UIX: New podcasters find their footing in a crowd

Trying can be the first step to failure or success, it just depends on how well you listen.


Brian Kelly's day job as a photographer has put him in front of people like Eminem, Seth Meyers, and Amy Schumer, where the portrait is often accompanied by honest and intimate conversations most only dream of. Now that Kelly is recording these conversations for his podcast, Full Exposure with Brian Kelly, he has realized that he’s not always a fan of hearing his own voice.


“Editing is my least favorite part,” he says.


And that’s why he keeps doing it.


Full Exposure


Kelly is nearly finished with his first season as a podcaster. He sat on the idea for a full year before taking it any further.


“I can get kind of easily excited about something quickly,” he says. “If the idea is not good or it's not sustainable, regular life just takes over. I was smart enough at the time to say I'm going to wait a year and if there was still a voice telling me, ‘You should try this,’ then I’d do it.


Kelly set a goal of recording a few episodes a month for 12 months, and hopefully securing community-minded sponsorship to keep the project going.


So far, Kelly has recorded with film director and writer Joel Potrykus, DJ and clothing designer Adrian "AB" Butler, Verve Pipe frontman Brian VanderArk, and other close friends and people he just wanted to get to know better. When Metro Health signed on over the summer, Brian found himself with a little more freedom to listen to himself talk, and work on his questions.


Brian Kelly speaking with Adrian Butler.Kelly says one of the most impactful benefits of podcasting is its potential for proliferation. It's a passive medium, and Kelly assumes most listeners will be focused on other tasks while they're playing an episode, but the same content can be serialized across social media platforms, further enhanced by text and video.


"People might just consume that three- or four-minute portion of that conversation," he says. "For me, that's as much of a win as someone downloading a whole live cast and listening to it. You're still consuming some aspect of that conversation."


One way to make conversations stick is by making them unique. Kelly doesn't think the world needs another podcast of a host conducting surface-deep interviews ad nauseum. Chris Farley and Paul McCartney still hold the rights to that trope, anyway. What sets Full Exposure apart is the creative work that it's conceived from.


Kelly invites guests to his studio and takes the time to create a portrait, just like he's done for the past 20 years. As his lens searches for details in subtle gestures, Kelly looks for the same honesty and vulnerability through conversation, often leading to an entirely new insight on the subject, and on life.


During a visit to Los Angeles, one of the first outings Kelly planned after getting sponsorship, Kelly lined up five different guests to photograph at their homes. One was author Rob Bell, who coincidentally has his own show, the Robcast. Bell is most well-known for his work in spirituality; he was the lead pastor of the Mars Hill megachurch, and one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential people in the world in 2011. But at his home in LA, in a conversation with Kelly, he's just another human being with a stack of coffee table books in the living room and a daughter who needs to be picked up from school.


"That whole episode is one of my favorites," Kelly says. "I felt very nervous talking to him. He's toured with Oprah and is perceived as this guru, but I didn't know a lot about him."


While setting up lights and cameras for the portrait, Bell left to shuttle his daughter home, and Kelly was left with a few minutes to go through Bell's books. They were not what he expected.


"That's what I opened our conversation with," he says. "He has books from Ai Wei Wei, The Beastie Boys, Banksy. These are all subversive people. These are contrary. These are people that are railing against the machine of society.


"'So what is this that you're have in common, that you collect their art and their books?'" he asked Bell.


Brian Kelly interviewing Rob Bell."It was a good entry and it took us down a different type of path," Kelly says. "He knew it was not the normal interview podcast, and I just stumbled on it by accident."


Of course, Kelley doesn't expect to stumble into insight so often. He understands there's no replacement for showing up prepared. Research is a key component of setting up an episode of Full Exposure. Kelly looks into what his guests post on social media, their interests and passions, anything that might lead to some hidden detail. And during the conversation, he says, "You just rely on the guests giving you some nugget, and then you say, 'Wait a minute, wait. What you just glossed over? What does that really mean?'"


Just like he does with a camera, Kelly sets out to create an audio portrait of his friends and clients through Full Exposure. It’s a way of honoring them, and listening to them.


“There's nothing more flattering than when people really have an interest in you,” he says.

“I'm trying to create something of you and that in itself, the creative exchange we're having, makes us both kind of vulnerable. That lends itself, even in the moment, to some pretty revealing conversations with people I didn't even know at all.”


Michael McDonald, left, and Seth Steele, right, record True Myth Media together. True Myth Media


A journey of film and faith, True Myth Media is produced by Michael McDonald, Seth Steele, and Karl Nagurski. The team records weekly from a basement studio in Wyoming, though the project has seen a few iterations so far. McDonald had recorded a handful of trial episodes "just to get a little bit of a feel for the performance aspect of the show" in early 2018, but the podcast began in earnest once Steele joined the show that March.


"It was definitely hard at first, and to be honest, it continues to be hard," McDonald says. "People often talk about how technology has made access to audiences easier for individuals but that also is an incredibly deceptive idea.”


According to MusicOomph.com, “There are more than 700,000 active podcasts and more than 29 million podcast episodes” online today. On iTunes alone, as of 2018, there were at least 550,000 podcasts and 18.5 million episodes available for download.


Seth Steele"With more shows and media streams available than ever, people's entertainment options are wider than ever," he adds. "If you are a results driven, success-adrenaline junkie then podcasting is a big letdown when you go weeks with only a few listeners."


Conversely, the challenge of earning visibility in a crowd can also inspire better content. McDonald says it forces producers to be realistic and earnest about working together in the same community.


"The biggest breakthrough I had was when I realized I wasn't getting my show in front of the right audience and reached out for help to another podcaster, Virginia Anzengruber, for advice," he says. "The DIY/we're-all-learning-together nature of the community could make you feel a bit lonely if it wasn't for that community."


Anzengruber, now a veteran podcaster and host of the Super Hungry Podcast and Fountain Street Church's Listening At The Fire, once found herself in much the same situation. It was early on that feedback provided the biggest impact.


"I would be nowhere in podcasting today if it weren't for the people who said 'yes' to me really early on, and who took the time to offer constructive criticism," Anzengruber says. "That's so, so important. And as long as you're enjoying it, keep doing it."


True Myth Media sets out to explore film in a manner that traditional Christian film critics have shied away from.


"Most Christian Film discussions end up being simple catalogues of what films have objectionable content or exercises in overtly prejudiced opinions against Christian film," the hosts point out on their Facebook page. "As a result, there is little space for thoughtful consideration and a middle ground stance. This site attempts to be that space."


According to McDonald, True Myth Media also fights against "the easy consumption of whatever is currently popular."


"Art is a conversation," he says. "If you only talk about the movies you like, that is a monologue, not a dialogue.


"We are interested in art house films, so we talk about them," he adds. "We are interested in Star Wars, so we talk about them. We are interested in foreign films, so we talk about them. Personally, I also like to discuss movies that others are interested in hearing our takes on."


McDonald and crew look for films that evoke challenging ideas, and promote spiritual, emotional, or relational development. And that can be a challenge sometimes, even when the cinematography is impressive.


"Art is about connection to something larger [than the] craft," McDonald says. "How do you draw that out in a podcast or highlight it for others? That's the struggle of art."


The answer to art is found in conversations around it, he says, and that's what True Myth Media sets out to do.


"We talk about the way that art moves us and hope that others are intrigued enough to watch the film based on our conversation."


McDonald's journey into podcasting was largely guided by a lack of money and educational opportunities. He went through several iterations of what he considered a potential career, "whether it was an interest in being a pastor, game designer, filmmaker, writer, woodworker, or comedian."


He supported himself and his hobbies through factory work for about a decade, typically wearing headphones for eight to 10 hours a day while running welding machines. "Listening, learning, and devouring" podcasts since the early 2000s helped McDonald improve his skills and opened his ears to the possibility of doing the same for a career.


At first, all it took was a microphone.


"I hesitate to think how much of a professional life I would even have without the things I've learned through podcasting," he says. "I think the reason I ended up starting my own show is because of the accessibility of the medium. I kept finding that I was having these interesting conversations with people and wanted a way to share their ideas with other people."


Since those first few episodes, McDonald has also discovered that the most important equipment in podcasting is a good location. Location plays a role in audio quality, which helps build confidence in your voice, he says.


"Nothing is more discouraging than listening to your show and realizing it sounds like garbage because you can hear the traffic in the background or your roommate wouldn't put off loading a huge pile of laundry into the washer just as you sat down to record," McDonald says.


Having a controlled, stable environment also makes it a lot easier to troubleshoot issues when they show up in playback. It's arguably more important than an expensive microphone, though the right equipment may still be a worthwhile investment.


"A great mic still sounds terrible in a noise-unfriendly environment," McDonald says. "But, once you start looking to invest, never buy the cheapest or most expensive things out there. There is a severe law of diminishing returns curve as audio equipment gets more pricey."


Conspiracy Therapy


Podcasting wasn't even a consideration for Josh and April Shoup until mutual friend Ryan Harig brought up the idea and invited them to join him on the mic for a show called "Conspiracy Therapy." Harig compares the experience to starting bands in high school, but rather than finding apt musicians, he was looking for people who were funny.


Co-host Larry Niece brought experience in audio engineering and stand-up comedy to the group, having previously worked with Harig on podcasts The Eephus and Beer City Spaceship, an improv show.


The cohort from Conspiracy Theory.
"The experience is vastly different," Harig says. "I would say we found where our strengths were and followed those."


Niece uses elements of the sound board, characters, and comedy elements from BCS in the production of Conspiracy Therapy, which now puts out a new episode every Monday morning, covering such topics as ancient aliens, secrets of the Paris catacombs, Atlantis, and Lorena Bobbit.


For Josh, podcasting "just felt right," and April agrees, though finding their place in Conspiracy Therapy took some work. Josh had done some podcasts before, but they were not as focused on being funny.


"Those were all video game-focused, and so it was very different for me coming into it, and having essentially to figure out where my spot was in the show, and the role that I was going to play was very difficult in the beginning," he says. "I know that we had a lot to figure out."

April, meanwhile, had no prior experience.


"I really have no background in it at all," she says. "I just like to hang out and talk, which I guess is really the only prerequisite to being a podcaster."


According to the other members, April was quick to adjust. After appearing as a guest on her first episode, it was an easy decision to ask her back as a host.


For the first few dozen episodes, the team was distributed. They recorded their parts remotely from home, and soon discovered this was draining the energy out of the show. Niece reached his limit by episode 27, "Chemtrails."


"When we were doing them from home — that was rough," Niece says. "I felt everybody was trying to occupy the same space and I had literally typed up an 'I quit' letter to Ryan and decided to sit on it."


In the same room, it's much easier for the four to play off each other. There is no script. All the episodes are recorded "live," like an improv show.


"We see each other’s reactions and faces and work with that," Josh says. "We feed off each other.”


Connecting online gives the hosts freedom to work from home but it also leaves gaps in the conversation. Those pauses, even just two to three seconds at a time, can have a negative impact on the authenticity of their reactions.


"There’s no energy in the room when you’re by yourself," Niece says. "My goal when I’m doing this is to get Josh to laugh the way he laughs. That’s what I’m aiming for. And, sometimes I’m trying to get Ryan to make a sound on the microphone while he’s laughing."


Those laughs are critical to this quartet, so long as they are earned in face-to-face conversation.


Each week, the Conspiracy Therapy team brainstorms ideas to talk about, sometimes informed by an internet thread or a rumor, or even requests from fans.


"We have a fan vote every month where we put two subjects up and the fans vote on what they want to listen to," Niece says.


A comedic undertone is one prerequisite of the show, which also drives the topic exploration, though inspiration is hardly a science. Sometimes, the group just gets a good idea and runs with it.


"There are certainly times where we just realize we haven’t covered a subject and that’s enough to get the wheel turning on that idea," Harig says.


True crime is popular fodder for podcasts ever since Serial first perked ears up to the case of Adnan Sayed and MailChimp. In the last year, Conspiracy Therapy has found interest there, too, now discussing the lives and mystery of serial killers throughout history.


For Niece, the selection process is pretty simple.


"It’s gotta have controversy, with conspiracies," he says. "It’s the gory details of the serial murders. It’s the guttural reaction to that sort of thing."


Comedy may not seem like the most natural tone for such a dark subject, and it can be a challenge to work that angle in, but the team accomplishes that feat during episodes on cryptids and other mythical monsters. From unicorns to the kraken, batsquatch to sheepsquatch, it's clear the Conspiracy Therapy hosts have a good time discussing sightings of these creatures, often with a generous measure of defanging. The fearsome squonk, for example, a mysterious ever-weeping monster reported in the forests of Northern Pennsylvania, loses a bit of its malice after being compared to a doleful Eeyore with lip blisters.


"A lot of the cryptids that we’ve done are easier to make comedic," April says. "We’ve picked cryptids that have very little information about them just because we know we can riff on it for an hour."


The crew had little understanding of where the Conspiracy Therapy podcast would take them when they started recording. When they first saw an episode hit 100 downloads, emotions ran high.


"With the growth we’ve had over the past three years, I don’t think it’s anything any of us expected but it’s been such a cool ride," Josh says.


A cool ride, to be sure, but often challenging.


"You’re going to have times when you have somebody questioning whether or not it’s worth it or if it’s getting stagnant, and the beautiful thing about the four of us is that we always are able to pull each other out of feeling that way and continue to do the best that we can," Josh says.


And that's why it's been so enjoyable.


"We went into it doing it for us — we weren’t doing it for anyone else, but it struck a chord with people and now we are doing it for other people."


For those looking to follow in the waveforms of these or other established podcasts, the Grand Rapids Community Media Center offers podcast workshops for free, while GRTV and WYCE can provide public access resources that could help newly minted show hosts get over the initial friction of those first few episodes.


From nailing down a theme, to securing a location, to wrangling guests, there are many different challenges that can stump new podcasters, but that's also part of the fun. For many, these benefits far outweigh the frustration.


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.

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