Political podcaster Dan Carlin has an unusual spin on rage
In the hullabaloo over the Brexit vote several weeks ago in Britain, while many commentators were obligatorily running through the implications for the European Union and the global market, a voice stood out.
Beaming from a small studio in the college town of Eugene, Ore., it belonged to Dan Carlin, a podcaster who’s part of the little-covered but influential army of minds trying to make sense of the current political confusion. On that day, he was offering up a genre of commentary rarely heard on the commercial airwaves: subtle anger.
“If you live in a society where people have the right to vote and you ignore too many of their needs for too long, they will kill you,” he said on his podcast, “Common Sense.” “In every system on the planet, you have people who prosper and do well and people who don’t. The question is how many of the ‘losers’ you can have and still have the society functioning, before they will make you feel their pain.”
It was a sophisticated intellectual two-step. Carlin had managed to ride the anger without taking a side in the controversy it caused. Carlin wasn’t saying this was the right movement for those who undertook it – just that it existed, and that leaders ignored it at their peril.
If you live in a society where people have the right to vote and you ignore too many of their needs for too long, they will kill you.
In a world of podcasts for seemingly every taste and fan group, “Common Sense” – roughly hour-long installments, posted every few weeks – is an underrated gem. Though not unprecedented, popular political podcasts run outside established media companies are rarer than you’d think.
One of the advantages for those who do practice the form is that they enjoy access to the same homes as mainstream news outlets but without nearly the same financial pressures; it’s a reason why they can be as freewheeling as talk radio and cable news themselves were when they began. Carlin serves as a notable example of this behavior: a person who can discuss issues deeply and idiosyncratically.
Maybe most important, he demonstrates how a podcast can be more limber to the complicated rage of the electoral moment – eschewing the simplistic paranoia of talk radio or the shoutiness and self-serving partisanship of cable-news punditry for a more finely tuned approach. He is less likely to rail for or against an outsider candidate than seek to explain the attraction to them in the first place.
“I don’t think anger is good unless it’s goal-oriented anger,” he said by phone from his Eugene headquarters last week. “And unlike radio, with podcasts, you don’t have people artificially yelling at you.”
Carlin, 50, knows firsthand about the temptation to scream. The commentator – who grew up in Los Angeles the son of movie people (his father worked as a producer and his mother was an actress nominated for an Oscar for her role in 1968’s “Faces”) – toiled in commercial TV and radio for nearly two decades.
Working at a radio station in Eugene in the early 2000s, Carlin found himself clashing regularly with bosses over how much to play up conflict. Of course there were fissures in American public life, he thought, but surely, there was a way to explore them without simply adding to the din? Leaving mainstream media and a steady paycheck behind, Carlin launched “Common Sense” in 2005, in the platform’s infancy.
The problem with today’s radio and TV is that people tune in and out at all times so the conversation can never get to a certain level.
Tonally, “Common Sense” offers a mix of the low-key and passionate; it’s a show that manages to place the frustrations of everyday people in the more genteel wrapping of, say, a discussion about a good recipe. Carlin’s innovation lies with his sly belief that anger doesn’t have to sound angry.
And while his reluctance to take defined positions can veer the show to generalities, it also makes for a fresh trans-partisan approach. This is the era when lunch-bucket Democrats vote for Donald Trump and new voters turn out for the Independent Bernie Sanders. A broadcast that eschews traditional divides couldn’t be more timely.
“When I was growing up, it was the fumes of the ‘60s, and people felt they had to wear their ideology like a totem,” he said. “Now, it’s more about whether something works than whether it can fit an ideological template.”
Carlin says he can support himself and his family off his podcast work, which is driven by both advertisements and listener donations. “Common Sense” generates about 700,000 downloads per episode (that can be done, free, on iTunes) with an additional number of streaming listeners from his website harder to quantify. He also is behind a popular podcast called “Hardcore History,” a series of colorful and epic-length (four-hour!) episodes on critical past world events.
Carlin’s specific politics are hard to pin down. Labeling himself a civil libertarian, he rarely betrays his position, though running under his commentary are themes of disenfranchised working people and a system that’s failed them. Two words that come up often in talking with him are transparency and accountability, and the role of new platforms to bring them about.
“I really believe most of the stuff I’m angry about and a lot of people are angry about could not stand up to the light of day if there were three newspapers and three networks and they were talking about these issues, like Watergate,” he said. “The problem with today’s radio and TV is that people tune in and out at all times so the conversation can never get to a certain level, because people are always leaving. Podcasts and blogs have the freedom to talk about things more deeply.”
He added, “The power people have if we didn’t have to focus on Justin Bieber and Kim Kardashian is amazing. But we can’t maintain it.”
MORE FROM THE ANGER ISSUE:
Inside the business of entertainment
The Wide Shot brings you news, analysis and insights on everything from streaming wars to production — and what it all means for the future.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.