Roanoke – “Hey, brother” is the welcome that regular viewers will recognize as the starting point for all Super Carlin Brothers videos.
The “brothers” are Jonathan and Ben Carlin of Roanoke.
Their YouTube channel has more than 2 million subscribers, putting them in rare air even among influencers.
They do it all from their studios in downtown Roanoke. And yes, they are my sons — making me a proud news anchor.
“Mom thought you were both going to grow up to be accountants,” I said to the boys.
“Well, you know mom is an accountant so there you go,” laughed Jonathan.
On the wall is a framed gold “play” button, that looks like the symbol you click on to start a video. YouTube awards it to those who reach one million subscribers. The Super Carlin Brothers have earned those subscribers by focusing their videos in a sector known as “fandom” — entertainment topics where the fans stick around even after a book or movie fades from interest to the general public.
What are those areas? Think Pixar, Star Wars, Harry Potter.
And it’s taken them places they never dreamed of.
“They wanted us to come out to London to cover the History of Magic experience that was on display at the British Library,” Jonathan explained. He is referring to a trip the duo took to London to help launch the exhibit. That experience landed them on the cover of Pottermore – the leading Harry Potter Website now known as WizardingWorld.com.
More recently they were invited to Disney World in Orlando where they were among the first to experience the brand-new Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser Immersive Adventure.
But before all that and numerous other invitations, they were two brothers just out of college after graduating from Cave Spring High School, working out of their basement in Salem.
“In our basement, I had half and he had half,” Jonathan said. “So my side was painted blue and then if you turned around, his half was painted gray. And so when it was my day we would just point the camera at my corner of the basement. And then on his day, we move the tripod and the lights to the other side and just turned the camera around and pointed it at his side of the basement.”
“I remember sitting down to record my first video and I think it took me six or seven hours to record 2 1/2 minutes. There were no visual assets at all. It’s literally me just attempting to talk at the camera. But I didn’t know the first thing about any of it,” Ben said. “I will honestly say for that entire first year I felt like people were showing up to watch Jay’s (Jonathan’s) videos. And tolerating me in the meantime.”
Despite Ben’s early struggles, for a year they talked to each other via these videos on the fledgling channel, raising and answering each other’s questions. One day Jonathan would record and raise a question. The next day Ben would try to answer and parry it with a question of his own. Topics were all over the place.
“And we would do that five times a week,” Jonathan said.
Jonathan was determined and experienced. He had studied communication at Virginia Tech and considered being a television reporter. At least for a while. He wasn’t sure if there was a future in YouTube, but he wanted to find out.
“I had pipe dreams that maybe this could be a thing but, at the time in 2009, nobody was a full-time influencer. Maybe like 10 people on YouTube entirely,” Jonathan said.
Ben had majored in business at Radford University. He had seldom even looked at a video camera that wasn’t part of a cell phone.
“For me, it was not something I was remotely attracted to,” Ben said.
Even though Ben improved, the channel limped along for a year with about 10,000 subscribers. YouTube sells advertising on popular videos and shares revenue with creators. But ten thousand subscribers won’t even provide beer money.
Then came a video on the Pixar Theory. The concept is that the characters in every Pixar movie are somehow connected.
“It got millions of views and it was mind-blowing. It was like ‘what is this?’” Jonathan said.
And the brothers began to see well, super growth.
“We started doing stuff like that every single week and suddenly the subscribers went from like 10,000 to 60,000 to 300,000 to ‘Wow, we need to quit our jobs,’” Jonathan said.
Jonathan quit his real job only about four months after getting married, with permission and understanding, from his wife, Beth. A year later Ben joined him.
“Year three we decided to commit to nothing but fandom content,” Jonathan explained. And they were off and running.
But, it’s not easy. The two work more than 40 hours a week, often fleshing out their concepts while walking on treadmills at their stand-up desks.
They estimate they have each read all the Harry Potter Books 50 times – if you include when I first started reading the books to them when they were in elementary school.
“Harry Potter is the one that we’ve absolutely covered the most. The most thoroughly. The most in-depth. I feel like at this time we probably have a master’s degree in Harry Potter,” Ben said.
Meanwhile, the Disney connection is so strong, that Ben and his wife, Alyce got married at the theme park’s wedding chapel in Orlando.
“My wife Alyce if you’ve ever seen her or met her is basically like a walking, talking, living Disney princess anyway,” Ben said.
Disney threw in a few extras in exchange for a bit of promotion on the channel – and Ben and Alyce for a short time had the Magic Kingdom all to themselves.
“We were the only two people in the park with our photographer and we just got to go through and take pictures in the castle, under the castle, in front of the castle,” Ben said. “We got married on a Monday, and then two days later we woke up at two in the morning in our hotel. We did hair and makeup and we got all turned out again in our wedding attire. They drove us to the Magic Kingdom before it opened. It was just us and our photographer.”
Now in addition to what they call the “main” channel, there is a podcast called Popcorn Culture, with a growing fan base. There’s an audio-only version, but each episode is also videoed on a special set so it’s watchable on YouTube as well.
There is every kind of merch. From T-shirts to mugs, to special one-of-a-kind promotions available only to patrons who pay extra each month for an additional bit of access to the brothers and behind-the-scenes activity.
They’ve even started a Super Carlin coffee company, Carlin Brothers Coffee.
They are both full-time YouTubers with families and homes. Jonathan has three children and Ben one. And they do it in Roanoke.
“At this point, we have such a support system in Roanoke in terms of every grandchild’s grandparent is within 30 minutes of them. And that’s pretty unbelievable,” Jonathan said.
Growing up, the boys were always on camera. After all, it’s how their father made a living. So of course, I was the dad with the video camera at every event and vacation. At the end of the year, I edited the highlights together at the TV station and called it, “The Year in Carlin.” We watched the VHS tapes until they were worn out.
I’d like to think it helped shape them — at least a little.
“I think that it probably instilled in us the importance of how valuable something being videoed could be,” Ben admitted.
Now, it’s a kick for my wife and me to walk around Disney World with them and see fans ask them to pose for selfies.
“Disney is probably like ground zero for us. Outside of like a straight-up YouTube convention. I would say it happens like, I don’t know, like 15 times a day or something,” Jonathan said when I asked where people seem to know them the most.
Ten years ago no one knew you could make a living with YouTube.
Ten years from now, who knows?
“The goal is to continue to get to do it. Day in day out. Week in week out. Year after year,” Ben said.