Meet Daniele Bolelli

DanieleIf you are reading this, you are probably into history podcasts and if you are into history podcasts, then you will already know Daniele Bolelli. Daniele has been a much-loved, leading light in history podcasting for a good few years now and has, of course, one of the most distinctive voices of our genre.

Daniele has been in the game since 2015 and is one of the few history podcasters to be able to carry an Apple-approved “Best of…” on his podcast logo since the year he launched. Eight years and 90+ episodes later, Daniele and his History on Fire podcast, certainly continue to be one of the best of…

As is abundantly clear from his accent and his name, Daniele is Italian but he has been in the US since he was 18 years old and is proud to call it his home.

When we met, he was bailing his home out after an unseasonal deluge had hit California. It was surprising for your British correspondent to be dryer than a Californian but these are strange times when it comes to the climate. It was a great privilege that we could have a quick chat and get some insight into the man behind the microphone.

His introduction to podcasting was from appearing on shows by Adam Carolla and Joe Rogan while he was promoting a book that he had written. Daniele has written a number of books, including Not Afraid: On Fear, Heartbreak, Raising a Baby Girl, and Cage Fighting; 50 Things You’re Not Supposed to Know: Religion; and Create Your Own Religion.

He would eventually appear eight more times on the Joe Rogan show, which definitely helped him a lot to initially grow his audience when he made his own move into podcasting.

These promotional appearances were back in 2011 when podcasting was in its infancy but his interest was piqued in this new media and people encouraged him to start his own podcast. This he duly did and launched The Drunken Taoist, a chatty podcast that covers all sorts of topics and is still going strong with 233 episodes available, the most recent one about the hot topic of our day: AI and the end of Humanity!

Crazy HorseFrom his books and that podcast, we can see that Eastern religions and martial arts are a massively important part of Daniele’s world but by profession he is a history professor so branching into history podcasting was, of course, a natural move.

First he had to come up with a name (all good podcasts need an impactful name) and he freely admits that he stole the idea of History on Fire from a friend who had an HBO programme called Sports on Fire and the “On Fire” bit seemed to chime with what Daniele loves about history, meaning that it would fit well with the podcast he was planning to launch. It conveys the intensity he has always striven for and has the epic quality that matched the epic topics he covers. As he says, History on Fire as a show is “not happy, mellow and peaceful”. It’s a show that involves conflict, “not necessarily war but definitely conflict.”

Like a good father who is unable to say which of his children is his favourite, Daniele is reluctant to answer the question about which is his favourite episode. He tells people to visit his website to search the archive and find a topic that they find interesting. That’s the advantage of this kind of podcast that does not chronologically follow one historical thread but jumps around, so listeners can just go for whatever takes their fancy.

One recurring topic of History on Fire is Native American history. His theme tune is an Ennio Morricone track from a Spaghetti Western, which works oh so well. He can’t remember what first got him into this topic but he has been fascinated with the history of the American West since he was a tiny child.

So when the opportunity to cross the Atlantic arose, his mum getting a job writing for an Italian magazine about life in the US, Daniele grabbed it. Thus in 1992, at the age of 18 he found himself going through college in the States. After initially loving it, after a while he felt that he had not established any true relationships and was considering returning to Italy.

But then he had an experience that convinced him to stay. He went to a Lakota Sundance Ceremony, and all of a sudden he was in a better frame of mind, something clicked, and began to see the US as home.

That said, he has an outsider’s objectivity at being able to look at the country he now calls home. “The US is an extremely lonely society. That was back then, today I think it is ten times worse than it was.” It’s not that he looks at his home country of Italy through nostalgic, pink-tinted sunglasses and longs for some imagined communal spirt of Italy but feels that friendships in the US can often only skin-deep and fleeting. The way he puts it is that your phone book might be filled with people’s numbers but you don’t really interact with a great many people on the list.

He hasn’t in fact covered Italy a lot in History on Fire, maybe surprisingly given that Italy is quite famous for being somewhat heavy on the history and Daniele admits that when he was in Italy he “could not care less for Italian history because it is shoved down your throat at every turn,” and only began to appreciate it from a distance and enjoy Italian and European history much more from a distance than he ever did when he lived there.

As well as the episodes that cover the American West, another recurring topic is Martial Arts. He started training when he was 17 and has been practising ever since. He has read a lot about it and it makes sense for him to explore topics in History on Fire, around this world. He will be leading a tour to Japan in 2024 if plans stay on track, so if that tickles your fancy, keep following Daniele to get the details on that – it should be fascinating.

Behind the scenes

Daniele is very appreciative of the help and inspiration he got from some of the pioneers in podcasting like Joe Rogan or Dan Carlin. And he pays this all back in spades through his support of the podcasting community. Over the years, he has done some excellent collaborations and recently he has been working with fellow Intelligent Speech Keynote, Sebastian Major of Our Fake History.

Life as an independent history podcaster is not generally a viable career choice and Daniele has experimented with various ways to make it sustainable, advertising, a subscription-only model, and now Patreon.

We discussed his time behind the Luminary paywall. He says he would do it again while recognising that it might be financially rewarding but not so good for the podcast itself if the goal is to reach as many people as possible.

It’s great to have Daniele back from behind the paywall. He is releasing the episodes that had been exclusively behind the paywall.

Like many podcasters and other creatives, Daniele has a Patreon account and unlike all podcasters, he uses it really well to play with different formats and also to share something of the person behind the microphone. Patrons can find releases covering everything from deliciously simple Italian recipes, to mini-episodes that cover topics that didn’t match the strict Bolelli research criteria but that are nonetheless fascinating, and to songs by his very talented daughter.

The scope of History on Fire allows Daniele to be able to pick topics from pretty much anywhere. He sees a story that piques his interest and then goes off to see what sources are available – is there enough for him to weave a tale around? His criteria are: It needs to be an epic story, ideally with powerful characters, and with enough written about it to create a two-hour podcast out of. He will structure the episode or series around one principal source and then flesh it out with a variety of other sources to bring the story alive.

And that is what Daniele does best, he brings history alive and throws the listener into the muddy field of some ghastly battle.

Listen to…

Daniele was reluctant to choose his own favourite episodes, here are some that come highly recommended by Intelligent Speech.

  • Sitting Bull
  • Caravaggio
  • Joan of Arc
  • Taiping Rebellion
  • The Conquest of Mexico

The list above neatly demonstrates why Daniele’s podcast is called History on Fire.

Coming Up…

And there certainly seems to be a lot more History on Fire in the upcoming episodes that Daniele shared when we spoke:

  • US in El Salvador
  • We vs Them
  • Cangaço (Brazilian bandits)

We are very much looking forward to hearing Daniele speak at Intelligent Speech in November. It will be very interesting to hear what take Daniele has on our conference topic of Contingencies.