Detroit podcasts you need to be listening to
With the popularity of shows like Serial, Radiolab, and WTF growing rapidly at Marc Maron, it seems like we’re in the middle of a golden age for podcasts. Like blogging and creating YouTube videos, podcasting has become a democratic medium of personal expression. All you need is an idea and a recording device (sometimes not even an idea) to create your own show. And after At the Pew Research Center, the number of podcast listeners is growing just as rapidly as the number of podcasts.
Locally produced podcasts are also growing here in Detroit, which is not surprising in a city full of history and culture. Model D is here to help you separate the wheat from the chaff and highlight some of our favorite local shows. This list in alphabetical order does not claim to be complete. Sorry if we missed your favorite.
Tony Augusty, John Yarbrough, Jim Harper, and Heather Anonymous (who keeps her last name a secret because she’s in social work school) went to the bar after their improvisation class and talked late into the night about the new performance art with what they were were obsessed. It made sense when one of them finally suggested that they record their conversations. You named the podcast appropriately, After Improv and meet up on Tuesday to record, the same day their original class met. Each new season of the podcast marks a new class semester.
The After Improv crew specializes in improvisation and local improvisation events such as the Detroit Improv Festival and the Planet Ant Theater’s annual Colony Fest. For the past two seasons, the shows have focused on guest interviews with seasoned improvisers such as Quintin Hicks, a teacher and performer who was in the Second City Detroit-based cast, and fellow students.
After Improv is not only aimed at a small audience of improvisation enthusiasts – the joke is generally funny. Augusty, the lead interviewer, is a former journalist who knows how to ask questions that lead to convincing conversations. “Our philosophy in interviews is that everyone has something interesting,” he says.
“We learned that from improvising,” adds Harper. “Everyone makes unique decisions on stage.”
In a recent episode, for example, the crew spoke to Jacob Russell about such far-reaching topics as sneaker culture, hip-hop and improvisational racing. There’s also Heather, often the quietest member during the interviews, but whose antics lead to the most memorable and outrageous moments on the show. She once admitted while drunk that she had sex dreams about the rest of the crew … except Augusty. “This is basically the story of my life,” he replied.
The beginning of the end
Everything ends eventually – relationships, communities, movements, life. Everyone was touched by the end of something and that’s what makes WDETs The beginning of the end such an accessible listening.
“It’s a universal subject,” says producer Alex Trajano. “You learn a lot about human behavior in such situations. How does this person react to changes? And how would I react in this situation?”
Although the end inevitably comes and the protagonist of the episode deeply feels his loss, Trajano tries to look for stories with a coda – the beginning of something new. For example, in an episode about a soldier who was discharged from the military on charges of homosexuality, the protagonist receives a letter years later from his father that he hadn’t heard from for more than a decade – in which he comes out as humid.
“I like stories that have a transformative effect, so they come to the other side with a new perspective,” says Trajano.
Like so many, Trajano was moved by the popular “Serial” podcast, which covered an investigation into the events of a decades-long murder, and believed that WDET should produce its own original, story-based content. The positive feedback from The Beginning of the End has encouraged Trajano to eventually compile a catalog of shows that will hopefully one day rival such well-known, broadcaster-produced podcasts as WBEZs This American Life or WNYCs Radiolab.
In every episode of Detours, former WDET radio producer Rob St. Mary and Steve Byrne, art editor for the Detroit Free Press, takes listeners on a 30-60-minute detour, if you will, to the Detroit arts scene. Detours are recorded live on site at an upcoming event or venue relevant to the theme of the episode. By highlighting these events and publications and interviewing the organizers and artists who produce them, Detours is one of the best ways to keep up with the latest on the Detroit art scene.
St. Mary has a long history in the arts and media. He has been an on-air DJ, radio news director, show producer at WDET and an underground newspaper publisher. Recently he wrote “The Orbit Anthology, “a book that chronicles the history of one of Detroit’s most famous alternative magazines.
St. Mary’s knowledge of pop culture and its convenience behind a microphone are instantly apparent to Detours listeners. “At some point I did everything in a newsroom,” he says. “I’m kind of a radio utility player.”
Although he’s interviewed internationally renowned artists – like Jean-Luc Ponty, a renowned violinist who has worked with Frank Zappa and John McLaughlin – the main reason St. Mary is making the podcast is to raise awareness among Detroit artists. “I’ve always said that Detroit doesn’t respect its artists as much as it should. We have an embarrassment of wealth, but we only really embrace it when a man with a funny accent says they have value.”
At this place
“Our idea was basically to speak into a microphone and see what happens,” says Matt Dibble, who is co-host with Francis Grunow At this location a conversation podcast about Detroit.
The premise of the podcast hasn’t changed much since that first thought. The hosts solemnly crack a Michigan-brewed beer at the beginning of each episode, then begin a conversation that they record in the historical United Sound Systems music studios in Midtown. Aside from the occasional song taken from an old Detroit single, there’s little technical flair to the show. “We’re crazy,” says Dibble. “Neither of us know what we’re doing. I barely have enough technical knowledge to get it on iTunes.”
Fortunately, the subjects Dibble and Grunow select and the conversations that follow are compelling. Grunow is a Detroit history buff who has served with numerous Detroit stakeholders, and Dibble is a Detroit enthusiast and founder of Final 5, a city-based media company that helps businesses and organizations tell their stories. The episodes cover such haunting topics as “Who will be Detroit?” and “Future Detroit”.
Beyond treating and processing these issues, the podcast is a testament to the value of open conversation. Grunow and Dibble often disagree, but just as often come to a consensus. “The most valuable thing we do is offer contrasting perspectives in such a way that these differences are recognized and respected,” says Dibble. “We’ve evolved into a culture of right and wrong, and that’s not a productive way of solving problems.”
The external drive
It wasn’t long before John Brown II and Fletcher Sharpe met to form a bond. “We were two young black guys in football,” says Brown. “If we were from Jamaica it wouldn’t be a big deal, but it’s pretty unusual in America.”
They met while covering a story for MLive and soon after began hanging out and recording The Outer Drive, a soccer podcast that covers regional teams like Detroit City FC and international leagues and games, as well as meta-topics like state youth soccer in America. They usually discuss two to three topics and do an interview in each episode. A new guest was the footballer Jenna Dean from Chelsea Ladies FC – proof of the impressive reach of the show.
In over 20 episodes, Sharpe and Brown have had many interesting discussions – and tangents – thanks to their complementary personalities. “Fletcher has a tendency to say ridiculous stuff,” says Brown.
Sharpe admits that Brown is the “more professional” of the two and tries to steer the conversation towards their pre-planned topics. “John keeps track of time. He usually points to his watch if I keep going for a while,” says Sharpe. “Then I’ll nod and move on.”
Her passion and deep knowledge of the game are evident. Both have played and followed football since their youth. “In contrast to American football, where the coach is the mastermind, anyone can demonstrate their skills and express themselves in football,” explains Brown, why he loves the sport.
“If you have a superstar and then you have a lot of garbage players, your team is not going anywhere,” Sharpe repeats. “You need cohesion.”
Cohesiveness is the reason The Outer Drive is so good a listener too.
Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based writer and comedian. Follow him on Twitter @ AaronMondry.
All photos by Marvin Shaouni.