The Conversation Business: 8 Pittsburgh Podcasts Worth a Listen
We talk to the stars of Pittsburgh podcasts to find out what drives them. Whether you're interested in beer, wellness, music or the paranormal, there is a podcast for you.
For a format that often sounds like a casual conversation, podcasting can take an awful lot of work.
The barrier for entry is low in terms of equipment and technical know-how. While it’s better to buy some microphones and get a decent audio setup, you can do it with a smartphone and simple audio editing programming — or, lately, over Zoom or Skype. The path between an idea and a first episode is short, if you’re motivated.
The tricky thing is maintaining it. For every podcast that persists, there are many that fade out after weeks or months; while anyone can start a recording, the labor becomes more intense when it’s time to get the show out into the world. Finding time to prepare and record an episode each week, edit the audio, post it, promote it and plan for the next one — which can include arranging for guests, finding and booking studio space or any number of other hurdles — becomes a surprisingly robust commitment.
And, after all that … there’s usually no money to be made, and a sizable audience isn’t guaranteed. The podcasting market is dominated by big players, such as iHeartRadio, NPR and Spotify with more consolidation expected this year.
Yet dozens, if not hundreds, of dedicated podcasters based in Pittsburgh continue to create regular content. The rewards can come in the form of engagement with guests and fans, expanding or augmenting a professional interest or plain enjoyment of the format.
For friends Amanda Waltz and Sarah Cadence Hamm, their podcast, “Ghoul on Ghoul,” was created for creative exploration, not for the lure of sponsorships or recognition.
“It just doesn’t seem very earnest” if you’re angling to get paid, Waltz says. “It’s not authentic, I think, in a lot of ways.”
That doesn’t mean making money, even if just to compensate the hosts for their time and effort, isn’t on their minds. The pair have launched a Patreon account, the route many podcasters use to monetize their work, and plan to get into live events once it is safe to do so.
However, if any company would like to give “Ghoul on Ghoul” a sponsorship, Waltz and Hamm are in.
“I’m not punk,” Waltz jokes. “I’ll sell out if you want to send me a sponsorship.” Unfortunately, the economics of podcasting advertising are mostly based on listenership numbers; traditional advertisers like to see a large audience. For most of the podcasts whose creators we spoke with, download numbers for an individual episode are in the hundreds.
With effort, though, downloads can be just the start of audience engagement. “YaJagoff!,” the comedy podcast hosted by John Chamberlin and Rachael Rennebeck, started as a hobby. Unlike many shows, however, “YaJagoff!” is part of what has become YaJagoff Media LLC, a small media company, with a blog, videos and a marketing arm. They now have a total social audience of more than 40,000 followers — large for a locally focused podcast.
“We call the podcast the third leg to the stool because we work in PR and marketing in order to pay the bills,” Rennebeck says. “The hobby sort of became the outlet, the platform, the ventricle to pump that information out.”
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Rennebeck agrees that Patreon and similar crowdfunding models are helpful resources for those looking into monetizing their content.
Of course, Rennebeck acknowledges that creators need to offer strong content to monetize. “YaJagoff!,” she says, is “not just flash-in-the-pan or silly nonsense … You look at the name [and] it would be easy to assume that we spoke like Yinzers or had a thick accent and kind of parodied Pittsburgh, and instead, we embrace it and all of its changes.”
Marta Mazzoni, host of the long-running show “Marta on the Move,” also made her name — in modern parlance, grew her brand — through her podcast. With little concern for week-to-week listenership figures, though, Mazzoni says she focuses on staying true to herself and sharing her interests — primarily traveling, entertainment and wellness. She also interviews guests about a variety of topics, though the subjects reflect what fascinates her, not what will move the download needle — from Patrick Page and Broadway to Rob Lee and esports. (During the early days of “Stranger Things” mania, she netted a long phone interview with star David Harbour.)
With the show well-established, Mazzoni has used it as a launchpad and megaphone for other projects, including her 3 To Be Me series — a guided wellness program based on total body connection — and her Airbnb listings. Through Airbnb, she operates a de facto artist’s gallery and spotlights featured artists through interviews on the show.
“Using that platform to inspire others to get out there, to explore, and offering [listeners] the experience to be able to do that is something that I’m really proud of — that I didn’t think would manifest itself in that way,” Mazzoni says.
While Mazzoni ties a variety of endeavors into the podcast, there are others — such as those working for SLB Radio, a radio production organization that amplifies youth voices — who make podcasts as part of their day jobs. Despite the adage that loving your job means you won’t work a day in your life, these creators put in significant time, effort and care into their productions.
“I joke sometimes that it’s the hardest I’ve worked in my life for the least amount of money,” says founder and executive director Larry Berger. “We’ve grown enough that we have employees that love what they’re doing. Most of them have grown better at it than I am and are serving a lot of people, so it’s a great outcome.”
For many, podcasting is also a social endeavor. Most of the creators we spoke with relish the chance to sit down and talk with others — chatting with co-hosts or getting to know guests. The social element was baked into the formation of “Drinking Partners,” hosted by friends and comedians Ed Bailey and Day Bracey; while the focus of the show has often turned to craft beer, it was conceived as a recording of a casual conversation.
“At the end of the day, with all the hard work, it is just sitting around and having drinks with our friends,” Bailey says, even as the brand has grown to incorporate numerous traditional events.
Tressa Glover, who launched her podcast “Yinz are Good” in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, agrees. “I’m hoping that it connects people,” she says, noting that a sense of connection is much more difficult under current circumstances. “I hope that connection survives long past the pandemic,” she adds, placing a priority on “helping us feel less alone.”
Fundamentally, to start a podcast — and to maintain it — you have to love the format and value its potential as a connector. The difference between those that sputter and those that thrive may be as simple as that: which creators enjoy the work and which don’t?
Berger sees audio as a realm that can connect people intimately — and, just as importantly, quickly. Reflecting on bringing a diverse collection of voices to listeners, he says, “If I can get a person who doesn’t know much about the trans community, [for example,] to listen to a 90-second delightful commentary that has some moments that make you laugh, some moments that make you say, ‘oh, I get it now,’ it’s an honor to be able to make that connection.
“From the listener’s perspective, it’s simple enough to take in and reflect on it and maybe even change their minds a little bit,” Berger says. “And when we do that really well, adults start being more respectful of youth and their ideas in real life, not just on the radio … I certainly don’t think I’m going to change the whole world, but that’s a big part of our hope as we do it.”
Hosted by Ed Bailey and Day Bracey
The podcast “Drinking Partners” has led to a nationally recognized craft-beer festival, Fresh Fest, which brings together Black-owned breweries from around the country. The show was not conceived, however, with beer as the focus.
In fact, Ed Bailey — who hosts the show with Day Bracey — didn’t even start out drinking beer. In the earliest episodes, he brought cognac.
Both active stand-up comics, Bailey and Bracey would always gravitate to each other and have side conversations at shows. When they began hosting a monthly show at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, Downtown (it eventually grew to include a second monthly show, at Comtra Theatre in Cranberry Township), the emphasis was always on the conversation.
“We called it ‘Drinking Partners’ so that the subject matter could have variety,” Bailey says. We didn’t want to tie ourselves into having one type of [show]. Sitting and drinking with your friends, you can talk about whatever … The podcast is the vessel through which we find other opportunities.”
Those opportunities eventually included the nation’s first beer festival dedicated to Black-owned breweries. Fresh Fest took place in person in 2018 and ’19, before the pandemic necessitated an all-digital version last year. The 2021 version is scheduled to take place at the SouthSide Works complex.
New episodes of the show are on pause as the pandemic continues. Promising that “Drinking Partners” will return in 2021, Bailey says that the spontaneity of the show is better served in person — and that its freeform nature is key.
“We know what we’re going to say at the beginning, we know how we’re going to end it. For the hour in the middle, I don’t know what the hell it’s going to be.” — SC
Marta on the Move
Hosted by Marta Mazzoni
Growing and changing is only part of being human, and Marta Mazzoni puts her process on display in “Marta on the Move.”
“The podcast is very strange because it’s basically a vehicle for my curiosity and a journal entry for my life,” Mazzoni says. “So I kind of use it as a vehicle for my own self-discovery of things that interest me or that I sway towards.”
Mazzoni began the podcast in 2014 to connect with her hometown between frequent journeys. At first, it focused on entertainment and travel, reflecting her love of solo traveling as a means of cutting the cords of comfort and experiencing more of the world. (She encourages others to do so, too.)
“When I would come home, I would want a way that I would be able to connect everyone … back to my hometown,” Mazzoni says. “At least that’s how it started — discovering cool things in my hometown to fall back in love with.”
When a car accident led to intense physical therapy, Mazzoni turned inward to nourish her mental health. As she learned more about meditation and yoga — and began to teach yoga online — the podcast widened its scope to include wellness and lifestyle, with a special focus on connecting with one’s present self.
To practice what she preaches, Mazzoni tries not to get caught up in the metrics of podcasting or comparing herself to other podcasters. Instead, she honors who she is and what she is interested in at this moment. And while she plans on listening to old episodes someday, she wants to avoid that distraction right now.
“I do podcasts because it’s my own personal form of therapy,” Mazzoni says. “And I’m at a point in my life where I want to help people, and if it helps one person lift their spirits or get some positivity … I’ll be happy.” — KR
Produced by SLB Radio Productions
Since 2012, SLB Radio Productions — the audio-production organization best known for the long-running children’s radio show “Saturday Light Brigade” — has been working with students on an unconventional oral-history project.
Groups of 15 to 20 African American teenage boys spend the summer interviewing men in their own neighborhoods, recording free-form conversations that serve both as personal history and perspective on the community. These recordings are edited into a series of radio pieces, “Crossing Fences.”
“We have to work with the youth to decide what pieces of this interview, what segments, would be really important to share with your community,” explains Chanessa Schuler, SLB’s director of programs. “How can you convey the history of the neighborhood, the humble beginnings of this person’s life, their trajectory — how do they get to where they are now?”
Since 2017, “Crossing Fences” has also been released as a podcast — SLB’s first. “We needed an easily accessible way for the community to listen to these stories, [and] we knew that people would be interested in hearing these stories.
“They’re not famous, but they’re helping their community in various ways.”
Unlike most podcast and radio interviews, “Crossing Fences” is not presented as a back-and-forth discussion between the young interviewers and their subjects. Taking a more documentary approach, the show is edited to solely feature the subject.
“We present the voices the way that we do because we want people to feel like they are sitting down and talking to someone, face to face,” Schuler says. “They’re sitting down and listening to this story — rather than two people they don’t know having a conversation.” She adds that giving people a chance to tell and record their own stories often becomes a point of personal pride. “The men that participate are always really proud of that work and that connection that was made. They’re really proud of this audio that was produced.”
The show represents an evolution of SLB’s traditional role as a radio show, a move Schuler says is essential in terms of granting widespread access to “Crossing Fences.” “We wanted the people in these neighborhoods, which were predominantly Black, to hear these stories.
“Making these stories available, for free, is really critical.” — SC
Ghoul on Ghoul
Hosted by Sarah Cadence Hamm and Amanda Waltz
Ghoul on Ghoul” is a supernatural, sex-positive, horror-comedy podcast hosted by Amanda Waltz, senior staff writer at Pittsburgh City Paper, and Sarah Cadence Hamm, a local writer and creative content director.
Although “supernatural sex-positive horror-comedy” is a lot of things, it’s a perfect amalgamation of the friends’ interests.
“It was the best fit, basically,” Waltz says.
Waltz and Hamm have been friends for 10 years — the pair met via Waltz’s husband, who Hamm went to grad school with — and drifted somewhat naturally toward the idea of having a podcast. The show launched in May 2018.
“We’re self-centered enough to believe that our conversations are hilarious,” Hamm says.
Waltz enjoys exploring contemporary themes such as famous cults, video game urban legends and public figures, while Hamm loves digging into research and scholarly sources to get to the “why.”
“I get so excited when I get to do anything from J-Stor,” Hamm says, referencing the online library of academic journals and scholarship.
Some episodes have themes, while others are simply the hosts talking about a subject that interests them.
Episodes have covered tabletop role-playing games, Nancy Reagan’s personal psychic and hot movie monsters. The podcast is not merely about pop culture, nor is it just about horror and spooky things, nor is it focused exclusively on sex. It’s about all of those things, since, Hamm says, they wildly intersect.
“We know that horror and sex are very connected, but often within the male gaze,” Hamm says. “It’s like, you know, we are horny, but it’s also an attempt to kind of reclaim and stake a claim within horror and sexuality, for women and hopefully for other people, too.” — AR
Yinz Are Good
Hosted by Tressa Glover
Positivity has been hard to come by over the past year. So “Yinz Are Good,” a new show created by actor, producer and writer Tressa Glover, is designed to “let the good outweigh and outshine the negative and the bad.”
While the concept may seem like a response to 2020, it was in the works as of late 2019. “I started to have this feeling and couldn’t shake it — ‘I want to do something different, what is it?’” she says. “And I kept coming back to this idea of sharing stories.”
Episodes of “Yinz Are Good” contain plenty of stories, from listeners and friends, as well as community responses to prompts and questions. A regular segment, “Name That Neighborhood,” offers a quiz about the history and features of city neighborhoods and nearby municipalities. Glover says that the neighborhood focus stemmed from a desire to not only share personal stories but “the stories of the town itself … What are these neighborhoods — what do they have to say?”
While the focus is on good news, Glover says stories can be born of difficult circumstances. “Yinz Are Good” is not a show, she says, that ignores the realities of 2020.
“I had this big banner made, you know, like the ones that they have at conventions,” Glover explains, “to get the word out about the podcast, and if people want to share stories. I was in Mount Lebanon, and a gentleman came up and asked about it.” After a moment, he said that his mother had just died, and made an offer for the show: “‘Can I share the eulogy I just did for her?’
“He emailed me the eulogy and I read it on air. It was [framed as], ‘This woman made my life and made me the best person I could be.’ … He was dealing with the sorrow of having lost his mother … but focusing on all the good.” — SC
Produced by SLB Radio Productions
Most content made for children is made by adults, but “Youth Express” turns that model on its head. The podcast from SLB Radio Productions gives a platform for youth to share their voices, perspectives, and talent with an audience of not only their peers, but of adults as well.
“Youth Express” features original creations from local youth, from writing and music to theater and journalism. The podcast was launched as a 24/7 radio service in 2014 with support from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation and others. In 2017, the weekly podcast began as a reliable weekly place where people could subscribe and access the content.
SLB Radio Productions works with about 50 schools and community centers annually, along with affinity groups such as Remake Learning and Allegheny Partners for Out-of-School Time, to record students as part of afterschool programs and classroom projects. Many students who work with them later come to the radio studio, based at the Children’s Museum, to take part in programs that occur fully at the studio. “Youth Express” usually has three segments per episode, and it also accepts submissions.
“We’re not doing our jobs if we’re not getting voices of youth into the heads of adults,” says Larry Berger, founder and executive director of SLB Radio Productions. “When we do that really well, adults start being more respectful of youth and their ideas in real life, not just on the radio.”
Berger also hopes that the podcast offers youth the opportunity to hear from and connect to their peers who live in different neighborhoods and communities. While metrics are difficult to track, the podcast has more than 500 downloads per month; Berger’s focus has always been on serving the community and giving voice to others, rather than on advertisers.
“Our motto is if the youth knows their voice matters, they therefore know they matter,” Berger says. “And once you know that you matter, it can be life-changing.” — KR
Hosted by John Chamberlin and Rachael Rennebeck
YaJagoff!,” a 5-year-old podcast by John Chamberlin and Rachael Rennebeck (it began as a blog of the same name in 2010), exposes the jagoffs of Pittsburgh, from people who can’t properly execute a Pittsburgh Left to the rogue Browns fans in town.
Both the blog and the podcast started out as a hobby. In 2015, Chamberlin and Rennebeck asked Jason Falls, a digital marketer, what else they could be doing as a brand. Falls recommended a podcast.
“We’re like, ‘Oh, God, we need one more thing to do for free,’” Chamberlin says.
But the podcast, which launched in December 2015, took off. According to Chamberlin, people used to find the podcast via the blog. Now people find the blog via the podcast.
The brand spotlights the city’s jagoffs in the appreciative sense — according to the website, “Expressing appreciation to someone, with a smile on your face and a hug, you say, ‘Ya Jagoff!’” — by exploring destinations, teaming up with local personalities and showing the good happening in Pittsburgh.
Although “YaJagoff!” may have a silly local reference as its premise, it does serious work. The podcast was twice named a finalist in the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania Golden Quill awards. That should come as no surprise, however, since Rennebeck is a former journalist at the Tribune-Review and has a degree in journalism.
It’s the attention to detail in Pittsburgh storytelling that has added to the show’s growth and popularity.
“We are, every day, trying to figure out who’s a good guest, how we’re going to make this a good guest,” Chamberlin says. — AR
Night at Sea
Hosted by Dante Villagomez
Most podcasts are centered around conversation. “Night at Sea” is no exception — although in this case, the conversation is conducted solely with music, no words required.
Hosted by Dante Villagomez, a DJ who performs under the name Spices Peculiar, “Night at Sea” is an experimental-music podcast featuring Villagomez improvising with fellow musicians.
The show was born while Villagomez was “surrounded by music” as a sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh. “I started making music with friends,” he says, “[and] I had a lot of live, improv jams that were just fun, goofing off. I was kinda having trouble separating those two things; the podcast … was a good spot to put those free-form sessions up.”
Unlike most podcasts, there’s no introduction or discussion on “Night at Sea.” Each episode is beginning-to-end music, presented without comment — and designed, Villagomez says, to provide some peaceful listening, perhaps for those looking for a bit of music as they drift off to sleep.
“End of the night, you’re not doing much, you’re relaxing, you’re just trying to catch your breath.”
Villagomez, who was traveling in Asia when COVID-19 began to spread and has since taken up temporary residence in Arizona, says the show was a way to tap into Pittsburgh’s wealth of musical talent. “It was just an opportunity to meet people in the Pittsburgh scene. I had a few friends who were musicians; the podcast really gave me an excuse to reach out to people who I wouldn’t necessarily make music with.”
Undoubtedly, he says, “It’s more of a niche market,” with a limited reach in terms of listenership. He adds that it’s immensely rewarding when friends or fans reach out to discuss the show.
Most importantly, “At the heart of it, I really do love making this kind of free-form music.” — SC