Hardcore Historian: The Amateur as Expert

Curator's Note

In the past ten years, podcasting has often been characterized as a disruptive technology, capable of opening new digital spaces for independent, grassroots content production and distribution. But can podcasting also change the way in which we understand historical expertise and historical discourse?

For Dan Carlin, erstwhile talk radio host and creator of the long-running Hardcore History podcast, history is a hobby and a passion, and he often insists that he is not, in fact, an historian. Identifying as a “student,” or “fan” of history, Carlin distinguishes his own impressionistic, “outside-the-box” approach to historical storytelling from the academic formalism of “real” historians. While thus positioning himself outside professional hierarchies, it was ironic that on June 28, 2014, Carlin appeared as a guest on CBS This Morning to offer commentary on the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and the enduring consequences of the First World War.

On television of course, historical commentary is not necessarily limited to history PhDs. Carlin’s appearance is significant, however, in that it emphasizes the growing relevance of podcasters within mainstream cultural landscapes, while at the same time suggesting an expanding notion of what an historian can be.

Appearing in a black t-shirt, jeans, and baseball cap, Carlin doesn't embody the stuffy, stereotypical media image of the “talking head” historian-expert. Having released three installments of a six-episode arc on World War I, entitled “Blueprint for Armageddon” however, Carlin easily stepped into the expert role, affecting the easy conversational manner of a veteran broadcaster and knowledgeable layman, and not the detachment of the academic elite. In both his presentation and explanatory style, Carlin makes the past approachable and familiar.

In this clip for example, Carlin begins his commentary by comparing the assassinations of Franz Ferdinand and JFK. While this kind of analogizing may strike as presentism, and hinge more on narrative structure than on historical analysis, it is one of the common ways that Carlin familiarizes the past to his podcast audience – and seems quite appropriate within a discussion about commemoration and the presence of the past.

But given Carlin's broadcasting experience and undergraduate training in history, is his truly an alternate, amateur voice?



Very interesting observations, and thanks for introducing me to this podcast. Carlin is indeed quite comfortable as a talking head, and his hosts don’t even ask him about his podcast or expertise – it’s just a given that because he has a history-related platform that is reportedly “popular” that that’s good enough, presumably, for the view audience. Each of the posts this week mentioned the fact that podcasting began as a disruptive, democratic or populist new medium but has now perhaps entered into the mainstream arena of professionally produced broadcasting. It’s reminiscent of the evolution of reality tv, and surely a bunch of other endeavors that I can’t think of at the moment. My non-rhetorical question is: what does this say about media/popular culture in the 21st century?

Hi Kathleen, nice to hear from you. I'd want to point out first that I do not know how Carlin was approached by the CBS This Morning booking producer, or what the behind-the-scenes thinking was in inviting him on the show. For all I know he wasn't their first choice! This kind of thing would be nice to know, and I might follow up on it in the future... As for my attempt at your "non-rhetorical question," yes, the appropriation of the "populist" or "grass roots" medium of podcasting by mainstream outlets (and even the emergence of podcast "networks" like Earwolf) reminds me somewhat of early radio, in which some optimists - perhaps too optimistically - predicted a day in which everyone in America could have their own station. But of course, it was largely those users with the most resources (i.e. the networks) that would dominate the airwaves. But I think your question points to some interesting questions about the concept of disruption that are worth thinking about. There was an interesting piece by Kevin Roose in New York Magazine last year asserting that the term has recently been used so widely – and frequently as a stand-in for “cool” or “inventive” – as to have little meaning anymore. I think we might be entering a point in the history of podcasting in which the possibility of disruption may still yet exist for some very creative independent podcast producers. However, these voices may be crowded out by the more mainstream, professionally produced podcasts. Timeshifted radio programs, or content produced by mainstream outlets seem to appear on sites like iTunes and various podcast ranking sites more frequently than independent ones. And from what I understand, it is difficult to get visibility for a new podcast on iTunes without first establishing a listenership (a kind of catch 22), so it may not be that easy for a new, independent podcast producer to be “disruptive” within this already mainstream-ing soundscape. But perhaps if the medium is no longer “disruptive” per se, the content within the form can be. This is sort of my argument about Dan Carlin: He may in fact be a professional broadcaster and an undergraduate-trained historian, but he is attempting to disrupt historical discourse by producing his own.

I've had this page open in my browser for days as I've thought about its content and implications. What I've been pondering, Andrew, is the development of what it means to be a professional historian (which to me includes biographers). It seems that the notion that only academics are "professional historians" is a very new construct and might not be the best benchmark. When I think of historians -- such as British historians Richard F. Burton, Catherine Macaulay, or Winston S. Churchill or Americans such as Carl Sandberg, Taylor Branch, or Shelby Foote, among many others, including Nobel and Pulitzer winners -- these folks did not become historians by sequencing degrees together to create a certification as a professional historian. They became historians by writing well about history. I wasn't familiar with Dan Carlin until your article, but despite his claims that he is not an historian, he seems to be following a very long heritage of being an historian by writing (or in this case speaking) about history in a manner that is well-informed and accurate. Thus rather than being disruptive-- except in his attempt to disassociate himself from a new and perhaps limiting definition of historian (in a move that smacks just a bit of anti-intellectualism, which the baseball cap/jeans also seems to do), he seems to fit more with the historical trend of being an historian than the more contemporary exclusive one. The medium doesn't seem to be any more disruptive than self-published histories of the past.

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