Series 21: For the Love of Podcasts | Episode 05
Hardcore History’s Dan Carlin Breaks Down History for our Ears
Today we’re cracking open the history textbooks and learning from OG podcaster—we’re talking, 2005 OG—Dan Carlin! Dan’s had a long career in broadcasting and his podcast, Hardcore History, combines gripping moments in history with Twilight Zone-style twists only a master storyteller could pull off. Dan and Jen examine that while we may be players on the world’s stage, we really have no precedent for today’s society. How do we navigate it when there’s nothing in our experiences we can compare it to? Through it all, Dan provides invaluable insight into seeing ourselves through the lens of history, learning from our ancestors, and fitting ourselves into the giant puzzle.
Narrator: Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people every week on this podcast. Thanks for listening! We hope you enjoy the show.
Jen: Hey, guys. Jen Hatmaker here, host of the For the Love Podcast. Hi, guys. Welcome to the show.
Okay, so right now we’re in a series that I love for obvious reasons. It’s called For the Love of Podcasts. It’s just such a fun and interesting medium to explore. There’s so many amazing shows out there, amazing hosts out there, amazing content out there. I’m like, “I am an interested podcast consumer.” You obviously are. Hi, you’re here. Hello. Welcome. I think you’re going to love this series as much as I am.
Today, I am absolutely thrilled to share my chat with literally one of the OG podcasters in our world. If you’re a history buff, I think you’re going to know who this is.
Lucky us. Today, we have on Dan Carlin. Ahh! Dan’s a veteran journalist and broadcaster, and he’s been keeping audiences informed and entertained for decades. He is a podcast pioneer. I’m not kidding, you guys. He’s been doing this since 2005. Did you even know podcasts were that old? What were we doing in 2005? He is a lead blocker in this industry.
He has produced a few shows over the years. His biggest are Common Sense and Hardcore History, which is what we’re going to talk about today. Dan is known as the king of long-form audio content. And if you’re new to him, it is not unusual for episodes of Hardcore History to clock in at four hours long, five hours long, six hours long. Look, that seems crazy. I’m telling you right now, every minute is as riveting as the last, and I guarantee you I am not the only one who thinks this. Hardcore History has been downloaded over 100 million times. It is one of the most listened to podcasts of all time, and we have its host on today.
Dan is absolutely brilliant and [he is] making history come alive. He really is, you guys. He humanizes the people who lived hundreds of years and thousands of years before us in the most vivid way. He explains all the nuances of what was going on at that time, all the different planes of it—social [life], quirks, economic hardships, political match-ups, everything—so that we can understand and relate to the people who walked before us because they weren’t people in fairytales. They were real flesh and blood, people who deal with the same feelings and basic problems that we do.
But not only that, here’s why he is one of the top [podcasters] in this genre: he is a masterful storyteller. He weaves in these Twilight Zone-style twists. They’re historically documented twists, they’re not made up. But you don’t see them coming, and he knows right when to drop them into the story. I cannot tell you how true this is. These are not the boring history lectures that you sat through in college. They’re the most brilliant, vibrant stories that happen to be true.
So this is what I want you to know. If you have a long road trip, if you have a long commute and you can parse these out over a few days, if you have a ton of chores, or if you are looking for a really long, rich podcast that you will just lose yourself in—you’ll be completely immersed—you have to check out Hardcore History, or even Dan’s shorter companion podcast, which is called Hardcore History: Addendum. You’ll just all of the sudden wish you had a longer drive, that you didn’t have to press pause and pick it up again later. He will absolutely keep your attention. You will be riveted.
I’m also excited to report that Dan’s got a new book out, which we talk about at the end of this podcast. And frankly, I wish I would have dedicated more time to discussing his book because you should have seen me while he was talking about it. I was leaning forward into my microphone, hanging onto his every word. Just such interesting content. His book is called The End is Always Near. And if you like Hardcore History, you are going to love this book. So we’ll talk more about it in just a minute.
Anyhow, you’re going to hear, over the course of this, how infectious he is. His enthusiasm is contagious. We both get worked up. We talked about the long arc of history and what we can predict about our future based on it. It’s all in here. You’re going to love this talk.
I’m so pleased to share my conversation with the creative, talented, brilliant host of Hardcore History, Dan Carlin.
Jen: Dan, welcome, welcome to the For the Love Podcast. My entire team is very, very tickled, and a little bit starstruck.
Dan: Thank you so much for having me on. I’m usually on the other end, so this is a little interesting for me.
Jen: Totally. I know. It is interesting being interviewed when you are normally the recorder. I’ve filled in my listeners with a little bit about who you are, but we would love to hear about your path here, in your own words. You had a really rich career as a communicator. Can you walk us through your broadcast experience, and how in the world you got into podcasting so early in the game? How do you even explain to people in 2005 what a podcast is?
Dan: That’s a fun story now. [It] wasn’t a fun story at the time. I always like to joke that back at cocktail parties in 2006, ’07, ’08, or whatever, when someone said, “What do you do for a living?” It was a forty-five-minute conversation, and when it was done, they still didn’t know what I was talking about. So that’s the answer to that question.
How you end up where you go? Well, as a fan of history, I’m always interested in how you look back on some of these lives and connect the dots anyway. My dad said to me once, and I quote this all the time, “If you wanted to do that, if you wanted to look back on your life at the end and try to connect the dots,” he said, “You never could because there’s too many strange places where you make a complete left-hand turn and everything is then on a new path, and you never could have seen it coming.” Me being a podcaster is a perfect example of that.
I’m trying all the time to tell my kids, who are so committed to trying to [go on ] a particular track and then follow it throughout their life. I say, “How could I have studied? What major would I have had to [complete] in order to be a good podcaster later in life?” You couldn’t have [studied] because you couldn’t have known it was coming. It’s a perfect example of how we should concentrate maybe on foundations that allow us to pivot with the changes that are coming. Obviously, if you’re going to be a doctor, I want you on the medical track. But for a lot of people that aren’t sure what to do, I think it’s better to just be ready for all the changes that are coming up. I think that my life has become a wonderful example of my dad’s advice in action.
Jen: I actually love that because I’m in the exact same spot. I used to teach fourth grade. I didn’t even have a vision for where my life was going to go, much less some of the formats that were going to be available to us as communicators in the future. So I love that “hold it loosely” approach. Generally, a lot of us can find a North Star and then just generally head in that direction, but I like the flexibility of being open to possibility.
So you had a North Star. You were a history major in college. Take us back to the moment or maybe just the season that you decided “I’m going to dedicate my time to a history podcast.” Why history? Why does it matter? Why does it matter to you? Why should it matter to all of us?
Dan: That’s a complicated question.
Well, let me start at the beginning because, for me, history is something that’s patterned somewhere in our DNA. I don’t know how to explain it. My mother used to joke that she didn’t know how to explain how her six-year-old son was reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It was a little disturbing in the 1970s. They thought maybe you needed to see some credentialed expert for things like that. But it’s one of those things where you turn around and say, “Isn’t it weird that you end up making a living—or maybe not weird—doing something that seems to have been so pre-programmed into you?” But I feel like a lot of people are that way. So to answer that question, the history major thing seemed almost like a cop-out for me. I was a theater major when I started.
Jen: Oh, were you?
Dan: And then kind of a military history major by the time I finished. I joke with everybody that those sound like two things that are completely incompatible, yet I use them both every day in my job.
Jen: Oh, that’s true.
Dan: Theater and military history, that’s quite a blend.
So to answer your question about how you go into different directions, when I was a history major at the University of Colorado, the history department used to print out a handout that you could pick up at their main offices to give to your parents. It was called “What to Tell Your Parents About Choosing History as a Major.”
Jen: Oh my gosh. That’s great.
Dan: It was supposed to be arguments that you could [use to] say, “Hey, I could teach. I could do this.” Because at the time, everybody was, and still are I think, focused on, “How are we going to get this degree to pay off for you?”
Jen: Of course.
Dan: Then I got into news, which was because I was a news junkie. It wasn’t because I always wanted to be in news. I got into news and started to see the different kinds of reporters, especially in the nice ’80s. [I saw] the different kinds of news reporters that an assignment editor has and how they make their decisions on, “This person’s going to be good for this story, and that person’s going to be good for that story.” I was in a Los Angeles news station, so we had Hollywood reporters, we had these kinds of reporters, that kind of [reporters]. But when it was something that was going to be complicated, deep, political, whatever it might be, the people that tended to get chosen were all history majors in college.
I remember looking at them and one of them told me, because [they were a mentor figure], “Look at this guy. Look at that woman. All history majors.” So I turned around and went, “Okay, I see the practical applications now, of finding out A to B to C to D. And here we are today, so let’s explain what E looks like.” Right?
From a reporter, somehow I had the opportunity to make a jump into something like talk radio. I was doing three hours a day, five days a week of that for years. And isn’t it funny how—you’ll understand this, too—when you have listeners, they sometimes just get ahold of you, and say, “I heard you talking about this. You might love to know that, or this, or the other thing.”
I was doing a show one day, screaming about—I had a mildly antagonistic relationship with my audience back in the day—what they were going to do for positive change, and there was a message waiting when I got off the air that said, “Do you want to know what I’ll do for positive change? Let’s have dinner,” which freaks you out a little bit.
Dan: You go, “Do I really want to do this?” I ended up doing it. The guy shows up. The only way I can [describe] him is he looked Dilbert in the comic strip, except he had hair down to his waist and little John Lennon glasses. We sat down and talked. And long story short, he wanted to put me on the internet, my radio show. This is 1995, by the way. There wasn’t even, that I knew of anyway, any kind of file that you could do this with. This guy’s a genius, too far ahead of his time. He’s one of those guys that can’t even share in the fruits of his labors because he’s too far ahead of his time. But he saw podcasting in ’95.
So we started talking about it and that was the first time anybody ever put that idea into my head. And what was attractive about it was, when you were a news reporter, the only way you ever got promoted or moved up in that world was to go from town, to town, to town, bigger markets every time.
Jen: Bigger markets. Yeah.
Dan: Yeah. And I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want that life, continually moving. And the idea that I could do my radio show, at the time, from anywhere and have anybody listen to it anywhere they were was intoxicating. It was a little hard to believe, but it was intoxicating.
As time went on, I could see the dominoes line up, and I was thinking in my head, “Oh, that thing that guy told me is starting to shape up.” He put the idea in my head. I was watching for it, so that helps you be in the right place at the right time later, if that makes sense.
Jen: Yeah. It does. Wow. It’s so cool to look back on that in hindsight and realize the forward thinking that you were privy to. I can’t believe you said yes to that dinner. That sounds like a crazy invitation.
Dan: That’s another life thing though, isn’t it? I’ve gotten jobs that way, where you’re not even sure if you want to mail this letter, and you literally hesitate putting it in the mail. This is how old I am, right? Putting it in the mailbox or not putting it in the mailbox. And all of the sudden, you put it in the mailbox, and six weeks later, your whole life is different.
I think about how that happens in your life and my life, and then I domino tumble that backwards to some of the historical figures I find interesting and realize that this is how most of their lives probably went too.
Jen: Yeah. These really unexpected pivots that may, at the time, feel small but end up carving out a trajectory for the next 20 years, that is 100% true in my life also. It seems like right now, all of our decisions feel fraught and very, very precious and everything has to be done with such intention and eye to the long form and the long view, when, in fact, I like the flexibility of holding it a little looser and taking some risks. It’s just such a risk-averse culture.
So speaking of flexibility, we’re about to get into your actual show, but one thing you said, “Wisdom requires a flexible mind,” I love. I wrote that down in two different places. Can you talk to me about that idea?
Dan: Yeah. Not to change the subject, because I’m not. But I have a hard time trying to figure out what people have always been like versus what they’re like now. Right? How much of what we see around us is new? And how much of it is the way we’ve always been? Because you’re trying to get a sense of what’s normal for us collectively and what’s not.
The “wisdom requires a flexible mind” thing is simply the idea that… Let me do it this way. This is how a history nut would do it. Right? He’d quote somebody else.
The economist, John Maynard Keynes, had been accused once. This is a famous story. Whether it’s true or not, it’s a famous story. So a journalist walked up to this famous economist, and basically accused him of what we would today call flip-flopping, changing his position on something. And he turned around to the reporter, supposedly. We’re going from memory here. And snapped back, “When the facts change, I change my opinion on the matter. What, pray tell, do you do, sir?”
It was just one of those wonderful things where you go, “Okay. If you don’t have a flexible mind, what do you do when the data that you base your decisions on changes?” Right? And if you don’t change when the data changes, well then is your decision based on facts or feeling? On what foundation does your way of thinking rest? So if the data changes, I think we have to be able to change. I think we have to be always looking for what the new data is, because you don’t want to be an idiot. Be able to take that new data and put it in some context so that you don’t get fooled, because sometimes you get the kind of situation going where, “Bacon’s bad for you!” “Bacon’s good for you!”
You don’t want to change your mind every two seconds, and go, “Well, the new data seemed to indicate…” Wisdom requires you assembling all these things in your head and starting to make judgements and going, “Well, it’s starting to look like this is more likely, so I’m going to look at my…” I reevaluate my way of thinking all the time. I don’t know how that works for other people, because we can only look at the world from our own viewpoint, but I’m not quite sure how I could live any other way, if that makes sense.
Jen: Well, it does, and it’s so incredibly relevant right now in our culture, in our world, maybe in its stark relief, in that we see a real lack of wisdom when the data presents information, and our culture at large just shuts our eyes and ears and says, “La la la la la.” We want to think what we want to think. I find that incredibly relevant to my work. Specifically, what you just said, a flexible mind has really been my pathway to growth. Although, I notice that not everybody loves that. Certainty is preferred. “This is what it is. This is what it’s always been, and we’ve got this right.” That’s high currency in my world.
Dan: There’s some things that are tough, though. And I want to point that out to younger people especially. I’ll go these speaking events, and often—I want to say five, six times this has happened to me—some eighteen-year-old has come up to the microphone during the question and answer section at the end, and basically asked me some variation of the question, “I’m young. I don’t exactly know what came before me. I really want to be well-informed. What would you suggest I read or watch to become well informed?”
And this is what I think. I consciously try to figure out, like I told you earlier, what’s different about our existence and what’s relatively the same? I just feel it is so much harder now for a person to feel like they are informed.
Here’s the funny thing. When I was a kid, we had three TV networks. We had a couple of major newspapers. And I used to think about this as a disadvantage. At the same time, I was never a pie in the sky or rainbows and unicorns. I was in the news business, to think that this was truth from on high. Right? Just because The New York Times says it, doesn’t means it’s truth from on high. So if we were being propagandized, though, the advantage was, we were all being propagandized by the same source, basically. You could have these water cooler discussions in the morning, and you may have been discussing something that today, someone might label as “fake news.” But it was treated as shared currency, and you could have discussions based on that shared currency.
When I was a kid, if you read The New York Times daily, you were considered an informed person, and you probably would have passed a test that put you in the top four or five percent of the general public. Nowadays, for an eighteen-year-old trying to say, “I’m going to be responsible. I want to be an informed citizen because that’s my role in this society,” I’m not sure what to tell them to read or watch. I think that makes the job of sorting out truth from falsehood and all that kind of stuff so much more difficult. Like I said, even if we were being propagandized, when I was young, there was a route you went to where you could at least fool yourself.
Dan: Now, I just think we think we’re informed because we read the sources that we like. You have to be really media-savvy—I mean, like, worked in the business media-savvy—to try to navigate your way through these very difficult waters, trying to figure out what’s real and what’s not.
Jen: Absolutely true. We’ve had a couple of experts, for lack of a better term, on this show, helping us wade through media literacy in this day, and if you’re committed to it, if you’re committed to being media literate and careful about your media diet and well-informed, it’s work. You have to set aside some time for it, a lot of energy. It now takes much more out of us than it maybe once did, because you have to go to so many different sources, fact-checking back and forth.
So yeah, I can see how, as a culture at large, we are probably terribly misinformed, because, to your point, it’s so much more comfortable to just ingest the sources that already confirm our bias. So yeah, that’s easier. I think that’s the low-hanging fruit that most of us reach for. It is work at this point.
Jen: I would love to pivot to your podcast, because you’re OG here in the podcast world. You are known as “the king of the long-form podcast,” and that is the truth. The production work and the rich detail that you put into your episodes that are hours and hours long, four, five, six hours, they’re masterful. They really are.
I know, though, that you did not start out with six-hour episodes. So can you walk us through that progression? Why did you decide to dedicate so much time and detail to just one episode? And how did your audience follow you? Did they follow that jump? Did you have some resistance there? How did you get from where you started to where you are?
Dan: I appreciate all the credit you just gave me, but I don’t think I can take it because I don’t…
Jen: You better.
Dan: …think we thought about it that way. I think this was part of an evolution, and I think the fact that it went the way it did is a testament to the freedom that this medium allows. Right? It’s a complete white space.
When you come from any traditional media, and you can pick your media, so we’ll say radio, where I came from. I’m in the talk radio, the AM side of things. Right? So that is an hour that is broken down into segments, and you can look at it on a piece of paper. Right? They’ll say, “From here to here, we do this. From here to here, we…” Your freedom is compressed within these tight little windows that you’re allowed, and that changes the nature of the beast. Right?
One of the major things they used to say in talk radio is, “You cannot go below the surface level, because the audience is turning over all the time.” People getting in and out of their cars and commercial breaks. You can’t assume that everybody heard the last segment or whatever, but that influences the freedom in the medium and how it turns out.
Writing a book is the same way. Television’s the same way. Podcasting is for a guy like me, right? I no longer need to be on camera. I’m over all the things that a young person who’s starstruck by the media [loves]. Now all I care about is, How much white space do I have, and what can I do with it?
When podcasting was young, people used to assume that this was a springboard to something else. And I used to say to them, “This is not a springboard to something else. This is [the result of] all the other things that I’ve done, that most people think is the coolest stuff. [They have] gotten me to the point where, now, I can play in this completely free, creative area.” So when you say, “How long are shows supposed to be?” I don’t know. How long are shows supposed to be? Right?
The first one we did was twenty minutes or something because we had no idea. Because the show I was doing at the time, Common Sense, was really the radio show I used to do re-imagined through the freedom of this new white space. Right? If you could talk about current events but assume that everybody who heard fifteen minutes ago is still listening, what more could you do with it? Right?
So that was the extension there. Hardcore History was the first thing I had ever designed from the ground up, to take advantage of all that white space. So we didn’t know what you do with it. It was like I put a little dot on a giant white canvas, and said, “How does that little dot look?” And then, over time, that dot grew into a lot of other things, organically.
The first show we ever did that was over an hour, I didn’t want it to be over an hour. The story was taking longer. I inserted an apology to the audience afterwards. And I got a lot of emails afterward saying, “We have pause buttons.” There was this back and forth, especially in the early days of podcasting.
I ran a forum, a discussion board, for the shows, and would interact with the audience in a way where I felt like you knew some of these people. They were very good for saying, “I’m just telling you, this is working,” or “Don’t be afraid to go longer,” or whatever. Now, I’m not sure that that’s the same as saying, “Please do a six-hour podcast. That’s what we want.” But it opens the door for me to go, “Yeah, why was I feeling like there’s some magic time that’s too much?”
So we started thinking about this more. Rather than thinking about a radio show, where each show is “Bob Smith Today,” we thought of them more like—[what we said when] I was a kid—record albums. But think about each of these as its own record album project, that’s its own encapsulated thing, that is not attached to any other episode, and that stands alone. That’s when you start saying, “Okay. Well, how long do you need to tell the story of this particular thing or that particular thing?” That’s how we got an organic growth to the longest episodes [being] a little over six hours. I still think that’s way too long, myself.
Jen: Well, your listeners don’t.
Dan: I’d be in trouble if I short-changed the story. That’s what we’ve set up. That’s the expectation level.
Jen: That’s right. And that’s the beauty of the format, is depending on what kind of podcast you’re putting out into the world, you can have it be fifteen minutes and not a minute more, or you can have it be six hours. Your work is so unique that, at this point, if you shrunk it, it would be at the expense of the stories, expense of your work.
Speaking of work, I’m curious how you approach it. More or less, if you’re just going to shoot for the average, how many hours of research do you put into each episode? How many different books do you read? How many experts do you consult? What does that background work look like for you on any given episode?
Dan: That’s a hard question to answer because it differs show to show, subject to subject. I can say that it’s an incredible amount. I’m not going to lie to you. But I don’t mind that. I actually take pride, at this point, in how much work I’m putting into this, because I feel like I’m using every brain cell. I feel like eventually, I’m going to be able to turn around, as an old man or whatever—not that I’m not an old man now—and look back on this and go, “I really tried.” Right? The podcasting was different than radio, and I realized this early on.
If I can take credit for anything, it’s realizing early on that radio went out into the ether. Nowadays, of course, it’s basically podcasting too. But back in the day, if you weren’t in the car with the radio on when I was broadcasting, you didn’t hear it. Right? It was gone. So no worries. If you did a bad show, the next day, you just do a good show.
Jen: That’s true. Yep.
Dan: Nobody heard it.
Podcasting is like digital stone. That stuff’s forever. So once you get the idea, “Okay, this stuff is forever,” that does make it more like a record album and less like a magazine article. Right? You start thinking, “Okay. If I want this to be what I leave behind, then I want it to stand the test of time.”
Now, there’s a sweet spot. You could be a nut and work on the same podcast for ten years. On the other hand, if it’s the podcast equivalent of Star Wars or Gone with the Wind, and that’s going to happen by the way, then it’s worth it. Right? Then, you’re painting the Sistine Chapel or you’re writing The Lord of the Rings, and it may be the only thing you ever did, but that’s far, in a way, enough.
I, of course, can’t work in that realm. So I try to make each one of these things use every one of my brain cells, and it’s hard. To answer your question, how much does it take, well, it depends on how many sources there are, first of all. So sometimes, I talk about subjects there’s four main books on in the world. In which case, then you have to go out, and you have to talk to experts, and you have to try to figure out how you’re going to flesh these things out. Or then, there’s the First World War, where you not only have a bazillion books, but you have books from every country that was a participant in that conflict. Right? If you really want to give a mosaic, where you’re showing a bunch of different sides, you can’t just read books in your language from your country.
But, I’m not going to lie to you, it’s a lot of work. I used to be able to get out, once upon a time, a history show a month. Then, it was a history show every few months. Now, I’m averaging a giant, whopping 2.5 major history shows a year. So it’s a lot of work. But when you look back on the catalog and the library, I only started liking the shows when they started being really intense because that’s when you start to go, “Okay. Good or bad, love it or hate it, a lot of me went into that.”
Jen: Yeah. Well, that’s evident. I think that’s why we love your work. Because we maybe only get two a year, but it’s immediately understandable why when we listen. I will just sit in my car in a parking lot because I can’t quit. I’m like, “Well, I guess I’m going to sit here and let my car run, roll the windows down. I don’t know.” I don’t want to have to wait to come back to it. It’s such a gift to your listeners.
You covered so many things on your show over the years. I’d love to know, just to date, what has been your favorite topic to research? Maybe the most surprising story or the one with threads that took you to places you didn’t expect going into it. What delighted you the most as the host and researcher?
Dan: We did one on the First World War. We did a series on the First World War. We called it “Blueprint for Armageddon.” I have all these names. One of the listeners said they’d be the greatest heavy metal band names, of all the episode titles.
But what I liked about Blueprint was that, the First World War, you had so many firsthand, on the ground accounts from the participants. I don’t remember what I had done before Blueprint, but we had been working for a while on Roman stuff and Mongol stuff, and you just don’t have that kind of material to weave into the narrative. It felt like a kid in a candy store for a while to have so many hard-hitting, emotional, meaningful, deep, moving statements from average people involved in these affairs, in these events. My biggest problem with that show was, I couldn’t stand the stuff that was ending up on the cutting room floor.
Jen: Oh, totally.
Dan: I felt spoiled. I remember thinking, and I had said to somebody, “I would have to really screw this up personally for this not to be moving and important emotionally to people,” because the raw material that was out there was so good to begin with. So I’m going to answer the First World War stuff, if only because I could still be working on that now and still have not scratched the surface on all the firsthand accounts we could’ve thrown in.
Jen: What about your fans? Which series—and it’s probably more than one, of course. But if you just had to do it by virtue of response, which series have your fans been the most excited about?
Dan: I think that’s a little like an inkblot test for the individual listener. I think that’s part of what makes our archives work the way they do. If you do a podcast series on the history of, oh, I don’t know, the seventeenth century or whatever it is, all your shows in your archives are going to be about the seventeenth century. So what if the listener doesn’t like the seventeenth century? Well, they’re not going to like your podcast. Whereas, we’re more like a variety show. You go look at our archives, you might say, “I want the latest show,” or you might say, “Eh, not really interested in this, but I love this.” So the variety in the archives allows people the opportunity to say, “Oh, I’m into Mongols but not First World War stuff.”
When you say what their favorite show is, I think they like the epics, and there are certain crowd-pleasers, like the Second World War. I should think about what the participants of the Second World War would have thought if you said, “Oh, yeah. Your war, that’s a crowd-pleaser. We love that one.”
Jen: Good point.
Dan: That’s a reliable thing, where you can just say, “Oh, they’re really going to…” A buddy of mine said it was like Led Zeppelin’s albums. Everybody likes the one with “Stairway to Heaven,” but some people’s favorite album is that one that was everybody else’s least favorite one, the strange acoustic one. Well, the podcasts are like that too, and I’m always interested to hear people say what they like or don’t like.
Jen: Yeah. Totally.
Dan: Because it’s personal.
Jen: Yeah, it is. And that is the beauty of podcasting, is anybody can just pull up the archives and say, “What do I want to hear today?” Especially when they’re standalones.
Dan: Everybody loves history, and what I point out is the reason everybody loves history is because there’s a history of every thing. So whatever you’re interested in, fashion, motorcycles, sports, whatever, there’s a history and the history of that teaches you the same thing. You asked me what you would study to understand the life today. If you want to understand fashion today, you have to understand how it got that way.
So that’s how I would teach it, by the way, in the schools. I would find out what the students are interested in individually and I would tell them to learn the history of the thing that they’re already interested in. Because the facts, [like that] Columbus discovered America and all that stuff is a bunch of random stuff that people decided we should know. But what you really learn is how things go from A to B to C to D and you can learn that studying whatever you’re interested in.
Jen: I am really interested to hear your answer to this one. You’re a student of history. So just by virtue of your work, you are recognizing patterns of human behavior over thousands of years, as you mentioned earlier. You’re saying what’s been ubiquitous to humanity and what’s new to us, and you are constantly sussing that out. When you see those patterns over time, it’s inevitable that you’ll see the same patterns playing out in today’s world, the one that we are living in.
So I would love to hear, out of all the series that you’ve produced, in your opinion, which era in history is the most relevant one to what we’re seeing play out at this moment? I have a guess. I’m curious to hear your answer. If you had to say there’s a lot of mirrored effects here between what was then and what is now, what would you say?
Dan: What’s most relevant to what’s going on today is the last forty years of history. In other words, this is what context helps with. I had a history teacher [who] that said that learning history is like watching a soap opera on television. If you just start a soap opera that’s been on television for thirty years today, you’re going to be totally lost. You’re not going to know who the characters are. You’re not going to know their histories with each other, why this person’s mad at that person, who slept with who a long time ago. So you go back, and you watch the old shows, and you catch up. Then, the new shows make sense. That’s what the value of history is, too. You find out how things got to be the way they are now, and then the way things are now make more sense.
So understanding the current situation, you could make an argument, “Well, we’ll start in caveman times, and we’ll follow the whole narrative.” But really, if you just want to do the Cliffs Notes version, the last thirty or forty years of history helps us understand the trends and forces and what we’re involved with how and how we got to where we are now. So in terms of what’s most relevant, that’s most relevant.
In terms of mirror images, I think I know where you’re heading with this. Patterns in history is a weird thing because historians—I’m not one, but I like to read their magazines—debate these kinds of things all the time with each other, and they hate ideas that there are templates. Right? In other words, that anything is predictable or that we have great people. They hate the big pronouncements because there’s always ways to disprove those things. But there are some constants, and we human beings tend to put patterns over things and then try to make sense of them that way.
So some of the things that remain the same, the constants, are us. Right? People are the same. “All the world’s a stage and all the people merely players.” Right? So the trappings change. The costumes change. The circumstances change. But the individual creatures in those costumes are still as greedy or high-minded or all the qualities that we associate with being human, apply to the ancient Romans as much as they apply to us. And then they’re filtered through a very different system, obviously, and have a very different reality, including the ability to read what the Romans wrote, where, of course, they can’t really read what the Romans wrote.
Then you overlay that with systems. Take our system now. The United States is still, as far as I can tell, a democratic republic, really a republic that’s becoming more democratic over its history. So you look at something like the Roman Republic. The reason it looks similar is because our founding fathers of this country used that as one of their inspirations.
You combine a similar system with “All the world’s a stage and all the people merely players,” you have the same kind of human beings, and you begin to see things that look similar to us with our standard habit of looking at things in patterns already.
I think that’s what you see now. You see a system of representative government, which brings up corruption and pandering and politicians and money and partisanship, all those things. In other words, we’re not like the Romans because of that. We’re like the Romans because we’re people, and we’re in a system that allows those things. If you allow voting, you’re going to start to have partisanship. So these things naturally spring from these other things.
There’s that old line that Twain is supposed to have said, that “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sometimes rhymes.” And I think that’s what we feel like. We feel like we see these rhymes or echoes. Or the other one I like is that, “History is like dipping your foot in a running river. It’s the same river, but it’s never the same water.” So when you say, “How do I view? Well, you look at a system like the Romans and you see what happened to the Republic, and everybody always talks about the Empire. But the one we’re like is what was there before it turned into the empire.
And for you Star Wars fans out there, that’s like George Lucas’s template too. He’s looking at the transition from the Republic to the Empire. This is what we should be looking at.
I should point out that the most fabulously interesting thing, for me, about that whole Republic Empire thing in Roman times was that the Romans didn’t officially change the forms for generations. In other words, they pretended like they were still a Republic. Senators still ran for office. They still did favors for rich people and accepted money for it, even though there was an emperor in charge who was really running [it]. In other words, nobody deliberately repealed the whole thing. They just carried on with a fiction for a long time. We could easily do that and then not realize things were fundamentally different for generations. It’s the kind of thing that a history book is so good at telling you about, but the people who actually live through that era might not see it that way.
Jen: Absolutely. I’m curious. This’ll be your opinion, but I want to hear it. I don’t know if it’d be that strong, but what would you keep your eye on in terms of, as you say, those relevant systems, so we can see a lot of similarities. What would we be paying attention to as we think about the fall of the Roman Empire and us finding ourselves in a similar republic? What do we watch there? What do we watch for there as we think about an entire system falling?
Dan: Well, I think it’s a wonderful thing to bring up because I think it’s the opposite of what we just talked about, when we were talking about similarities and all the people merely players and the similar systems, because that’s where we aren’t right now. It’s the variables of our time right now that make this impossible to figure out.
I stopped doing my current events show, at least for the time being, because I feel like for the first time in my adult life, I really can’t make sense of where we are. I’m a parent of teenagers. So I deal with this in my home all the time, where you start to realize what a guinea pig time we live in, especially with the teenagers. Right? So we were joking about Instagram accounts or something like that. What is the right age for a kid to get an Instagram account? Well, how would you know? Right? How old were you when you were a kid, and you got one?
Jen: We have no precedence.
Dan: That’s right. So we also don’t know, a generation or two from now, how that’s going to morph and change. So when you talk about the Roman Republic and how this might feel like an echo of that, yeah, but they didn’t have Instagram. There’s a variable thrown in there that I also think it goes back to what we were talking about earlier with the eighteen-year-old who’ll ask me the question, “How do I become informed?” These are all things that involve some of the things that the Romans didn’t have to deal with and that make our system different from theirs.
There’s some variables in there that don’t allow us to predict, whereas you might say, “Hey, if we could go back to Rome now and all those other conditions were status quo, then we could start to figure things out.” But they’re not. The variables we have in our time now are game changing, including the not being able to be informed, the ability of the President to speak to the public via social media.
Can you imagine? As a history nut, what I always do is imagine. I’ll take some little aspect of our lives now and then imagine people in the past having it. So imagine we’re going through the Nixon Watergate thing in 1973, 1974, and Nixon is tweeting to the public directly during the whole thing. Those are the kind of things that almost gives me a little weird thrill. When we talk about our DNA and how we’re born to like this or not like this, doing that kind of weird crap, I love that stuff. That’s why I like old stuff that I like to play with.
I always like to say that science fiction and fantasy and history actually intersect and meet with each other, and they meet right now in the instant we’re living, right? The hard facts of the past are one minute old, and the fantasy and science fiction of the future are one minute away and the time that you live in now is pretty neat. Imagining Nixon with a Twitter account, that’s fun stuff for me.
But to answer your question, where do I see things going? I don’t know, which is why I’m not doing a Common Sense show for the first time. I’ve been talking about politics on the air since 1992. This last year is the first time I haven’t been involved in that, because I feel like a spectator, because I think we’re in uncharted territory. And I think you have to be either an arrogant fool or reliant on a paycheck, [to] have to do it, to feel like you’re competent enough now, in the current condition. How would you arrogantly think you know better than your audience? What’s going on now, when we’re in such uncharted territory?
Jen: That’s a great point.
Dan: I feel like a spectator.
Jen: That’s a great point. Actually, thank you for saying that.
You have the skill set and the knowledge base to parse out a lot of this information, and if even you find yourself throwing your hands up like, “I don’t know,” that actually comforts me because it does feel that way just as an ordinary citizen to look around going, “I don’t know how to even compare this time to anything in the past, because it’s so unprecedented.” And so we just watch interestingly, practically from the sidelines, as it unfolds in real time. Thank you for just saying, “Well, I don’t know. We don’t know what this is going to look like because we really don’t.”
Jen: Through the course of your work—as you’ve just mentioned it’s been decades. What have you learned about human nature? What stands out to you? And then, as a student of history, what do you hope people gain from your work in that regard?
Dan: Human nature is an interesting question, because I have a hard time divorcing what’s human nature from what’s culturally driven. For example, I was reading something the other day, and it’s always interesting reading the primary sources from the time period, because they’re not concerned with any of our modern sensibilities. They’ll just write the way they felt at the time. So I was reading something about a white settler who was writing about a Native American tribe and they were talking about how cruel this particular tribe was and that they taught their children to torture animals when the children were very little and to laugh and to enjoy it. And you would say to yourself, Is it human nature that we like to do those kinds of things?
If that’s true, right? Start with that. If that’s true, and they really did that, that’s a culturally driven thing, right? Humans aren’t enjoying that animal suffering, that’s something they were taught. So, sometimes when we talk about human nature, I do think we have the greed, love, lust—all the things that we understand are a core part of the species—so if we want to call that human nature, we can, but I think all of those things are then modified by the culture in which people grow up, in which there’s a way to control some of those things, right?
One of the ways we make it possible to live with each other, without simply going into somebody’s house and taking whatever we want, is through the cultural. We’re teaching them to torture little animals and enjoy it, whatever it might be. Imagine taking a little teeny baby, an infant, in a time machine to another time and another place and then having them grow up in that environment. They’re going to be like those people. What I always like to say is if they’re raised in the sixteenth century in Europe, and you take them there, they’re going to enjoy watching public executions. But is that human nature? I wouldn’t enjoy watching a public execution. So which one of us is the human nature one, and which one of us is the one influenced by our culture?
Jen: Good question.
Dan: I have a hard time finding the dividing line, but I do know that that little infant in that other culture, they’re probably going to talk about love, greed, sex, all of the basic animal drives. That’s going to be the same, but the way those things manifest and unfold is going to be determined by the culture in which they’re raised and the expectations of the people that raised them, I think.
Jen: Yeah that’s so interesting. I love that example. That just raises the level. I find that we tend to want to simplify categories and make very sweeping statements, but I like the nuanced approach to sussing out which is basic human nature from what is environmental and what’s cultural. And we still have so much to learn from history, and so much to take away.
By the way, I’d love to congratulate you on your brand-new book. I have a feeling that history fans, and really anybody paying attention to the news right now, are going to love it. Tell us the title and tell us what it’s about a little bit.
Dan: It’s called The End is Always Near: Apocalyptic Moments from the Bronze Age Collapsed to Nuclear Near Misses. And basically it’s a number of different stories. You had talked about patterns. I wonder what the word is I’m looking for, but I’m going to use patterns too. There are recurring things in history that have happened and that we haven’t had happen in a while. And what I’ve said is either they’re never going to happen again or they are going to happen again and either one of those things is fascinating.
For example, one of the chapters in the book is about disease. When you look at the history of humanity and disease, we live in a time that is totally devoid of anything we can understand our ancestors living in, from caveman times on.
I was looking at historical figures. The guy who wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, I think he had six or seven siblings. He grew up in the 1700s. Every one of them died before he was an adult. Now that is unusual, even then, but you turn around and realize that a society that is sucking up that much death around them as a part of their normal lives. The worst thing we can think of people suffering in our society now is the loss of a child, right? And hopefully, it doesn’t happen to too many people. But what if everybody lost at least one child, and what if you lost multiple? How does that change people?
Jen: That’s a great question.
Dan: One chapter was on disease, and we were talking about if we only got one epidemic of the sort that they always had multiple ones, what would that be like today? For example, the AIDS epidemic is one of the worst epidemics of our modern era. It’s been extremely disruptive. It’s killed thirty-four, thirty-five million people globally since the 1970s. Awful, right?
Smallpox, which was eradicated in the late 70s, early 1980s, killed fifty million people a year and killed them in a week. Imagine losing every single person that we lost from AIDS in eight months. Eight months. All thirty-four million, thirty-five million in eight months. And then losing them next year in eight months.
Smallpox is one of only several of those diseases that are doing that. You start to realize how unnatural the times are that we live in now, where modern medicine has made that common human experience something that’s hard for us to imagine now. So we were talking about, “Okay, are we done with that? We’re never going to have another plague again? Or are we an inter-plague era?”
We did the same thing with several things. Major wars. We talk about a collapse of systems, things that could happen to us now, and they will because they always have. Because we’ve broken the chain, the cycle, and either one of those possibilities is fascinating.
The book focuses on that, and it also looks at the plasticity of humans to respond. We have two chapters that look like they don’t belong in the book, and they’re about people. One chapter is about—and we explored this in the podcast years ago—do tough times make tough people? And the reason that has to do with the rest of the book is if we ever went back to a time where your sick siblings died in infancy, does that make you tougher? Does it make society tougher when that’s normal? In other words, are humans plastic enough to respond to that?
And then the second chapter that doesn’t seems like it belongs, but in my head it does, is on child-rearing. This has to do with my idea that sometimes you need to be rearing Apaches for a crazy, wild, difficult-to-come-up-in world, and sometimes you can be just fine raising computer nerds.
But if society ever went south on us, and you have one of those moments—I call it the Statue of Liberty in the sand moments. My listeners are tired of me saying it. But the last moment in Planet of the Apes…
Jen: Planet of the Apes, yeah.
Dan: …if you ever have something like that, do parents go back to raising Apaches instead of computer nerds because that’s what you need to be successful in that kind of situation? Those two chapters in the beginning that look like they don’t belong, that’s my thinking, that we’re looking at the plasticity. Because we always celebrate human adaptability as one of our great features.
There’s a part in the book where we talk about the difference in war fighting. Now, you always have the tip of the spear guys that have to go door-to-door with firearms, but some of our people who fight these days do it from air-conditioned rooms in Kansas and stuff, right?
Well, how different is that from the Homeric warriors who had to throw down their spear? That’s an evolution in war fighting, but you raise different kind of kids for that. Where video games are part of your war training instead of Kendo classes, right? That was the human plasticity part we dealt with first, and then we went into some of these things where human plasticity might be important.
I call it a bunch of semi-connected vignettes that deal with that overriding looking at the world, I guess. The end of the world, or how close it always may be.
Jen: That is so interesting. I feel like I can listen to you talk about that for five hours. I have a million more questions about it, so I suppose that just means I need to crack open the book and read it. It’s so interesting. What’s your thesis? What’s your hypothesis? Or what do you think?
Dan: I’m glad you asked that, that was a bone of contention when I was starting to write it, because people told me, “If you want to write good book, you have to have some sort of argument for the book.” And I said, “Well, I don’t have any argument, so it’s not going to be a good book.” I said, “If I had an argument,” I said, “My podcast fans would be confused,” because I don’t have an argument in the podcast. We explore. I come from a journalistic background, so I ask questions, right?
The questions themselves are the sorts of questions that often have no answers. Do tough times make tough people? Who answers that? What specialty or discipline deals with that? How do you get data for that?
Jen: Right, who knows?
Dan: But it’s not only a fascinating question, it’s one of those things where you can intuitively say, “Okay, this matters somehow, but I don’t know how and I can’t prove it.” The example we use are the Depression, World War II generation. When I was a kid, those people seemed proverbially tough to us. But what the heck does that mean? What does toughness mean? And just because you can see it and know it, does that make a tougher world? We were examining this.
You had talked about human beings and human nature. So much of what makes us human are unquantifiable things. And if you’re a modern historian, you’re practically a scientist and you have to quantify things. You have peer-reviewed papers, you have to prove stuff. And a lot of what makes us human involves unprovable stuff. So we know intuitively that something like toughness is going to make a difference somehow, but how?
Jen: I don’t know.
Dan: And history can’t deal with that, who can ask that question? Well, the guy who has no answers, maybe. In the book, we ask the questions and ask you to meditate on it. But if I said I had an answer, you’d laugh and snort derisively and properly so.
Jen: At best it would just be a guess. At best.
Dan: At best.
Jen: Yes. Absolutely. This is all so interesting to me that I wish we had ten hours. But we don’t, because you have to work, you have a job. And we both have teenagers that we are raising.
But we would love to know what’s next for you. What are you working on right now? What series on Hardcore History are you working on right now? Is there another book in your future? Is there another podcast in your future? We’re dying to know.
Dan: I am so happy to finally be getting just back to my normal frantic podcasting routine. As a podcaster, you’ll understand that, one of the hardest things about doing the podcast when you start getting popular is that you have a hard time juggling outside opportunities, because usually you’re using every spare moment on the podcast, so you don’t have this spare cushion of time to devote to outside opportunities when they arise. I had some opportunities that I thought were wonderfully spaced out like a bunch of spinning plates. And of course, with Murphy’s Law, they all came crashing down. Those are almost done. This book is one of them.
The other one is I did an immersive virtual reality World War I experience. And these things, along with the Twilight Zone vocal thing, I did at the beginning of the year. It was a really busy year, whereas I like to devote a little more craftsmanship to something like the podcast, and the last years allowed me to do. I’m looking forward to getting back to job one and really being able to focus on the podcast for a while.
Jen: That’s great. What’s your upcoming series on the podcast?
Dan: I think we talked about the red meat, you know, we’re in the middle of a Pacific-Asian World War II series, so Supernova in the East, Part Three. We’re hoping it drops in the next week or two, actually.
Jen: That’s great. That’s an incredible series.
Dan: Don’t hold me to that, but that’s the plan.
Jen: Right. Totally. Well here’s the nice thing about the rhythm of your podcast, you just put it out when you want. You’re at two and a half a year, so whenever you want to do it, you do it. You drop it. If it comes out next week, great. If not, well, it’s your show.
Jen: Okay, we’re wrapping it up here. On our podcast, we do series, and this is a series about podcasts. We’re asking all of the hosts these rapid-fire questions to wrap up their episode. Here’s the first one. What podcasts are you listening to right now?
Dan: Oh see, that presupposes I have time to do anything.
Jen: It sure does. And I understand the dilemma.
Dan: I’m a reader.
Dan: I don’t have a long commute where I live. I’m lucky enough to live in one of these places where if I run into five minutes of traffic, it’s scream and yell and make excuses on the phone. So, I don’t have these long blocks of time to listen to audio. I pretty much read and a lot of times, like right now, I’m reading exclusively about the stuff I’m talking about in the podcast, so that’s a tough question for me.
Jen: Yeah. So it’s research. You’re researching, is what you’re doing.
Dan: I am. I am.
Jen: What is your favorite thing, and you have to pick, that you’ve learned from doing your show?
Dan: Favorite thing that I’ve learned from doing the show. Well, I think it all involves what we talked about earlier about the white space and realizing how much creative freedom you have in this medium.
I joke all the time, if I had the ability to clone myself like Michael Keaton in Multiplicity, I have nine or ten podcasts I’d like to do simply based on the freedom that that white space allows you because you just feel like, wow. If back in the days of radio, when I was creating shows, I had that kind of white space, there’s all kinds of things I would have done. And I feel like once I tried the Hardcore History experiment and it worked out, I went, “Wow, what if I tried something in this other area?” I feel like I’m still only using a tiny portion of that white space, and I’d love to explore some of the other aspects of that.
Jen: I like hearing you say that. That makes me feel fresh and renewed in my own work. We can make it what we want to make it.
Dan: That’s right.
Jen: Last question. This is actually something we ask every guest in every series and it’s from an author that I love and your answer can run the gamut. We’ve had people say the funniest, most hilarious things to this and also the most tender, most poignant, and serious. So whatever you want it to be. Here’s the question. What is saving your life right now?
Dan: Oh, I think this is going to be a very predictable answer, but the same thing that’s saved my life for a long time now, I think it’s my wife. I think she is the one that, as this endeavor of mine has become more and more all-encompassing, has picked up all the slack in our collective lives.
I saw an interview with Robert Downey, Jr. and his wife once, and they’re like a corporation together, together they’re a whole. And I remember watching it thinking, Well, that reminds me of my relationship with my wife. Because her ability to handle everything else besides the podcast is incredible, and if the shoe were on the other foot, I never could do it.
I should point out that she was an award-winning, top-rated radio host herself. And so for her to be allowing me to do this while she handles every one of the banal aspects of life that allow me to do this, I think that that’s what makes it possible.
I have a friend who does podcasting like I do, and is pretty popular, and he doesn’t have that person to help him. I watch all the things he has to do and I marvel at his ability to do it, because the only reason I feel like I can get this done is because I have somebody literally taking care of everything else for me.
Jen: What’s her name?
Jen: Shout-out to Brittany. That matters. That is absolutely a copartner in your work.
Dan: Yes. Would not be possible without her.
Jen: That’s right. That’s right. I love that. Fabulous. Will you just tell my listeners where they can find you?
Dan: Good question. The website is dancarlin.com, but usually if you just Google it, you can find us. We sell the old shows there. We have a bunch of shows that are free at all times, so if you want to sample the work, it’s up there to be sampled.
Jen: That’s great. We will have all of Dan’s stuff linked, everybody, on the transcript page, over on jenhatmaker.com, all of his socials, all of his podcasts, all of his stuff. His book included, which you’ll definitely want to check out.
Dan, thank you so much for coming on the show. We are so grateful for your time. We’ve learned so much from you. You are a real inspiration to me and my team as a podcaster who takes this medium seriously, and is elevating it to new heights and giving a lot of us really something to look at in terms of possibility, that we can make of this what we want and that is such an exciting time to be a communicator.
So, thanks for your time today. I could not be more grateful.
Dan: You have been very kind. Thank you so much for having me on, and I appreciate it.
Jen: Thanks, Dan.
He is the greatest, the OG, right here on this show. I’m so excited for those of you who have just been introduced to Dan, because I’m jealous that you’re about to experience his work for the first time. It’s so interesting. Listen with your kids. This is road trip listening. It is so fascinating. I can’t wait for you to comb through his archives and see where you want to start. You’re just going to be thrilled that you now know about his work. And I am so flattered that he came on the show and spent a little bit of time with us. I’ve learned a lot from him and I am grateful of this enthusiasm to his subject matter.
Anyhow, as I mentioned, everything we talked about is over at jenhatmaker.com, underneath the podcast tab. We have a brilliant transcript over there, if you like to read our interviews or want to go back and cut and paste anything. We have additional resources and pictures, everything that we mentioned will be linked. Everything single thing that you want to find that we talked about, we’ll have over there for you. Amanda puts that together week in and week out and we hope you are using it as a resource, because it’s chock full of stuff for you. Glad to do it. Glad to serve you like this.
Way more to come. You’re going to be tickled to hear who else we have in this podcast series. I know I am. I’m just loving this one, you guys.
Thanks for subscribing. If you haven’t already, go do it, it will take you twelve seconds and you’ll have this podcast show up for you each and every week. Don’t have to do any work to find it. Thanks for rating and reviewing us too, you guys, we have so many amazing reviews over there. That matters to podcasts, it’s so good for us and we are so grateful. We just feel like we have the greatest listening community ever.
So, on behalf of Laura, my producer and her amazing team, and Amanda, my assistant, glad to have you, glad to serve you. Can’t wait to see you next week, guys.
Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!