Some do it with the same partners each week, some bring others on for different points of view. Some record in a studio, in a basement, or like Cate Reed and Jen Vos, in an out-building stocked with books on murder, conspiracy, and haunted happenings.
Podcasters in West Michigan typically fall into one of two formats: topical discussions between the same cast of hosts each episode, and guest interviews. In each case, the shows focus on a single mission or theme.
This Podcast Is Haunted
Now more than 60 episodes in, Reed and Vos, hosts of This Podcast is Haunted, began theirs out of a common love of history, and common work in the museum field.
One of Vos' previous jobs involved taking photos, lots of photos, and editing them in a small studio. Podcasts helped her break up the monotony. She started with shows that were conversational, with a small group of hosts bantering back and forth.
It didn't seem that difficult.
"It got me thinking, this is possible," Vos says. "But then I wondered, what would it be about?"
On Halloween every year, Snap Judgment, a popular public radio show and podcast based on real-life stories narrated by the people who lived through them, compiles the creepiest tales into a single chilling episode.
"I just wanted that all year round," Vos says.
She started looking for paranormal podcasts but couldn't find any that fit her ideal.
"It was either storytelling, which is good and I like that, or it was banter, but the people weren't taking themselves very seriously," she says.
Some time later, Reed and Vos went out to dinner and Reed shared a ghost story she remembered growing up.
"It was the most fun I've ever had," Vos says.
That conversation turned into "This Podcast Is Haunted," in which the women investigate the paranormal, unsolved, and other frightful tales, with diligent research and a little comedy mixed in.
When I met with the hosts, Halloween decorations were being taken down along many residential streets. The cold cloak of autumn snow had yet to blanket West Michigan, perhaps held off by the remaining mania of spooks and specters.
A Lyft driver dropped me off at their studio, and as the black hatchback drove off, I made out the license plate: DRAQULA.
Reed and Vos had decided on Shakespeare for their 64th episode. More specifically, the Scottish play, one of the Bard's darker productions.
Readers take note: superstition asks that the name "Macbeth" not be spoken aloud in, under, or above a theater, lest a curse befall those who do. And, while it's true more strange injuries, deaths, and bad luck have followed those who have acted in Hamlet over the last 350 years, there's no sense in breaking a good tradition. Prithee, thou hast been warned.
Macbeth sees the titular general fighting off insurrection under the banner of King Duncan, only to be overlooked for succession to the throne when Duncan anoints his son, Malcolm. Macbeth and his wife, informed by a trio of witches, soon find themselves complicit in the king's murder and the ouster of his lineage. Many more killings follow as the Macbeths attempt to cover the trail, eventually leading to their downfall and a final plot twist in which the witches' prophecies are proven right.
What makes this particular play even more eerie, Reed and Vos explain, is the fact that some believe Shakespeare employed actual incantations from a spell book to inform his witchy soliloquies, which is right where the hosts begin, with "Double double, toil and trouble."
Reed, with her handwritten notes, and Vos, with her laptop, spent the rest of the episode discussing the curses surrounding not only the ill-fated Macbeths, but the life, death, and afterlife of Shakespeare himself.
The internet is a fine tool for research, especially when it comes to investigating the darkest recesses of human knowledge. Paired with a microphone and some free audio editing software, Reed and Vos use Audacity, and they have the makings of a podcast.
"That's something that I really like about podcasting ... it is so accessible," Vos says. "But that's also why there's so many podcasts."
There is no guidebook for podcasting, not among the volumes of historical homicides in Reed's studio, at least. Without the right feedback, Reed says, it can be hard to pick out parts that need to be improved upon, or expanded. There is no tribunal of witches foretelling the success of episode 65. What is for certain is the shellacking some listeners are prepared to dole out when a factual error is committed, no matter how trivial.
"It's kind of a feast and famine out there," Reed says. "And you don't really know where you stand compared to podcasts that have more money but fewer fans. None of it matters."
Of course, some of it does, and when Reed found "This Podcast is Haunted" listed at number 13 on Bustle's list of "13 Spooky Podcasts About History That Will Hook You From Episode One," she phoned Vos at around 6 a.m. to share the news.
"She called me at the crack of dawn," Vos says.
"They put our little dog and pony show next to some really big shows," Reed says. "That was probably the most flattered I've ever been."
The article was written by Lucia Peters, a listener of the show who now has Reed's "undying devotion," which is another point of pride the women share: fans of This Podcast Is Haunted are exceedingly warm and polite to each other.
"That's probably my favorite thing about our podcast," Reed says "We've got the coolest, nicest fans. They're super aggressively nice."
The podcast's Facebook group comprises around 650 followers who may not always agree with one another on the specifics of a certain spooky origin story, but are more than happy to share resources.
"It's like the old school internet where you have all these different chat rooms, and people would have this community of friends that had never met and it was very idealistic and interesting," Vos says.
This isn't always the case with podcast fanbases, however. Shows like "My Favorite Murder," one of Reed's favorites, and "And That's Why We Drink," both focused on tales of horror, had to shut down parts of their community due to infighting and ugly comments.
On the comment boards of West Michigan podcasts, at least, the comments remain civil, so long as Reed and Vos are not comparing Robert the Doll to Annabelle.
Super Hungry the Podcast
Virginia Anzengruber, host of Super Hungry the Podcast, started recording episodes in 2015. It was a spur of the moment decision, she says.
Virginia Anzengruber"The theme for my first show, 'Super Hungry: Conversations with Not So Starving Artists,' came from the adage 'write what you know,'" she says. "I knew that I wanted to evolve my love for just talking to people into something creatively fulfilling, and at the time I was working as a film and TV Production Coordinator in Los Angeles. Like most people who work in that industry, I was kind of obsessed with this idea of a 'working artist' and what it means to be a 'success.'"
Anzengruber's brother Trevor Page is a musician who had converted his walk-in closet into a small recording studio. On one side of the cozy space, he placed a chair for someone to sit and record. On the other side sat his clothes, providing ad hoc sound proofing which worked best every laundry day.
"I knew that was all I needed to make something, so I started there," she says.
Anzengruber began "Super Hungry" by interviewing her artist friends in Los Angeles. From there, she branched out to their acquaintances and others she worked with in Hollywood.
"I think everyone has a compelling story, to be completely honest," she says. "It's about getting outside of yourself and listening — really listening — to connect with that commonality between us all, the human experience."
In her spare time, Anzengruber enjoys listening to "How Did This Get Made?," hosted by actors Paul Scheer, Jason Matzoukas, and June Diane Raphael, and produced by Scott Aukerman's (Comedy Bang Bang) Earwolf.
"Similar to my undying love for 'Mystery Science Theater 3000,' [HDTGM] relishes and celebrates the absurdity of movies in a really meticulous, unnecessary way, and as a filmmaker, I really love that," she says.
Well-funded productions like HDTGM have hundreds of episodes, and when Anzengruber isn't combing through the back catalog, she is also a fan of local shows "This Podcast is Haunted" and the "True Myth Media Podcast."
From the humble beginnings recording in her brother's closet, Anzengruber has since expanded her reach in podcasting, producing and hosting Fountain Street Church's "Listening At the Fire."
"It is a much more structured show, and focuses on history, spirituality, and the things that connect us all," she says.
Anzengruber has recorded 25 episodes of "Listening At the Fire" so far, with the second season planned to premiere in December.
"Each episode is actually a different format, and usually is generated by some kernel of an idea," she says. "I use that kernel as a springboard, and lean on our Archives Committee, who do a wonderful job of curating and cataloguing Fountain Street's vast and notable history, and local and regional experts to fill out my guest list and really hone in on who I should be talking to about a particular subject."
A common thread among podcasters is recording for the love of the work. Starting out, podcasters can't expect to command legions of shows a la Aukerman or Nic Silver at the Public Radio Alliance, each embedded with income-driving ads for Squarespace, Bonobos, or Bombas. The seed of a good idea may grow into something lucrative, but it takes years of cultivation.
For those considering getting into podcasting, Anzengruber recommends getting started now.
"Begin before you're ready and develop as you go along," she says. "Don't let the medium intimidate you."
The Grand Cast
Humor is an essential ingredient in many podcasts. In a few, it's the only ingredient. The hosts of The Grand Cast have chartered out a wider focus around comedians and their journey to the mic.
Chris Nichols and Josh Heller of Mint In It Productions mixed their sound engineering talents with comedy training and game design to develop The Grand Cast. The first four seasons of the show were hosted by Nichols, and covered comedians from across the stand-up, sketch, and improv scenes. The fifth season, produced by Bobby Phillips and Sarah Wenger, explores those interviews through video. The sixth season, now hosted by Angelika Lee, a professional communications and media strategist, leverages personal relationships with comedians — branching out to interview some actors, activists, and producers, in addition to performers.
"We look for the story to unfold in the conversation and to pursue connections organically," Lee says. "We don't assume that our audience knows everything our guests know, so we look to bring out the details of our stories — whether it's about comedy or the person — and paint a picture of our guests as real people."
Those real people are often friends or acquaintances of The Grand Cast hosts. Personal relationships provide a foundation for "An intimate conversation and dive in beyond the surface," Lee says.
As for how to dig up the most interesting and meaningful details in their guests' stories, the hosts rely on their listening skills. Episode four of season six, a nearly two-hour interview with Katie Fahey of Voters Not Politicians, provides a good example. Recorded just days before the 2018 midterm elections, Lee hears Fahey explain Proposal 2, which sought to end gerrymandering, before translating it through comedy.
Lee's ability to "Intentionally learn out loud," as the hosts describe it, brings a candid feel to the podcast, which has since expanded into a learning segment of the show called "I Don't Know What You Know."
Breaking the sound barrier
Accessibility is one big reason why podcasting has become so popular in recent years. Sharing live video or "stories" on social media is one way to broadcast but, as Anzengruber puts it, "People are more relaxed without a camera on them."
"I've seen firsthand for years the way that a camera lens can mess with someone's natural ability to present a true version of themselves," she says. "Most of the time people forget the microphone is even there, and that's when we can get into some really beautiful truths and vulnerabilities."
A quiet studio also provides the added benefit of focus, Lee says.
"Audio allows the guest and host to focus on the conversation and connect without the distraction of a camera," she says. "About halfway through an interview, there is often a moment where you forget you're being recorded. You've stopped trying to be funny or remember the show lineup of questions — and you're just listening."
This experience models the audience's much more than interviews in front of a camera — much less a studio audience — ever can. It also extends the connection. Video-based interviews demand the attention of eyes and ears, and podcasts allow the listener to go about their regular lives while tuned in.
"The show is allowed to be about more than just the subject," McDonald says. "It's about the people's lives."
There are thousands of podcasts to be found on nearly every topic imaginable, from the outright frightening to the driest discourses on academia, from courses on building new skills to the sounds of cats purring for 30 minutes straight, and on an equally varied selection of platforms. In West Michigan, even the hosts of these shows may not be personally familiar with one another, but meeting them in an intimate space is no simpler than putting on a pair of headphones and pressing play.
"It's a small community, but I think, in general, we really try to support each other because we're all trying to do the same thing — make human connections in a digital way,” Anzengruber says. “We guest on each other's shows, promote each other's work, and generally try to have each other's backs with advice, editing help, and emotional support.
“I think we just look out for each other, in whatever ways we can,” she adds.
Whether super hungry starving artist, well-fed dark tourist, or murderous neat freak obsessed with washing out that damned spot, there is much we can learn from listening. And likewise, there is much that podcasters can learn from those who listen.
NOTE: This is the first article in a two-part series covering local podcasters. This piece focuses on the experiences of established shows, while the next will explore the challenges faced by newcomers to the field.
Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected]
Photography by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.