Podville: Dissecting Knoxville’s Thriving Podcast Scene

 

Erin Donovan at Wild Love

 

The pod people are taking over Knoxville.

For the uninitiated, a podcast tends to be an episodic, pre-recorded audio program posted to a website or available for download or streaming through a service like iTunes. Most credit the origin of the format to radio stations preserving and archiving popular specialty shows (more on that in a minute) and tech insiders and creatives pouncing on new digital mediums as a means of releasing audio content. With music having dominated radio airwaves for decades, many also see the podcast as a vehicle for the triumphant return of long narratives and thoughtful discussion to the forefront of American popular culture.

Nationally, true-crime podcasts like Serial have proved to be engaging listens for large and attentive audiences. Among Hollywood circles and the circuit of underground and hopeful stand-ups, the comedy podcast has become both a staple and a currency. Marc Maron’s WTF podcast started the trend, spawned countless imitations, became so popular that it inspired an original television series on IFC and even attracted the attention of then-President Barack Obama, who visited Maron’s home (garage) studio in 2015 to sit down for an in-depth interview with the humorist.

While it has not progressed to anywhere near that level, the podcast scene in Knoxville has been building slowly but steadily for several years now. When my songwriter friend Adeem the Artist and I decided to start our songwriting podcast, Tune Boys, together a few months back and realized we knew almost nothing about the local podcast scene, I decided to investigate.

Radio shows like WUTK’s Marble City Radio Company automatically digitize their broadcasts into podcasts and release the links for streaming via their social media pages. WDVX specialty shows like Tennessee Shines, the 6 O’Clock Swerve and the Blue Plate Special all catalogue their sessions in the archives. Radio stations attempting to preserve their popular programs probably caused the initial creation of the format; the advent of transportable technologies like the iPod that allowed for mass storage and convenient consumption likely propelled the medium to its current popularity.

Jody Collins is a man about town, and over years he’s become somewhat of a podcast disciple/missionary to the local scene. He’s always meeting a client for coffee somewhere to discuss layouts for his Feral Giant graphic design company, taking shots of someone’s left-behind cigarette that might end up as artistic black-and-white photographs in a gallery showing at Central Collective (one of his favorite spots to frequent) or supporting local artists like Hannah Bingham by linking to her Patreon page and posting Instagram pictures of the art she sends him.

Collins first got into the world of podcasts by searching iTunes for music and comedy. He would find new bands via podcasts presented by radio stations like KEXP and KCRW. “That’s how I found a lot of music,” he says. “There weren’t a lot that were long-form talking; that didn’t come until later.” Then it was talk podcasts, mainly those centered on comedians waxing more serious and thoughtful about current events or their personal lives, that captured his attention. “I bought the first-gen iPad and listened to the Maron WTF podcast with Robin Williams.” Through that episode (67, FYI), he found several others and became an avid podcast consumer.

Collins has two podcasts, Ramblin’ Man and Southern Charm. A friend of his, Michael May, is from Florida but recently moved to Minnesota. Collins says that Southern Charm is “a positive … podcast of me reacquainting Southern culture” to his transplanted pal.

“He is a comic book writer,” Collins says. “I’ve known him since 2003. Him and a buddy have their own podcast called Hellbent for Letterbox. The reason why I started the podcast with him was he said, ‘I think I crossed the dark side, and I prefer pickled okra over fried okra.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, hell no.’” There’s been about five episodes thus far, with May handling the production.

Ramblin’ Man is recorded on a portable Zoom H6 device and is modeled after what Joe Rogan and Ari Shazir do with their exploratory talk podcasts. The concept stems from one night on the roof of Central Collective in which Collins ended up having a two-hour conversation with Joaquin Schmidt and Shawn Poynter. Schmidt hangs art in people’s homes in Boston, and Poynter has won national awards for his photography, which has been featured in such prestigious publications as New York Magazine. “At the end I was like, ‘Dammit, I wish I had recorded that,’” Collins says.

The first episode of Ramblin’ Man is three hours of Collins talking to Erin Donovan at Wild Love Bakehouse about her mountain biking trip to the Czech Republic. So the Ramblin’ Man name comes from that double meaning: recording on location at various places where his guests are comfortable and then letting the conversations ramble wherever it will go so that they can reveal deeper truths and take interesting turns. He talks in one episode with Adam Kennedy and his wife about their mission trip to Brazil. In another, his friend explains fantasy football to him in depth. There is an episode in which Collins discusses motherhood with Erin Slocum and Katt Torbett before turning the topic to fatherhood and speaking with their respective husbands, Ben and Russ.

“It forces me to talk to a friend for a really long time about what would usually be a 10-minute anecdote,” Collins says. “I’m an idiot, and I crack jokes, but … I don’t know that anyone will listen to it. But … I think it’s two things: I think it was born out of how late-night talk shows were seven-minute canned answers while long forms are conversations, but they are conversations with no bounds. That’s number one. Number two: In forcing people to talk about something for so long, you force them to find more nuances. For example, in the motherhood one, we ended up deep-diving on teachable moments.”

For Collins, a jovial, convivial sort who loves attending concerts, eating out with folks and traveling on road trips to design conventions, it may surprise people to know that his love of podcasts has reached such epic proportions that, on some travel or work days, he can totally lose himself in them. They even can envelop everything he does.

Katt Torbett & Erin Slocum

“I’ve tried doing the speed-up thing, but that is nuts to me,” Collins says. “But it is the main form of media that I take in per day. I would bet that, if I get up and work all day, I could do 14-15 hours [of podcasts] a day. I rarely turn my TV on anymore. Music I get way behind where it’s more completely background noise or very focused. It’s fascinating.”

Gene Priest may have one of the best record collections in Knoxville, and his podcast Sharing Needles With Friends finds him and co-host Derek Jones dissecting all the latest indie releases or going on tangents, like they did with their recent series about music conspiracy theories, including a segment on the deaths of Biggie and Tupac. They’ve also featured Q&A episodes in which they spend a whole or partial episode fielding questions sent in by fans. Sometimes they even take pics and videos of what they’re doing – like footage of a Matt Honkonen solo performance when he guested on the show – and post them to their social media pages for crossover content. It’s hard to gauge the popularity of local podcasts, and BLANK didn’t get a chance to talk to the SNWF guys before press time. But the longevity of the series and the amount of interactivity on the podcast’s Instagram and Facebook pages suggests a sizable following.

Supercult is the mysterious new brainchild of Dale Mackey, the proprietor of Dale’s Fried Pies and a Central Collective co-owner. As long as she can remember, Mackey has maintained a fascination with cults, and according to cryptic posts on the podcast’s teaser Instagram account, the podcast plans to investigate different sects each episode, as Mackey seemingly will simultaneously take elements of what worked for them to develop her own kind of rabid following through the podcast medium.

One Fall or 60 Minutes is the first in what Mitch Wheeler hopes will become a network of podcasts he calls Stage Diver Radio. Wheeler recently left 94Z after a decade in corporate radio, and he has been enamored with the idea of building his own podcast series based around what fascinates other people. “The point of the network is … everybody is passionate about something, regardless of whether I understand it or not,” he says.

Speaking of passion, Wheeler’s old buddy, the aforementioned Kennedy, is deeply passionate about classic professional and semi-professional wrestling – to the point where he would get in heated arguments with others over wrestling trivia, where he invested his own time and money training and developing characters and where he was wrestling semi-professionally in the local United Wrestling Alliance in Alcoa a few years back as villain character Edward Idol, Ph.D. The “Ph.D.” part is a play on the taunts he used to get in the ring when fans found out he was in grad school in real life and would say things like, “Don’t you have to go home and do your homework?”

Kennedy says he found out about Wheeler leaving 94Z and his plans to start the podcast network, and the gears in his head immediately began spinning. “I was like, ‘How can I scheme my way to be a part of this?’ I don’t know hardly anyone who can talk pro wrestling more than me … and he keeps buying nice equipment for me to talk wrestling into.”

“With wrestling, there’s so much to it,” Wheeler explains. “I want to talk about wrestlers or parts of wrestling in depth.” For example, the name comes in where the group might focus a whole podcast on one specific “fall” (a dive) or a move from a specific match and deconstruct it; on another, they may go more long-form and talk about multiple topics and people in a more general, long-form, rambling free-for-all that may go for more than an hour (the 60 Minutes). The group’s first cast, for example, focused on the career of Kane, now known simply as Glenn Jacobs, candidate for Knox County Mayor.

“Archie Hamilton” is the pseudonym for a mysterious third member of the podcast team who used to join the trio for many of their Alcoa exploits. He prefers not to use his real name for the podcast, Wheeler says, because “the shit he says on here could get him fired from his job,” eliciting a peal of laughter from Hamilton, a ribald character in parachute pants holding a championship belt as he speaks. “It’s all about talking about different points of view and not getting hot about it,” he says.”

One Fall or 60 Minutes has accounts on Twitter and Instagram, and it can be found on the iTunes podcast tab, Google, Stitcher and Tune In. Stage Diver Radio plans to incorporate more podcasts with time.

Cheese and Rice is the brainchild of renowned local chef Jessica Hammonds and ace musician Seth Hopper, fiddler for Kukuly and the Fuego, Christabel and the Jons and, most recently, Scott Miller. With an ever-rotating slew of locations and panels of guests, the two cover food, music, art and more. There is a zany, tongue-in-cheek tilt to the program, and Hopper says that he has fun editing in special sound effects to enhance the aural dissociative experience to trippy and humorous effect.

Humble Beer Podcast, is the most prolific, well-known Knoxville podcast thus far. Run by Chris Hill and D.J. Loope, the duo has been responsible for recording more than 35 episodes since 2015. “We’re constantly working on finding new people to record and interview and talk to,” Hill says. The two have done such intense, in-depth coverage of the local and regional craft beer scene that they recently procured Tennessee Craft Beer Magazine as the podcast’s official sponsor. “They’re enabling us to travel around the state and follow the craft beer scene where it takes us,” Hill says. “And it has been fun.”

Describing the nascent stages of the endeavor, Hill says, “We started out using a lightweight Tascam recording unit but graduated from that.” Now they use sophisticated XLR interfaces with phantom power and multiple mics. Hill serves as the play-by-play man, while Loope provides color commentary.

“With beer, it’s … we like drinking it,” Hill jokingly explains of the podcast’s simple and name-appropriate origins. “We drink lots of it, and that’s how we both got into it.” Hill is also the committee chair for the Knox Area Brewers Association, and he is particularly proud of having helped create the Knoxville Ale Trail guide – a full-color, printed brochure that features a comprehensive listing of local breweries and a map showing each location relative to one another.

“With D.J., we actually met at the church we both went to, but we went to pint nights at Downtown Grill & Brewery, and I was like, ‘Dude, you know the craft beer scene.’” Hill says. “As far as the podcasting, as a kid, I was really into radio … I had been thrown into the midst of one by being there and thought, ‘That’s it? That’s all you do this whole podcast with?’ I really got the bug to do it. I told D.J., ‘If all we ever got out of this was free beer, it will pay for itself,’ and that it has. I have learned a lot about the craft beer industry, and it has been a fun experience.”

Last May, the team went to Highland Brewing Co. in Asheville, North Carolina, to do a live show on a Monday on the big performance stage with Oscar Wong, founder of the brewery, and his daughter, Lea, now the president and CEO of the company, as well as its head brewer.

“We had a very fun podcast with them, but honestly [it] ended up being a disappointment because of audio issues,” Hill says. “But we still had great video and a great experience, and Highland asked us back.”

The episodes range from 20 minutes to an hour, but each one may involve several hours of setting up at a brewery, touring, sampling or talking beforehand in preparation for a show – all of which can make things get a little loose if the guys aren’t careful. “Hanging out for four hours and then trying to record, that’s where it gets dangerous,” Hill says. “But yeah, we typically try to pace ourselves pretty well. Usually taping would be the first thing we do.”

Humble Beer Podcast’s next episode will be with Alex Violette, one of the World Beer Cup-winning brewers from Elkmont Exchange, the newly opened brewery and restaurant on North Broadway not far from downtown.

Humble Beer Podcast is available via every major outlet (iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play) and on its website (humblebeerpodcast.com). Hill and Loope also are active on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

All of these folks offer engaging perspectives of a burgeoning art form, but surely this is just the tip of the iceberg. As podcasts continue to grow in popularity, it’s likely that the number of local productions will swell accordingly. The market already may be saturated with a wealth of content, but the public, understandably, appears to have an insatiable appetite for what’s being proffered: authentic conversation, thoughtful dialogue and folks talking openly about their passions. If nothing else, the platform offers listeners insights into unfamiliar subjects, and something just might catch their interest – even if it comes in the form of an interesting anecdote or two about a novel topic.

And if you’re interested in joining the podcasting ranks, barriers for entry are few and far between. Get a mic, an adapter jack and a laptop, and you’ll be good to go in no time flat. (Although you may want to consider splurging for a mixer interface and sound editing software for maximum effect.) So what will your podcast be about?

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