THREE YEARS AGO, I stopped riding my bike. Not because I was traumatized by an accident, or bought a car, or suddenly got even lazier—no, my bike's banishment to the basement came because I started listening to podcasts. I'm too much of a safety-baby to bike while wearing headphones, so rather than curtail my burgeoning obsession, I started taking the bus.
But my conversion to podcasts came late. By 2010, the Mercury had already entirely ceased producing in-house podcasts—they were too time consuming to produce and didn't make enough money to justify the effort we were expending. The New York Times came to the same conclusion in December 2011, when they announced they'd be cutting their once-robust podcast program down to three (months later, it's down to two). The internet is full of dead podcasts and iTunes playlists that haven't been updated in months—many of the local corpses are casualties of pdx.fm's collapse in 2011. (More on that in a minute.) But if certain people—and certain media outlets—have given up on the medium, finding it too time consuming or difficult to monetize, podcasts are still undeniably thriving.
Marc Maron's comedian-interview show WTF has the highest profile in a dense network of comedy and pop-culture podcasts that includes Earwolf's Comedy Bang Bang, now a TV show with a tour that hits Portland on August 2; the ever-expanding Nerdist empire (which includes the invaluable Nerdist Writer's Panel, interviews with TV writers and showrunners); Jesse Thorn's Maximum Fun empire (helmed by the newly christened Bullseye, formerly The Sound of Young America); the essential Slate magazine family of podcasts, which range in topics from politics to digital etiquette to movies to lexicography; and far too many more to mention.
Podcasts are arguably more relevant than ever—so it's big news that one-time Portland podcasting hub pdx.fm is about to rejoin the fray as a centralized hot spot for locally based podcasts.
Some backstory: In 2009, Robert Wagner began hosting Portland-based podcasts at pdx.fm. The site streamed a wide variety of content, like the app-review show iPhone Slutz, the interview-oriented Strange Love Live, and Wagner's own Portland Sucks, which at its peak averaged 70,000 listeners. Wagner provided free hosting and streaming services to local podcasts; commercial sidework helped offset the costs of maintaining the site, though he estimates he still spent thousands of dollars weekly on server costs. In fall of 2010, Wagner "made the terrible decision to rebrand," as he puts it, renaming the site "cascadia.fm" in anticipation of a planned expansion into Seattle's podcast market. When the expansion fell through, Wagner says, "That was the point at which things became too much business, not enough fun," and he sold the cascadia.fm name, streaming servers, and other proprietary software in November 2011.
But this September, Wagner plans to relaunch pdx.fm—in name if not in form. Wagner is developing pdx.fm as an app, essentially a local alternative to Stitcher or iTunes' new podcast app. The new pdx.fm will allow listeners to create their own playlists of Portland podcasts on their iPhone and eventually Android, providing both a branding boon and a chance for like-minded podcasts to piggyback on each other's fanbases. (On Tuesday, July 24, Wagner will also relaunch Portland Sucks at pdxsucks.com.)
Pdx.fm offers a way to organize the podcasting experience around a local focus, for both podcasters and listeners. And while this might help podcasts grab more ears, even Portland's podcasting success stories have learned that making money as a podcaster requires a constant hustle. Or, as local podcast entrepreneur Bobby "Fatboy" Roberts bluntly puts it, "Podcasting cannot be your primary source of income. You need to have a second job."
Roberts is the co-host—with Cort Webber—of cortandfatboy, a massively popular news and pop-culture show broadcasting daily at cortandfatboy.com. Despite the popularity of the show—most episodes receive between 25,000-30,000 listeners—and supplementary events like their Midnight Movie series at the Bagdad and hosting Things from Another World's Geek Trivia, both Webber and Roberts have day jobs. (Full disclosure: Roberts' day job is at the Mercury, where he works as our calendar editor.)
Webber and Roberts are perhaps more sensitive than most to the financial limitations of podcasting: They once made a living on the radio. In the mid- to late-2000s, the pair co-hosted a radio show on KUFO, where they quickly realized that, as Roberts puts it, "A lot of the funniest stuff that happened was while we were in the studio waiting for another goddamn Metallica song to end." At that point, Roberts explains, KUFO didn't have a podcast program, so Roberts and Webber began producing and uploading their show themselves, figuring that "if the show was separated from the shitty music [KUFO] played, more people would listen." When they were laid off from KUFO in 2009, the podcast continued.
In a sense, Roberts says, "Coming from radio is a hindrance. People who listen to podcasts don't want radio—they don't want phony DJs and dumb jokes." (He's also clearly sick of the morning-zoo connotations of the show's longtime title.) But their years of experience in radio mean Webber and Roberts are just plain better at talking than most people. "We were both able to train ourselves to talk as though there was a screenplay we were writing in our own heads on the fly," Roberts says.
If Cort and Fatboy are radio castaways, washed up on the shores of podcasting, Julie Sabatier toes the line between the two worlds. Her show Destination DIY launched as a half-hour segment on KBOO in 2006, and it's now an hour-long show syndicated by OPB as well as public radio stations in New York, Ohio, and Texas. But the show has been available in podcast form since its third episode, and Sabatier supplements the radio program with additional material that's only available online. "I think of it as a radio show," Sabatier explains, "and the podcast is a way to feel like the work I was doing was reaching more people."
Destination DIY goes beyond the crafts 'n' home repair often associated with the term "DIY" to encompass anything people can do themselves—from home funerals and taxidermy to representing yourself in court. Moreover, the show maintains an artful balance of general interest content and local events. Sabatier and her co-producer Jaymee Cuti host a monthly listening party at ADX called Makin' It with Destination DIY, which features snippets of the show and live interviews; the audience is invited to bring a project of their own to work on as they listen.
Another podcast that's branching out into hosting events is the great local history podcast Kick Ass Oregon History, a cheerfully potty-mouthed show that investigates items of pressing historical significance—such as the recent two-parter "Bigfoots in Oregon" or an April Fool's episode on a 1901 bubonic plague outbreak in Astoria. The show, written and researched by Doug Kenck-Crispin and performed by New York-based actor Andy Lindberg, regularly hosts live events at the Jack London Bar—next up, a presentation from DB Cooper researcher Galen Cook on Wednesday, July 25. These events further ground a show that's already deeply connected to Portland.
Kick Ass Oregon's origin story, as explained by Kenck-Crispin, sums up the attitude of the show in general: "I was really stoned one night, and I made a pilot of Kick Ass Oregon."
But if the show has a stoner vibe, it's a meticulous stoner vibe—this isn't the guy who eats all your chips, this is the guy who reorganizes the spice cupboard, annotates a copy of Ulysses, and then eats all your chips. Kenck-Crispin estimates that each episode takes about two weeks to put together; when researching, he tries to find quotes from historical figures, to give Lindberg voices to work with. The result is lighthearted but deeply informative, a reference source that's pitch-perfectly calibrated to a certain laidback-but-wonky Portland aesthetic.
A striking outlier in Portland's sonic landscape is the Portland Fiction Project's podcast, which features local actors performing stories originally written during Portland Fiction Project workshops, under the direction of writer/actor Doug Dean.
"As much as it is a podcast, it's not like a podcast," says Dean, who emphasizes that there's no pre-show banter, no lengthy intro, and no theme song. (And it's true that one of the most irritating podcast quirks is a tendency toward long theme songs and rambling intros.)
Most of Portland's podcasts are chatty, personality-driven, pop-culture affairs that would feel at home on some alternate-reality version of AM talk radio. The Portland Fiction Project's show is self-contained and polished, something you'd hear on NPR on a Sunday morning. It's a fantastic example of an organization using podcasting to expand both the scope of their mission and the size of their audience. On the same wavelength, tune into Blogtown on Monday, July 23, for an announcement from another popular local arts organization making a foray into podcasting.
All of these shows, different as they are, are rooted in and in some sense informed by Portland—and soon enough, you might be able to hear all of them on your iPhone, once again broadcasting from pdx.fm.
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Podcasting Tips from Robert Wagner
• Audio quality. It's extremely difficult to listen to a bad recording, even though we've all put one or two out there.
• A lot of new podcasters will try their best to imitate their heroes rather than just be themselves. I believe that there's an audience for everyone if you just relax and talk like you normally would, versus aping whatever lame FM radio host you heard last week. I wish more people would realize this and quit trying to copy one another.
• The pop culture "geek" angle is a dead end. There are already WAY too many podcasts out there fighting for geek listeners—even the big-time LA comedian/podcasters have noticed, so you know it's getting out of hand. I think it's great that a lot of people are willing to take the time to put their own brand of geek talk out there, but I really wish they'd consolidate and guest host on each other's podcasts first before starting their own podcast without thinking it through.
• Reducing women to a backseat or nonexistent role is also a common problem. There aren't enough female podcasters out there. Period. Podcasting is still a man's world, unfortunately. I'd like to see that change, particularly when it comes to comedy.