Hardcore Historian: The Amateur as Expert

This post originally appeared on In Media Res.

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?

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