By Alan Glynn
As Nicholas Carr points out in his latest book, The Glass Cage, automation is gradually erasing the rough edges of our humanity. It’s not erasing all of them, however, and there is hope – evidence, even – that technology can still be bent a little to our will. Because sometimes things develop in unexpected ways, sometimes we arrive at accommodations to peculiarly human requirements that we’d almost forgotten we had. The podcast is a case in point. In my last post I wrote about four of my favourites and how they are adding a new dimension to the very idea of what a podcast can be. By extending the interview format, by taking it beyond the confines of the archived, schedule-bound radio interview ‘slot’, these podcasters have opened up a new space, one that is relatively independent and (so far) relatively free of corporate interference. The thing is, no one planned this, no marketing exec sat down and whispered nefariously to himself . . . Let’s see, a one-on-one interview that’s unflinchingly candid, has lots of swearing, and goes on uninterrupted for anything up to two hours? Yeah, that’s the ticket . . .
Rather, it just happened, it evolved organically. Once the technology made it possible for someone with a laptop operating in isolation to reach (in theory) anyone on the planet, traditional restrictions started falling away. Traditional expectations, too. So something else that our marketing exec probably never whispered to himself was: Or how about an unmediated six-part discourse on the political, sociological and military intricacies of the First World War that lasts more than twenty hours and takes about eighteen months to drip-feed out to the listeners? Oh man, I’m on a roll here . . . somebody STOP me . . .
But that happened, too. That’s what Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast has organically evolved into. And we the listeners want it – or, at any rate, enough of us do to make Hardcore History a viable proposition.
Carlin’s show, along with Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, are my two new favourite podcasts, and while they’re very different from the ones mentioned above, they are equally original and every bit as compelling. If the peculiarly human requirement met by the longform interview is for substantial, informative, enlightening, funny, often meandering, minimally mediated public conversations, then that met by Hardcore History and You Must Remember This is for the artful shaping of past events into complex and engaging narrative structures – i.e., for stories. And both Dan Carlin and Karina Longworth do this superbly.
Hardcore History casts a very wide net, from the ancient world to the Second World War. There are multi-part series (Death Throes of the Republic, Wrath of the Khans, Ghosts of the Ostfront, and the most recent one, the WW1 epic, Blueprint for Armageddon). There are also one-off shows with subjects ranging from the influence drugs and alcohol may have had on certain historical figures (History Under the Influence) to millennial crazies taking over a German city at the time of the Protestant Reformation (Prophets of Doom). Carlin always maintains that he isn’t a professional historian, and maybe that’s a good thing, but he’s certainly a great teacher. His style is conversational (amazingly, the show is unscripted) and you can almost hear him thinking aloud as he talks, working stuff out, making connections, drawing analogies. His approach is to come at each subject from a few different angles – sequence of events, personality, cultural context, weirdness quotient – and while he makes reference to the various schools of historiography, he isn’t tied to any particular one. He clearly brings a personal world view to the proceedings, but the foundation of the whole thing is the prodigious amount of research he does. The reading lists for each episode are available on the Hardcore History website and they are eye-poppingly comprehensive.
You Must Remember This casts a tighter net. Karina Longworth’s podcast explores the “secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood’s first century” and it is quite an Aladdin’s cave of riches. Most of the stories she covers are ones I’d previously known something about, or half known about, or, as it transpires, been hopelessly misinformed about. Not any more. Karina has done the necessary background reading and pulled everything into sharp focus. And this stuff isn’t just “off the record, on the QT and very hush-hush”, it isn’t just Tinseltown gossip. Whether she’s talking about Theda Bara or Frances Farmer, the death of Judy Garland or the reinvention of Isabella Rossellini, the loves of Howard Hughes or the delusions of Charles Manson, what we get from Karina is complex and nuanced. What we get, to use David Thomson’s phrase, is the whole equation. These aren’t just the stories of famous people, they’re an examination of myth and illusion, of control and identity. They’re also a lot of fun. HH is voice only (which is fine), but YMRT makes clever and judicious use of music, atmospheric sound effects and brief guest dramatizations. Karina’s style of delivery is quite addictive – and versatile. Her own rendition, in a recent episode, of one of the Manson girls is a showstopper, walking as it does a fine line between the hilarious and the terrifying.
The key, I think, to what makes HH and YMRT so successful is the very fact that they are podcasts. Because these shows are not archived radio segments, they’re not station-led productions, and they’re not audiobooks. Nothing wrong with any of those, but what HH and YMRT have – and it’s ramped up to eleven – is the integrity that comes with full creative control. These podcasts are custom-built and exclusively driven by their creator-presenters. Both Dan Carlin and Karina Longworth have worked in traditional media and they’ve both talked in interviews about how they experienced frustration at not being able to follow their professional instincts. Well, in different ways, that’s precisely what they’re doing now. Dan once described how nervous he felt putting out his first show that stretched to a whole hour. Would people listen? The most recent HH episode is over four hours long and maybe even felt, at the end, a tad rushed? Karina has just finished a brilliant twelve-part series on the Manson murders and their links to various Hollywood luminaries that memorably burned up the summer for many people.
As a result, there is now a real sense of expectation about where HH and YMRT will go next. But wherever that might be, we the listeners can be confident that because of podcast technology Dan Carlin and Karina Longworth, and no one else, will be the ones deciding.
Both Hardcore History and You Must Remember This are free (some of the archived HH episodes are available for less than the price of a cup of coffee) and they both have donate buttons on their websites.