The Rise of Minnesota Podcasters
Sharon Stiteler, aka the Birdchick, and husband Bill during a recording session at their dining room table. Photos by TJ Turner.
The word “podcast” is a portmanteau of “iPod” and “broadcast,” and was coined by a writer for The Guardian newspaper back in 2004. Until recently, the growth in both the creation of, and audience for, these on-demand broadcasts has been slow. A recent report by Edison Research shows that fewer than half of the adults surveyed were even aware of podcasts.
“It’s an education thing,” says Steve Nelson, of American Public Media. “Once you learn about podcasts, you listen like crazy.” As a 20-year veteran of traditional radio and Interim Director of On-Demand, Nelson can speak to both worlds. “One of the great advantages of podcasting is that the barrier to entry is so low—you don’t have to convince hundreds of people to put you on the radio. In podcasting, if you believe you have something worthy to say, you simply record it and put it out there.”
As a result, the growth and perhaps the future of podcasting is no longer coming from the entertainment, media, and business industries but from ordinary individuals with a particular subject of interest and a passion to be heard. Individuals like you, your friends, and your neighbors.
Take a look into the living rooms of some of your neighbors as they record and stream out their personal podcasts.
Sharon Stiteler is a federal park ranger with a passion for birding. She’s been blogging as “The Birdchick” since 2004 and in 2011 noticed that there were no regularly produced birding podcasts, so she decided to start her own.
“It wasn’t created for hardcore birders,” Sharon says, “but rather to just raise awareness about birds and provide a straightforward reading of three or four bird-related news items per episode.” Sharon’s husband, Bill, was going to take care of the recording and uploading of the podcasts but almost immediately jumped into the recording session with snarky comments. “He’s a natural misanthrope,” Sharon says, “and it turned out that listeners liked it.” The Birdchick podcast—which airs roughly once a week—is currently built on the dynamic between Sharon and her husband, who is now referred to as “non-birding Bill.” “My job has become to show up for the scientific news and be the uneducated jerk—which I think I do very well,” he says.
The appeal of Birdchick is its rawness and honesty. The show, which has 198 episodes as of this writing, is recorded primarily at their dining room table. They have a drink or two, and sometimes on the recording you’ll hear the squawking of their cockatiel in the background or Bill’s scoffs, snorts, and near-audible rolling of the eyes. You feel like you’re listening in on a real marriage—one that allows for equal measures of affection and annoyance.
If Birdchick is the sound of a marriage, then XOXOJK is the sound of an intense friendship. Kate O’Reilly is XOXO (hugs and kisses), the Pollyanna. Jenn Schaal is JK (Just Kidding), the critic. The show was born of rough times. Schaal, a standup comedian, was wildly unhappy with her job, her health, and her life. O’Reilly, a writer, was going through a divorce after being married for 10 years and a stay-at-home mom for eight of the years.
XOXOJK is a hard show to categorize. It’s funny, but it’s not a comedy podcast. It deals expressly with issues women face in their everyday lives, but isn’t a political podcast. It’s not a hangout show, where friends get together to talk about whatever is on their mind. XOXOJK is more of a personal journal where they parlay their experiences into teachable moments for listeners. O’Reilly and Schaal can do things in a recording medium that they couldn’t do in a written form, especially on the web, which can be an incredibly hostile place for women.
“There’s something about recording as opposed to writing it down,” O’Reilly says.
“This is a perfect medium. I feel safe. I don’t feel like I’m ever about to over-expose myself. If I were to put a statement on Facebook or tweet it then it’s in front of you,” Schaal says. “The words are dropped like a load of concrete. It’s there for you to react to. But with a podcast, people actually have to come to you to hear what you’re saying. You have to take the next step. People are choosing to be here.”
LEVI WEINHAGEN (LEFT) INTERVIEWS LAURA HOLWAY AND BEN MCGINLEY FOR A PRATFALLS OF PARENTING PODCAST.
The Pratfalls of Parenting
St. Paul native Levi Weinhagen is a comedian, arts administrator, and producer of multiple podcasts. Like many podcasters he’s turned his life experiences into a show. When Weinhagen was in his twenties he was a professional improviser at the Brave New Workshop. Then he became a father. “My comedy was fundamentally changed by parenthood,” Weinhagen says. “I had a kid and suddenly I started making work that was different.”
Through his show,The Pratfalls of Parenting, Weinhagen now explores one of his pet obsessions: the intersection between making art and being a parent. This could be heard in a recent episode where Weinhagen’s interviewing style was highlighted in a dialogue with choreographer Laura Holway and videographer Ben McGinley. A carefree discussion touched on the couple’s journey as artists and parents, and provided a compelling picture of a relationship’s change and growth.
Because Pratfalls is a podcast, Weinhagen is free to construct his show as he pleases—unrestricted by time, format, and genre constraints. Over the course of 150+ episodes, he’s interviewed comedians, opera singers, filmmakers, and even a musician/theoretical physicist. Weinhagen might spend a half hour or more delving into his guests’ arts practice before talking about their roles as a mother or father.
Weinhagen considered doing this project as a blog, but felt the podcast form was superior. “As a writer you’re always trying to breathe life back into the words,” he says. “The writer has to revive the quote. But with a podcast, it's all preserved automatically.”
TOTES RECALL PODCASTERS, (LEFT TO RIGHT) MOLLY CHASE, DAN LINDEN, BETH GIBBS, AND DAN JAQUETTE SETTLE IN FOR A NIGHT OF RECORDING.
Other advantages of podcasting over standard radio is that in most cases there are no advertisers to please, no time or format restraints, and no audience expectations to meet. The movie podcast Totes Recall is a good example of a free-flowing effort. The inspiration for the show happened at a Halloween party. Improvisers Molly Chase, Dan Linden, Beth Gibbs, and Dan Jaquette were trying to recall the details and twist ending for the movie Little Children, which promoted a conversation about how our memories of movies are slippery at best. Chase said she recently re-watched E.T. and was shocked by the ending. “I remember ET’s mom waiting for him,” she says. “But if you watch the end of the movie, there’s not a mom character.”
Thus,Totes Recall was born. The first half of each podcast is the windup. The group gathers around a microphone and tries to piece together the plot, characters, and tone of an iconic film, such as The Matrix, Jumanji, or Freaky Friday. “We have the person who remembers the least describe it the most,” Chase says. If you don’t know the movie in question well, then the first half of the show is both hilarious and excruciating to listen to as the person stumbles through the description.
The group then takes a break to re-watch the movie—often for the first time in years. The second half of the show consists of them reacting to the movie as culture and an artifact of their lives. Whose memory was correct? Who was dead wrong? Did the movie hold up? And most important, how have they changed as people since they first viewed the film years ago?
Because podcasting is an on-demand medium, listeners to Totes Recall interact in creative ways. Some fans play along at home. “They like to listen to the first half,” says Linden. “Then they pause the show, watch the movie and come back and listen to the rest of the podcast. Others like to watch the movie first and laugh at us for not remembering.”
VETERAN RADIO AND PODCAST PERSONALITY TOM BARNARD JOINS HIS RECORDING CREW FOR ONE OF THEIR DAILY PODCAST SHOWS.
Podcasting has a future and you could be part of it
Podcasting may have a way to go before it’s a mainstream medium, but its effect on mainstream broadcasting is already being felt. Every major radio outlet is at least experimenting with the form. Veteran radio personality Tom Barnard started a podcast network in 2012. In addition to his duties on KQRS’s Morning Show, Barnard also hosts a daily podcast with his wife, Kathryn Brandt, his daughter, Alex, and son, Andy. His podcast network showcases local personalities such as comedian Louie Anderson and radio talk-show host TD Mischke.
Barnard’s attitude toward the medium of podcasting points to the future. For Barnard, the appeal of podcasting is no different than the appeal of Amazon or television on demand. “When I embarked on this, people looked at me as if I was out of my mind,” Barnard says. “Today, I look at commercial radio and I think they better figure out how to build a digital business in a hurry. Do what the people want, not what you think they want.” Barnard also encourages people who aspire to be in broadcasting to take the plunge. “When I was 14 years old, I realized I wanted to be in radio” Barnard says. “I didn’t realize how complicated it was or how lucky I was that I got to do it. You don’t have the restrictions I had when I was 14. I think that is very, very exciting.”