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Dan Carlin’s A Brief History of Podcasting

Dan Carlin is a master storyteller. I don’t think anyone is jumping up to fight me on that point, nor should they be. Both his shows, Common Sense and Hardcore History garner millions of listeners and have been running longer than most people have known what podcasts are. Actually, Dan has been doing this before anyone knew what podcasts were, and that’s the story I want to tell. The story of how Dan Carlin and the world found their way into podcasting, and how things look really different on the other side. Here we go.

The Land Before Podcasts

One day while working as a “radio talk-show host,” Dan asked his listeners what they were willing to do to see real change occur. The year was 1996 (or somewhere around there) and one listener responded to Dan’s question by leaving this message at the station: “If you want to know what I’m willing to do to see change, let’s get dinner and we can talk about it.” Dan admitted that meeting up with random listeners was always a bit of a gamble, but he was intrigued. I imagine even more skepticism crept in when a man who Dan could only describe as “Dilbert but with hair down to his waist” sat across from him and suggested Dan’s radio show move to the internet.

While the idea doesn’t sound crazy now, trust me, it was. It was only a few years before Dilbert (not his real name, but that’s what we’ll call him) made his pitch that MP3s were invented to compress audio files without entirely sacrificing sound quality. In their article on the history of the technology behind podcasting, Blubrry explained that “the best quality results in a file that is still 10 times smaller than the original uncompressed recording.” But MP3s existing didn’t mean they were changing the game yet.

It wasn’t until 1998, “when Eiger Labs released the first portable mp3 player called the MPM” that mp3s became more popular. The MPMan boasted 32MB of storage, but even then “32 MB of storage resulted in roughly 32 minutes of good quality audio.” That isn’t a ton of content, especially considering most people used dial-up to download the files and that process could take hours. So to say that Dilbert was ahead of his time in suggesting Dan create audio content to be consumed via the internet sometime around ‘96 is a massive understatement.

But there he was, his long hair and the world’s lack of technology doing nothing to diminish the strength of his argument. Dan said Dilbert “hired [him] off the radio to start to develop, what was called then, ‘amateur content.’” Dan began a company with some friends and for eight years they tried to convince venture capitalists that amateur content – defined as “everything you see [today] on YouTube or iTunes that’s not done by a professional” – was worth investing in.

Investors didn’t buy in. The argument was that “anyone who is doing this well enough to attract an audience is getting paid for it.” In other words, if they’re talented, someone in mainstream media has already picked them up and if they haven’t been picked up it’s because they aren’t talented. Dan disagreed. “I was arguing that quantity has a quality of its own. If there are millions of pieces of content being produced and only one percent is awesome, it’s still gonna be a lot of stuff,” he told me.

Even as investors were turning down the idea, people were creating the technology that would make amateur content a reality. Dave Winer, an innovator in so many areas of early internet use, created the Real Simple Syndication (RSS) feed, which allowed content to automatically be made available to subscribers. Winer shared the software with Christopher Lydon in 2003. Lydon ran a blog and had been uploading audio files of interviews alongside the transcriptions on his site. PodcastBookers explained that “once Winer’s technology was incorporated in Lydon’s posts, readers were able to subscribe to the blog and access this audio content automatically.”

Winer’s work became well known in the online blogging community and Adam Curry, previously employed as a Video Jockey at MTV, saw its potential, especially with the popularization of speedy broadband internet in 2001. The RSS feed just needed a little push, and Curry knew the perfect direction. According to Blubrry, in 2004, Curry “offered his blog readers a script called RSStoiPod that moved mp3 files from the Userland Radio website to the iTunes application. The RSStoiPod script was later open sourced and called iPodder.” Then, in 2005, “Steve Jobs made the announcement that podcasts (an entire podcast directory) would be offered in the 4.9 version of iTunes.” Everything was finally in place.

Making the Leap

Venture capitalists still weren’t interested in what Dan was pitching. He didn’t care. Along with pitching amateur content in the hopes of gaining investors, his company had been planning and creating their own content without releasing it. After eight years of work and right before Apple incorporated podcasts, Dan’s team got a tip that it was time to put out their content. Apple had something big coming and they would want to be ready. So, the first episodes of Common Sense, Dan’s first podcast, were released the same month iTunes started supporting podcasts.

2005 was a huge year. Dan began Common Sense, “a smart, deep, passionate, engaging, inquisitive, and of course, politically Martian view of news and current events.” At the same time, podcasting as a medium was beginning its slow crawl into public consciousness. Blubrry reports that “by September 2005, Google search results found more than 100 million hits on the word podcast. By the year’s end, ‘podcast’ was chosen ‘word of the year’ by the New Oxford American Dictionary.” But there was still a question of if podcasting was much different from radio in anything besides its on-demand availability.

Dan told me that “Common Sense was an extension of the radio show. It was much more creative and had fewer boundaries but it was still something [he] had created when [he] did have boundaries.” Dan had fallen in love with the idea of amateur content because it “was an absolutely free, white space where we could do absolutely anything,” but he wasn’t making full use of that space yet. It was time to make something entirely unique and see just how far he could push to make something that could only exist in the podcasting world and, ultimately,  a dinner-table conversation with his mother-in-law gave birth to Hardcore History.

Dan told me the story: “In my mind, you needed a doctorate to do that because I come from the world of history and I would want that or that was how I had always thought about it. But she made it clear in the conversation: ‘why do you have to have a doctorate to tell stories?’” Of course, Dan explained, that means “you have to organize the entire podcast around the idea of storytelling rather than doctoral history narratives.”

But one of the joys of molding history to a story-telling format meant it would look different from anything that existed at the time. In 2006, when the show released, Dan decided to call it Hardcore History because it would cover the “the twisty, twilight-zone type stuff” that may get overlooked when people learned about world history. He told me that creating this show “was so fun [because] it was the first podcast where [he] made a podcast from scratch.” Dan was planning to just hit the craziest moments in history and direct the show toward “people who already knew the history so [he] wouldn’t have to be [listeners’] history teacher.” That didn’t quite work as well as he thought, though.

Dan released a few episodes and got a lot of positive feedback. People loved the show but wanted more context. “We started to add more and more but that, of course, increases the length.” Dan told me the story of the first time he posted an episode that was longer than an hour: “I actually inserted an apology to the listeners because I thought it was unforgivable to do a show over an hour long.” Again, the listeners were incredibly responsive, saying things like “we have pause buttons.” Dan said he realized that “as long as we’re not boring you, as long as it’s interesting, as long as people like it, well then the length is less important than the whole.”

Introducing Podcasts to the World

Dan was learning a lot and building a more and more creative and engaging show, but he wasn’t hitting millions or even hundreds-of-thousands of downloads yet. Dan painted a picture I had never seen before when I asked him about those early days with his limited fans. At the beginning of podcasting, Dan and the other veteran hosts had messageboards they used to interact with fans and they managed those conversations and connections personally. Dan told me that “once upon a time we had such a small number of listeners that you felt you knew them… we were on a first-name basis for a long time.” The intimacy that a small audience provided was something Dan loved, but he and the entire industry were still waiting. For what? The land rush.

Talking to Dan was a pleasure, but the man is frustratingly self-effacing. I’m certain he would tell you it is simply honesty, but let me show you an example and you can decide for yourself if I’m right. Remember how Dan pitched the amateur content idea to people who didn’t buy in and so he just became a creator on his own? Well at the time there weren’t any pros in the ring at all. NPR, ESPN, WNYC, none of them were there, just Dan and the other amateurs making whatever show they wanted. But that wasn’t going to be the story for long.

Dan knew that the professional outlets were going to – eventually – recognize the brilliance of podcasting, and then it finally happened. ESPN told fans of SportsCenter that, if they missed last night’s show, they could catch it on their podcast. Dan told me the professionals ”saw it as another platform to distribute their content. They didn’t see it as an original platform.” But if someone is going to take the time to learn how to access a brand new medium, they aren’t going to stop at just one show they could regularly hear on the radio. “The minute you learn that, now you’re a podcast listener. Now you’ve crossed that barrier and now all the rest of [the shows] are potential offerings for you.” Dan and the other podcasters had claimed their spot in podcasting expecting that, eventually, the professional outlets would bring listeners to the medium. And when that happened, amateur content creators would be waiting with enough quality entertainment to create dedicated fans for this brand new form of media.

The frustrating part is that when I attempted to applaud his foresight, Dan quickly informed me that it wasn’t just him, refusing the praise. He pointed to the other early creators who also saw the potential of the medium and who carried it before professionals moved into the space.  “We were all pinging off each other,” he told me, explaining that, as they all waited for the rush of consumers they were expecting would come, early podcasters were a really “helpful community of strangers.” See, traditional media like television and radio are generally zero-sum games, so there’s not much support amongst stations. In contrast, early podcasters lost nothing by promoting each other, so they did just that frequently. They “pinged” off each other by cross-promoting, featuring, and interviewing each other, creating a fresh and incredibly supportive media community.

Of course, something about millions of people beginning to take notice of your medium changes things. Hardcore History is now an award-winning show with millions of listeners. In 2015, the show had 350,000 downloads in a single 24-hour period and nothing is slowing it down. Consistently a front-runner in podcasting awards for education and history, the show has earned accolade after accolade. In fact, the same night I interviewed Dan about his show he was given the first-ever iHeartRadio Best History Podcast award. Dan really did get to make a show that was exactly what he wanted and people love it. A lot of people. So what does having a massive fan base look like?

Well, you won’t find message boards run by major podcasters these days. The closest you may come is a Facebook group, but even that is often absent from frequent interaction with a show’s host if they have a sizeable following. Creators all across podcasting are constantly trying to find new ways to connect with listeners, and I was curious to hear if Dan missed the good ol’ days of knowing his listeners personally. He was quick to say “not if it means you have to sacrifice the audience size.”

Dan’s audience size gives him even more freedom to create the shows he loves and educate more and more people. While he spoke fondly of the days when he was closer to his audience, he did explain “we romanticize it a bit because it was a necessary step to get you where you are today and I like where I am today.” Dan isn’t one to fall into the trap of assuming the intimacy he initially experienced with his audience could have carried on. He simply doesn’t have time now, and he does wonder if social media culture would change the productiveness of the community created on those original message boards. He summed his feeling up this way: “I don’t know if I’d ever go back to it but I’d never give it up either.”

Looking Forward: New Creators and New Opportunities

Becoming a massive success wasn’t always easy. Beyond just learning how to build an audience back when you’d have to teach people how to even access your content, creating that content was a lot of trial and error. So when I asked Dan if he had any advice for fans of the medium who were considering starting their own show he offered this: “Go do five shows, don’t release any of them. Get your five bad shows out of the way.” Dan said that his first few episodes of Hardcore History were very much a process of figuring out what he wanted the show to be and he recognizes that new creators don’t have to do it that way. Making a few different shows (which you’ll probably throw out) ensures “you’ll have a better idea of what you want to do.”

He also stressed the importance of listener feedback when I compared his advice to those creators who release an entire season all at once. He was quick to say that was different and maybe not the best route, as it leaves no room for correction: “You don’t know how it’s being received on the other end… it’s really valuable to hear the reaction so that you can make adjustments.” Dan’s fans had a huge role in supporting the stylistic choices he made and encouraging him to make the best show possible, and he is still doing just that.

I asked Dan what he was most excited about in the future of Hardcore History and he quickly said: “I’m excited to continue what I’m doing because I’m very happy doing this.” While Dan said that podcasting has opened many doors and he has been asked to leave the medium to pursue others, he simply can’t be budged. Another veteran podcaster, Joe Rogan, once told Dan “never give up the podcast because the podcast is the golden goose that makes everything else possible,” and Dan has found that to be true. So he will continue to make use of opportunities that come but is very adamant that he’s exactly where he wants to be.

Dan looks at the past with fondness and the future with excitement, but in the present, he is simply overwhelmed with gratitude. I feel it’s best to just let him say it himself: “I’m really grateful. Not only grateful to the audience, because, you know, we’re still listener supported. I’m grateful…  because in this world where people are savaged on social media and treated terribly by trolls [his shows] are generally treated with kid gloves.” Dan pointed out that “the podcasting community has always relied so much on the enthusiasm, the activism, the listeners just play so much of a bigger role with us in podcasting than they ever did in radio or TV.” Dan has heard from listeners “thank you” again and again, but his response is “you’re doing me as big of a favor as I’m doing you.”

The importance of the listener will always be a driving force in podcasting, so if you haven’t checked out Hardcore History or Common Sense, be sure to check them out and leave a rating and review to let Dan know what you think.

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