The podcast is the most intimate of entertainments. Think about it. Say you listen to “The Memory Palace” or “WTF with Marc Maron” or “Comedy Bang! Bang!”
Odds are you are alone, in your car, at your computer, at the gym with earbuds in. The host’s voice is in your head, telling you a story, bringing you along for a journey filled with tragedy or comedy and every point in between.
“You know there are many other listeners out there,” says Erik Diehn, the CEO of Midroll Media, one of the biggest podcasting production companies. “But you don’t always see them.”
This weekend in Anaheim that all changes. Now Hear This, a podcasting festival built on the model of a Comic-Con or a Coachella, brings fans together more than 30 popular podcasters, including the four well-known shows mentioned above.
“My sense is that this is the largest collection of shows and talents, especially large shows,” says Diehn, whose company organized Now Hear This with an eye toward replicating it in future years in different cities. “Just the sheer number of shows we’ve got under one roof has never been done before.”
In a way, podcasting picks up where talk radio, long ago most abandoned to sports and politics, leaves off, Diehn says.
National Public Radio still does programming of a type that certainly inspired many of the best podcasts today – think of the storytelling on a program like “This American Life,” which many listen to as a podcast. Or consider “The Moth,” which started as a live event and eventually morphed into a podcast, which will be in Anaheim, and a radio show.
The last five years have seen an explosion of podcasts, he says, thanks partly to the rise of the smartphone, which allows anyone anywhere to listen in, and partly to the decision by iTunes, a major provider of podcasts, to allow streaming and not just downloads. And then there’s the “Serial” effect, the role which a wildly successful 2014 podcast about a murder in Maryland probably played.
“It’s hard to pick an exact moment,” Diehn says of the tipping point when podcasts went mainstream. “A lot of people said, ‘Oh, well, ‘Serial’ changed everything.’ It did and it didn’t.
“The audience was already pretty large,” Diehn says. “‘Serial’ really didn’t change the audience size. What it did change was the audience awareness. People who weren’t really aware of podcasting suddenly were.”
With that in mind, we wanted to make you just a bit more aware of five of the podcasts and their creators who will be in Anaheim.
‘THE MEMORY PALACE’
He always wanted to be in a band. And if he couldn’t be in a band, he wanted to host a show on National Public Radio.
Neither of those career paths worked out for Nate Dimeo.
Instead, he became a star in another way, as if he put those two dreams together. Using words, music and the ability to perform in front of an audience, Dimeo became a star in the blossoming world of podcasting. Dimeo’s “The Memory Palace,” a dramatic storytelling podcast with moody music about remarkable moments in American history, now gets about a million downloads per month.
And it attracted some very influential friends.
Dimeo, who grew up in Rhode Island, was in a band called Bermuda. When that fizzled, like bands usually do, he needed to be gainfully employed.
“I knew that I wanted a real job that would allow me to travel, to collaborate, to make beautiful things,” Dimeo said.
After his band fizzled, as bands usually do, Dimeo got a job as a radio editor. His job took him to places like Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Beijing. He reported on pop culture. In his free time, he began working on an idea where he would tell stories set to music about horrible deaths mentioned in the New York Times, about a search for a panda, about swimming the English channel, about a slave who stole a ship and about the Vietnam draft.
“I find these small moments, and I write tight,” he said.
In 2008, he pitched the idea for a show called “The Memory Palace” to NPR. And NPR said no. For two years, they continued to say no. So he posted his podcast on Facebook, and his audience grew and grew. Now his podcast is hosted by Radiotopia. He writes about 20 episodes of “The Memory Palace” per year, and he performs about 10 live shows around the U.S.
“The stories bring out an incredible amount of emotion,” Dimeo said.
One of the people who fell in love with “The Memory Palace” was Mike Schur, who wrote for the television show “The Office” and created “Parks and Recreation.” He offered Dimeo a few writing gigs. Dimeo wrote one episode “Ann’s Decision” for “Parks and Recreation.” He also co-wrote the book, “Pawnee: The Greatest Town in America.”
He takes a few television jobs now and then – like writing an episode of “The Astronaut Wives Club” – but his podcast work continues to dominate his time.
And in his mind, he’s achieved his goal of being in a band.
“I’m writing songs,” he said. “I’m striving for beauty.”
In the beginning there was “The Real Housewives of Orange County,” and lo, it was good. In, you know, a mostly good-bad way, Danielle Schneider says, though sometimes it’s just good.
Schneider, an actress-comedian-writer, used to get together with friends to watch the O.G. Housewives, and as the franchise spread, all of the Housewives. Casey Wilson, herself the same kind of multi-hyphenate entertainer, was part of that same group.
“We think this drama is better than Mamet, better than Chekhov,” Schneider says of the moment the seeds for “Bitch Sesh: A Real Housewives Breakdown” were sown. “And so we read it, not changing a word, and the audience loved it.”
In 2011 at the Upright Citizens Brigade in Los Angeles did a stage show called “The Realest Real Housewives,” which in turn spawned the “Hotwives” parody series on Hulu, a creation of Schneider’s that starred Wilson, a “Saturday Night Live” veteran among its cast.
Then in December, the two friends and fellow Housewive-obsessives launched “Bitch Sesh,” in which they and a different guest each episode get together to talk Housewives, other trashy reality TV they watch, parenting tips you really shouldn’t practice, and generally pop culture nonsense.
“I think for me it was about these strong, interesting, imperfect women that you don’t really get to see on TV anymore,” Schneider says of her love for the Housewives. “And of course it was campy and hilarious too.”
“It’s sparkly and shiny and wish fulfillment – it hits all my buttons. It’s also escapism. When you’re having a hard day it’s great just to be able to zone out on these things.”
She and Wilson have meet a few Housewives at events around town but sorta hope they don’t know about “Bitch Sesh.” (Sorry, Danielle, if we’re letting the cattiness out of the bag here.)
And if the Housewives franchise eventually uses up every city in America, pours its last glass of wine and turns out the light? What then, Danielle?
“Never!” she says in what we hope is mock horror. “That won’t be in my lifetime because it will long outlast me. This will be here ’til the end of days and I’ll still be watching.“I’ll be watching on my deathbed. That’s how I hope to die, on my deathbed, watching ‘Real Housewives of the Moon.’”
The topics of “Lore” – ghosts, monsters, witches, sorcerers – aren't the stuff that scares its creator Aaron Mahnke.
“It’s people that frighten me the most,” said Mahnke, who lives with his wife and children outside Boston. “There are stories of monsters and ghosts and things that go bump in the night, sure. But it’s the stuff humans have done that are the scariest. Whether it’s driven by hate or madness or selfish gain, people throughout history have managed to do some of the most horrible things imaginable.”
"Maybe, in the end, we tell stories about monsters in an effort to shift the blame, you know?"
“Lore” became a podcast in March 2015, and now has more than 3.5 million listeners per month. Earlier this year, the podcast attracted the attention of “The Walking Dead” producer Gale Anne Hurd, who began developing the horror series as a television show, which will premiere on Amazon Prime Video bought the show, and it will premiere in the U.S., United Kingdom, Germany, Austria and Japan in 2017.
“I think both formats -- podcasting and television -- excel when they have good story to work with,” Mahnke said.
Mahnke has written four novels, most recently “Grave Suspicion” in 2015, and it was in his marketing of those books that “Lore” was created. He was trying to find a way to promote his love for the scary myths in the New England area in emails to his fan base.
“The piece got to be so large and unwieldy, though, that I felt no one would find it to be valuable,” Mahnke said. “I was about to throw it away and quit writing altogether when I tried, on a whim, to record one of the essays as an audiobook of sorts,” Mahnke said. “I had a close friend give it a ‘test listen,’ and he recommended scrapping the email list idea and turning the audio into a podcast.”
Once he started, the macabre stories were easy to find.
“The stories in that non-fiction piece were historical tales and legends that I stumbled upon during the research phase of past novels,” Mahnke said. “They were stories that weren’t right for the books, but were just too interesting and compelling to delete entirely.”
Events like what happened in Exeter, Rhode Island in 1892, when a woman’s body was exhumed and desecrated in an attempt to stop a vampire. “These true stories where folklore and real life collide are simply fascinating.”
“Crybabies,” a podcast co-hosted by actress-writer Sarah Thyre and New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean, is the funniest show about the saddest things.
It really shouldn’t work: The two hosts and a guest get together to talk about the things, usually entertainment-oriented, that pierce the heart and open the tear ducts. It can be a song – Roberta Flack’s “Do What You Gotta Do” was featured recently. Or a movie – Thyre says “Brokeback Mountain,” the movie and the book, slay her every time. Or some random evanescent thing – the actress Melanie Lynskey recently confessed that teenage boys, so young and bursting with life and potential, make her tear up.
And while that might seem a maudlin concept, in practice it’s hilarious.
“Crying at movies is, I don’t if I should say hobby, but it’s definitely something I like to do,” I’m one of those people who like to go to movies alone so I don’t disturb my friends with all the crying,” Thyre says.
Part of what makes the show work is how relate-able it all feels. Who among us hasn’t had a song or scene cue the waterworks for the memories it brings back?
“I think maybe a way to really own your sadness over something is having it be initiated by a movie or a television show or a song,” Thyre says. “Especially with music. Songs become landmarks in our lives.”
While there’s lots of laughter on the podcast at times they truly get emotional, too.
“People go in and out of being emotional,” Thyre says. “But we do tell our guests, ‘It’s not a game show’ – we don’t expect our guests to cry.”
For live podcasts such as they’ll do at Now Hear This, “Crybabies” ends up being more of a comedy show as the audience laughs along with the hosts and their guests, which in Anaheim will include comedian-actor-writers Andy Dick and Dino Stamatopoulos, and singer-songwriter Jill Sobule, who wrote the peppy “Crybabies” theme song.
“This gives people an insight into their favorite artists,” Thyre says. “What moves them emotionally and what makes them sad and why and how. And a lot of people really enjoy talking about it.”
The name of podcast could have been “Murder and Mayhem,” “Caution Tape” or “The Accused.” There was a Google doc created with lists of names.
But in the end, creators Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer decided with the stripped down title: “Criminal.”
The “Criminal” podcast was born on Judge’s back porch in North Carolina in October of 2013 after the radio show she and Spohrer worked on (“The Story” on North Carolina Public Radio) was canceled.
They decided to tell crime stories built on interviews with victims and the criminals themselves. One recent podcast was called “The Money Tree,” featuring the victim of identity theft who became an expert in preventing identity theft. Another recent episode, “The Editor,” is about a thief who went to prison and found mistakes in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Encyclopedia.
“We believed in podcasting,” Judge said. “It doesn’t matter if no one listens.”
But, of course, people listened. “Criminal” went from 75 downloads in its first episode to three million per month in recent months.
The “Criminal” team is in the midst of a 14-city tour of the U.S., performing their spoken word magic (with a little music) before live audiences.
“We have to come out of the comfort of a dark studio,” Judge said. “The spotlights are always bright. To see people’s faces (in the audience) is a real treat.”
The future? Judge says “Criminal” will continue, but the producing team will likely launch another podcast. So far, she’s not offering any details.
“We can experiment,” Judge said. “Why not?”
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