book you take us on a bit of a tour of history. You tell stories about ancient genocides, the fall of the Roman empire, the Black Death, all the way up to the present day. What do these moments in history all have in common?
Dan Carlin: Well, to me they're sort of case studies, you could say. And there's a certain idea that we predicated the underlying foundation of the book on, and that's either things are going to happen as they always have happened in the past, or they're not. And both of those are equally fascinating to me.
The book highlights examples from the past where certain things that have happened, and you get to examine how human beings dealt with them, and then we speculate about how we might deal with them today. I like to say it's a book about a series of historical punches, how people took those punches, what it did to them, and how they were raised to be able to take those punches — and maybe how we might respond today in the same circumstances.
Why did you want to focus on 'apocalyptic moments' in particular?
Well it actually had to do with trying to figure out what a book should logically be about. And I'm not a book writer, obviously — I've been a broadcaster for 30 years but I'm a neophyte author. So I was leaning on my editors quite a bit, who said, 'Why don't you get out the materials that you've used for past shows, lay them all out on the floor and see if there are any themes that connect the dots on what you've done in the past?"
I think it's been a little like a self-examination moment or one of those ink blot tests that psychologists used to show you, because it might say a lot about what you're like or what you're interested in. And I was a little surprised to find out how much I was interested in things like decline, or civilizational backsliding, or some of the unbelievable moments that are so fascinating to read about our ancestors going through but which are not completely impossible to imagine us experiencing again.
I was a little surprised to find out how much I was interested in things like decline, or civilizational backsliding.- Dan Carlin
You work differently than a lot of other podcasters. Hardcore History has very long episodes, and you also go months in between releases. But obviously that works for you, so why do you think that format works for your show so well?
It evolved that way. No one ever sat down and said we're going to do five-hour episodes and we're going to only put one out every five months or something like that — and there's obviously a connection between doing five-hour episodes and them taking so long to get out.
Listen, this is all listener-based. When we started doing this, the number of people podcasting was miniscule compared to today, and everyone was sort of making it up as we went along. I always say that the first time we ever did a podcast that was over an hour long, I inserted an apology into it, because I felt like it was absurd to waste the listeners' time with something over an hour long. And they wrote back to me and said, 'We have pause buttons…'
It's one of those things that's an obvious point to make, but I hadn't thought about it. And that gives you the freedom to say, 'OK, they have pause buttons, they don't mind the length, so we're going to try to tell this story in a more comprehensive way, we're not going to leave as much on the cutting room floor.' And so it just sort of evolved. I still don't like doing five-hour episodes, I just find sometimes that there's no way to do the story justice — the way we do them — without sometimes adding more length, unfortunately.
When you started Hardcore History, most people had never heard the word 'podcast' before. The year was 2006, I don't think iPhones had been invented yet — this whole industry has grown up around you now, and here you are still making Hardcore History. What's it been like for you to watch that?
In a funny way I feel like it's helped me understand the historical process better. Because all of a sudden you can take your own experiences and see, wow, that old line about right place right time and timing and all that — and you can see how that worked in your own life.
I think what happened in podcasting in those years you just mentioned, 2005, 2006, 2007, is analogous to what happened in the early years of radio, or the early years of television. And I feel like I better understand what it must have been like to be Milton Berle or any of those people who were the early adopters in those other mediums, because it feels like a similar pattern.
I do sort of feel like a lot of this has to do with timing and stuff that you have no control over. Not to sound like a sports coach, but it is sort of where timing and preparation meet. I look at that as a way to better understand eras and timing in other situations, and not just in TV and radio which are the obvious analogies, but look all the way back through history and start to wonder how much timing and individual preparation met at a crossroads that allowed something interesting to happen.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. You can listen to Dan's full interview on this week's episode of Podcast Playlist.