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Story Publication logo March 19, 2019

Finding Community Through Podcasts

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The salmon swim upstream from the sea into the island in the spring. Image by Brooke Stephenson. United States, 2019.
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Ms. Saltine in full makeup at the Frontier Theatre performing her newest work, Impressions. Image courtesy of Will Curtis. United States, 2019.
Ms. Saltine in full makeup at the Frontier Theatre performing her newest work, 'Impressions.' Image courtesy of Will Curtis. United States, 2019.

Snow falls on a sleepy Chicago night. It blankets the street with a quiet sort of cold, the kind that doesn't bite but instead lulls a special sort of serenity into a busy city. It is late on Wednesday, November 28, and the street is bare except for a few poor souls waiting for the bus arrive.

A young man shuffles up to the bus stop, dressed lightly for the weather, a green jacket haphazardly thrown over a grey hoodie, with the hood pulled down over in a futile attempt to block the snow. Cody Sullivan is just making his way home.

Although hidden from passersby, underneath the hood Sullivan still wears the excessive makeup of a drag queen with cheeks rouged, eyebrows done, and attention clearly given to accentuate his mustache. He looks up for the bus, and smiles when it finally pulls up to the snowed in pole marking the bus stop.

"Finally," he mutters to the two others waiting with him.

Just a few hours before, Sullivan was Miss Saltine.

A mic cracked, and Miss Saltine emerged from the back of second floor of a dingy bar room, gliding on high heels onto the small stage. She commands the room with sunglasses bigger than her face. She has an air of infectious joy, and once the show begins that joy begins to spread its way around the room. as embarrassed giggles turn to full bodied laughter as the wild sexual fantasies Saltine takes the audience through start to make their own special kind of sense.

She gives a quick check to make sure the recording equipment is working properly–this is a performance, after all, but also something more–this one is being recorded to upload later as a special issue of "Saltine's Newsletter" podcast.

This duality is not uncommon for an emerging sector of the podcast history. Just as radio started with old HAM sets in a garage, podcasting has returned to the people–giving a voice and space for creators like Sullivan to form their own little communities.

The set is simple, and the comedy is clearly more often than not made up on the spot. The shock and awe of Miss Saltine's raunchy humor eventually loses its taboo and becomes simply a part of the dialogue as the audiences settles into the set. The whole floor is claimed all for her, her private audience to heckle and harass, her space to spin tales around her penis struggles.

Sullivan and Saltine are not so far from each other, as explained by Sullivan, "I've always been inspired by and wanted to be like women." While Saltine lives in a fantasy world of wacky obituaries and absurd horoscopes, Sullivan has a long way to go before he goes to work in a coffee shop in the morning. The Saltine persona was created for the purpose of the show itself, "Saltine's Newsletter."

Sullivan created the "Newsletter" as a friendly neighborhood update show that's neither on the radio nor friendly. It is normally produced either live in a Chicago drag bar, or wherever and whenever is easiest for the rotating cast. Saltine found herself on stage that frosty night thanks to the Chicago Podcast Festival, a weeklong series of events showcasing different podcasts every night.

His ride home is long, jumping from the bus to an equally cold wait for the L train to take him home. He's open and expressive on the ride, laughing and sharing stories of his education in Massachusetts, and his family's reaction to his out. "My mom is really happy that I'm performing, but I think she'd be a little happier if I was performing as a man."

This type of podcast is a new normal–no longer limited by the production expectations of the niche crowd that the audio medium was used to, podcasting is rapidly undergoing a people's revolution. As "Serial" broke into the scene in 2014, the medium has exploded into the mainstream. "The Daily" owns its own sector of news coverage, and radio dramas like "Homecoming" and "Dirty John" make their way onto the television screen. But perhaps more important is the smaller revolution happening on a smaller scale–the one happening in bedrooms and bars, recorded on phones, and thrown online with only the hope of artistic expression.

Neil Verma is a professor at the Northwestern School of Communication, focusing primarily on radio dramas. Verma has studied the history of radio as a medium, seeing how the audio industry provides a home for artists who hunger for a voice to find their place. Verma firmly believes that "public expression is worthwhile, and worthwhile for everyone."

At the same time, Verma acknowledges the simplicity of creation. Verma shares the hard truth of the industry: "no one has ever gotten rich making radio dramas." With money and fame out of the picture, new podcasters instead are on the hunt for artistic appreciation.

Dr. Siobhan McHugh, who teaches audio journalism at the University of Wollongong Australia, says she has witnessed firsthand the change of the medium, and how podcast both builds upon and transcends the radio baseline. She says she is particularly struck by the "community of podcasts," where she knows "the relationship between the host and listener is very special." 

Unlike other mediums, podcasts thrive in the small scale, says McHugh. Building an audience that has a relationship with the host is far more valuable than a large fan base, as creators build their storytelling upon the continuation of their personal expression. These communities can range from Dungeons and Dragons to a weekly gossip session, themes both touched on again at the Chicago Podcast Festival.

The festival focuses on highlighting the podcast communities that have sprouted up throughout Chicago, a performance microcosm for the larger world. The rich roots of Chicago improv run deep in the shows, with the events held every night of the week-long festival at various bars and performance venues. The tastes run from night to night, loosely following themes such as the ones described earlier, but the focus is far more on a solid performance than it is just on cashing in on a community.

Elizabeth Amdahl is one of the producers of festival, along with Kelly Opalko, and runs the production with a keen eye for the performance angle. Amdahl sees podcasting as the natural extension of storytelling, applauding that "the great thing about podcasting is that you can devour stuff you are interested in." Their background is comedy and improv and not the traditional production expertise, but they feel this makes them uniquely qualified to put on the festival.

Opalko comes from the team of Machine Learning, a podcast collective based in Chicago. She knows the power of the absurd, with her work in the comedy scene giving her an appreciation for the intimacy of podcasts. Opalko has seen firsthand how "the weirder and more specific you can get, you will find people." These tiny audiences can snowball into a loyal following, as the creator's ability to tell stories with the creator as a character shines through their work.

This style is not new but steeped instead in the traditions of storytelling as ancient as it gets. Kiran Singh Sirah is the executive director of the International Storytelling Center, an organization dedicated to promoting and exploring the power of oral storytelling in the modern world. Sirah sees storytelling as "a desire to understand and get to the truth of who we are as a species." For him, "the podcast is just a reformatted version of something that's been going on for centuries."

These steeped traditions only further the development of the creators as characters, as podcasts restructure themselves around the needs of our changing society. Podcasts are "part of a movement towards individualism" according to Sirah, and this societal inclination to explore stories through sound has been a part of our technological narrative for longer than most give credit for.

Radio has stood the test of time, even as television killed the radio star. The expression of voice has traditions of narrative storytelling, such as the infamous "War of the Worlds" broadcast in 1938. Radio started off as the voice of the people, bouncing radio signals across the world and finding the humanity within the chaos. As podcasts burst into the scene, radio may increasingly be considered outdated–but podcasting will always owe its roots to radio.

"If you set podcasts off as new and different, you lose the history" according to Andrew Bottomley, an assistant professor of media studies at SUNY Oneonta. Radio drama is the focus of much of his study, a sector in the field that has grown in recent years. According to Bottomley, "Podcasting has revived the idea that everyone can be a broadcaster."

This notion has bled into the classic radio scene, with shows like "Serial" leaning into the up-and-coming trends. John Biewen is a professor at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University hosting his own podcast "Scene on Radio," which takes a closer look at various social phenomenon, including the Peabody-nominated series "Seeing White" and the recently finished "Men."

Biewen believes that "podcasting much more commonly has really embraced a point of view…there are far fewer podcast that I think feel obligated to follow the conventions of 'objectivity' journalistically."

Biewen feels this injection of the host of story is relatively foreign to traditional journalist inclinations, allowing the storyteller to act as a character within the story. "Serial" is his central point, evidenced by how the host Sarah Koenig "is a character on an exploration and you're going along with her." 

This phenomenon was in many ways personified by the Chicago Podcast Festival. Miss Saltine operates in a creative space that either shocks or attracts, and the associated risk is mitigated by the ease of creation–she can perform without the fear of capital loss. Sullivan, the man behind the thick makeup of Miss Saltine, is very much aware of this trade-off.

The lifestyle of a podcaster is lacking in the drama of a movie star. Sullivan lives in an apartment with no Wi-Fi and uses his flip phone to somehow pass by in fast-paced Chicago. He is fundamentally tangential, skipping through stories at a rapid pace underscored by his energetic physical presence. For an unassuming looking, lanky, long-haired, and mustached man, Sullivan knows how to carry a room with grace.

Sullivan understands the power of podcasting to act as a "beautiful documentation of one single moment." The festival is just one example of Sullivan's artistic works, with Miss Saltine making her way into her own one-person "Impressions" show giving history a crass Saltine twist. For him, it is so much more about the personal exchange than it is the production itself.

"If you can charm people, they'll like anything you do." He knows that Miss Saltine's humor isn't the highbrow artistic work he went to school for but sees the opportunity for the "Newsletter" to grow into a Chicago staple. Drawing in guests through the casual dialogue, engaging unheard voices through a ragtag version of diversity–that is how community grows

These podcasts are pushing the envelope further and further, and people keep listening. That is the core of modern podcasting. Consistency. As Miss Saltine strides her way onto whatever stage she ends up on, or cackles into whatever mic happens to be live, if you get to know her you know one thing for sure—she's going to tell you stories that might not always hit at the core of humanity, but will certainly have you giggling along with her.

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