Can you hear me now? Local podcasters come in loud and clear

Jenée Libby hosts the food podcast Edacious, which features face-to-face interviews with people in the local food scene.
Photo: Amy Jackson Smith Jenée Libby hosts the food podcast Edacious, which features face-to-face interviews with people in the local food scene. Photo: Amy Jackson Smith

Back in 2005, Apple CEO Steve Jobs declared that podcasting was “the next generation of radio.” When the company began supporting podcasts on iTunes that same year (so users could easily download the audio shows onto an iPod, where the name originated), the medium gained steam, and lately podcast consumption has exploded. Last year Apple Podcasts reached 50 billion all-time episode downloads and streams, soaring from 14 billion the year before.

Though it’s taken a decade for podcasts to fully capture the public’s attention, Charlottesville producers have been riding the rising wave: the city now boasts more than two dozen home-grown podcasts, from independent hidden gems to long-established flagships.

“A lot of the first and most successful podcasts out there are repurposed radio shows,” says Nathan Moore, general manager of UVA-based WTJU radio. “A podcast is like a radio show you can take with you and replay anytime.” In 2017, he launched the station’s online podcast network, TEEJ.fm, which now hosts more than a dozen locally-produced shows.

Many national broadcasts such as NPR’s news and conversation shows are now available as podcasts, and local stations like WINA post most of their programs in online subscription form as well. But an increasing number of independent producers skip the radio step entirely.

“It’s a funny medium because it’s so democratic that people can do it with almost no budget,” says local host Lorraine Sanders. Armed with a recording device (like a smartphone), and access to an internet platform to host the show (like a personal website or an app such as SoundCloud), anyone can dive into podcasting.

But while the barriers to entry are low, creating a successful podcast that attracts a following of loyal subscribers requires long-term planning and knowing your audience. Sanders hosts Spirit of 608, a widely-followed podcast that offers creative and media advice to aspiring fashion industry entrepreneurs. But she got into podcasting when she and a friend created a short-lived show called Underclothes, dreamed up on a whim over a glass or two of wine. “We said to ourselves, ‘we’re hilarious, people would love this, we should start a podcast,’” she laughs, “but of course it’s much more difficult than you think to make it good.”

Feed your brain

Podcasts can vary widely in both length and style. From a sixty-second music snippet to an hour-long interview, from almost wordless meditation to shrill political argumentation, from esoteric science reporting to immersive episodic fiction, there is truly a podcast for everyone. More than one, apparently—last year the average user listened to seven different podcasts each week.

For UVA neurologist Ted Burns,  producing a podcast has become an extension of his teaching. “In 2005, I wanted to help the neurology residents maintain their education once they’d moved on, and then I read that college students were taping their lectures and putting them on iTunes,” says Burns. “I thought, ‘well, that’s the answer.’”

He created a show, called simply Neurology Podcast, that features interviews with researchers who share their latest findings and insights, and allows its (physician) listeners to gain continuing education credit. In 2007, the research journal Neurology agreed to host it, and since then its audience has grown steadily, now boasting 45,000 downloads each week, over 18 million since its inception.

While some of the content is fairly technical, Burns also features relatable stories, such as his interview with Robin Williams’ widow on how she dealt with her husband’s dementia, and his own experience dealing with a sinus cancer diagnosis in 2013. He sees learning opportunities everywhere. “Our next goal is to be part of a voice-assisted ‘Tell me about my day’ type app,” he says, not entirely in jest. “As in, five minutes of NPR, the weather forecast, and then two minutes of neurology news.”

Ted Burns, a professor of neurology at UVA, started his podcast to help neurology residents maintain their education. Photo: Eze Amos

Community connection

While national shows often cover wider themes and larger events, local shows can cater to the more immediate community, and some try to do a bit of both. For instance, several limited podcast series recently focused on the events and aftermath of August 12th, such as A12, a six-episode series created by UVA professor Nicole Hemmer for the Miller Center, which explored the larger history behind the clash, and The Trial of James Alex Fields, local activist Molly Conger’s daily chronicle on TEEJ.fm of the court proceedings in the emotionally laden case.

Two long-standing, internationally-acclaimed radio shows produced by Charlottesville-based Virginia Humanities have successfully transitioned to the new medium. With Good Reason is an award-winning weekly broadcast carried on public radio stations nationwide that focuses on Virginia scholarship, culture, and history as well as topics of broader interest. Though the radio show has been established for more than two decades, the production began being distributed as a podcast a few years ago, bringing the elegantly crafted program, hosted by Sarah McConnell, to an on-demand audience.

Kelley Libby, the show’s associate producer, distinguishes between simple podcasting and “audio storytelling.” “A podcast can be just you, broadcasting your thoughts to the world, whereas audio storytelling makes an effort to relay a narrative,” using features like ambient sound, music, interviews, and historical context. Even a news show like the New York Times’ The Daily, “does a good job at transmitting the news through really awesome storytelling,” she says.

Libby is keenly interested in the possibilities of experimental forms of podcasting, and she’s been trying out new modes on her own podcast series American Dissent and UnMonumental, the latter of which features no narrator, only the voice of the interviewee. “I’m very interested in community storytelling, and [this style] feels more like a collaboration with the person, not as extractive,” she says. “It feels less like I’m taking ownership of a person’s story and more like I’m helping amplify a person’s own story through editing.”

UVA history professor Brian Balogh, co-host of Virginia Humanities’ second podcast, BackStory, remembers his show’s inception in 2008. “We laughed at the idea of anybody listening to three historians talking about history, and we’re still amazed,” he says. But people did tune in to the show, which was eventually picked up by over 200 public radio stations and now has moved to a podcast-only platform. “There’s more flexibility in terms of timing with a podcast,” he says. “A show may run 40 minutes or 60 minutes depending on the topic, and that’s fine because it doesn’t need to fit into a radio time slot.”

Balogh loves both radio and podcasts, and marvels at how much he himself has learned by making BackStory. “We try to convey our own struggle to understand the history of any topic,” he says, “so we hope not to come across as talking head experts but as fellow explorers of the meaning of history.”

Captain Bob Abbott hosts Coming Home Well, which addresses the mental well-being of soldiers returning from deployment.

A sense of purpose

Many podcasts venture far beyond news and entertainment to tackle deeply serious subjects for both the host and the audience. Support-oriented podcasts for victims of illness and trauma, for people grieving loss or battling addiction, serve as critical gathering places to listen, find help, and feel understood. Charlottesville podcaster and former Air Force Captain Bob Abbott’s weekly WINA radio show, Coming Home Well, which is also distributed as a podcast, addresses the mental well-being of soldiers returning from deployment.

“I started the show after returning from Afghanistan with PTSD and seeing a need, quite honestly, to do something to prevent veteran suicide, both for others and for myself,” says Abbott, who interviews veterans and specialists on topics like veteran homelessness and discrimination against females in the military. Abbott’s subject matter is close to his heart, and a powerful motivator. “So many people who start podcasts quit after a half-dozen episodes because they haven’t figured out why they are doing it,” he says. “My ‘what’ is veteran suicide, but my ‘why’ is my friends who have died. I know I can’t quit, because if I quit, I die.”

For those compelled to tell a story, why start a podcast instead of, say, writing a blog, book, or newspaper article, filming a video, or posting to Facebook or Twitter? One answer lies in the visceral impact on listeners of hearing voices and music through headphones or while driving. “Audio is a very affective medium, because our brains process sound information in a physical way,” says WTJU’s Moore. “Relying on audio alone produces a more emotion-driven experience.”

Sanders agrees, and points to latent psychological effects as well. “Before starting my own, I became obsessed with podcasts from a listener standpoint,” she says. “For me personally, it’s the most intimate form of media that exists. It’s more impactful than anything I read online in terms of how much I remember and the actions I take after listening, like going to look something up or making a purchase.”

Ellen Daniels, co-host and producer of Apropos of Something at WPVC radio, is motivated to communicate the stories of local people with a particular focus on social justice issues. “It’s a very creative process for me,” says Daniels, who has a journalism background. “I love to learn a person’s story, talk about what they’re doing, and then to try to bring that story out in an interesting way.” AOS is a rare live show, which means no do-overs or edits, and Daniels is proud of their 69 episodes thus far. “We do a lot of up-front research and pre-interviews so we can bring energy to the stories,” she says. “We’re really promoting our town.”

Most podcasters tend to be natural storytellers, extroverted and verbose, and passionate about their specialty. “When I was a kid, I had a Mr. Microphone, and I used to read the newspaper out loud,” says Jenée Libby, host of the food podcast Edacious (an archaic word meaning ravenous). “I always wanted to be a broadcaster.” Libby began writing a restaurant review blog called “Edible Charlottesville” in 2008, but quickly found she was more interested in the stories of the chefs than in the actual food. She wrote long chef profiles which she posted on her blog, eventually recording them in her voice, and finally made the leap to podcasting interviews of local and regional food industry people.

“I started by asking my friends in the industry to be on the show, and then asked them who I should talk to next,” says Libby, who only conducts face-to face-interviews. “Distance interviewing creates a bit of a wall where the connection to my guest isn’t as strong. I like to talk about deeper things, triumphs and challenges, where do you see yourself in the future.” Though she does all of her own post-production and distribution, Libby recently joined the TEEJ.fm network, hoping to find a group of other local podcasters to “meet up with and bounce ideas off each other.”

In 2017, WTJU general manager Nathan Moore launched the station’s online podcast network, TEEJ.fm, which hosts more than a dozen locally-produced shows. Photo: Eze Amos

Drop the mike

Nathan Moore is aiming for just that kind of vibe with TEEJ.fm. “Our network of podcasts hopes to sustain a model of community storytelling rooted in a place; everybody who’s involved here has a tie to UVA or Charlottesville or both,” he says, noting that joining the network is open to anyone at no cost and comes with great perks like studio space, training, and distribution for fledgling productions. “There’s a long tradition of documentary and idealistic storytelling in the public radio world, and the power of stories to bring us together informs a lot of what I want to do with TEEJ.fm.”

As smart cars, smart home speakers, and optimized mobile apps make podcasts easy to integrate into everyday life, usage stats are beginning to tell the tale. Last year, one quarter of all Americans over age 12 listened to podcasts regularly (one-third of 25- to 54-year-olds), and 12 million people tried a podcast for the first time in 2018. Producers believe there is enormous potential for reaching many more.

“There are lots of micro-audiences—groups who share a common set of values or interests or a physical place—that podcasters could consider when they’re thinking about their target listeners,” says Kelley Libby of Virginia Humanities.

For his part, Dr. Burns likes to envision the far-reaching ripple effect of educational podcasts. “I’ve been motivated by this idea that if we can make neurologists around the world smarter and better, then they can provide better care to their patients, and that’s pretty damn impactful,” he says.

For podcasters raising their voices, the world seems eager to lend an ear.