Jeff Emtman, The Art of Podcasting No. 8

Here Be Monsters is an independent podcast about the dark and mysterious side of life, and it’s one of the shows that inspires The Timbre. Devon Taylor got a chance to sit down with the head producer and host, Jeff Emtman, before his live HBM shows in New York City next week. The two discussed podcasts networks versus indie producers, the influence of art on money, well witching, hitchhiking, and dead hookers.

JEFF EMTMAN

You’re in Denver?

THE TIMBRE

Yes.

JEFF EMTMAN

I used to live in Boulder.

THE TIMBRE

You know, I knew that. You have a couple of mentions on the show about that. What brought you there?

JEFF EMTMAN

I was chasing a story that dried up.

THE TIMBRE

And you just never left?

JEFF EMTMAN

When I was hitchhiking across the country, I spent a week in Denver and a night up in Louisville with an old college roommate of mine. We had been talking and we thought there was going to be this really great story. She had just started boxing. There was this big family tie-in and this media tie-in. I thought the story would be really good and I kind of shopped it around. I heard some rumblings of interest, so I moved down to Boulder to see if I could make it happen. The story dried up and I just decided to stay for a bit.

THE TIMBRE

Speaking of your hitchhiking experience, I have to tell you this weird thing that struck me when I heard your two-part story about your trip. When you were heading southeast from Seattle to Memphis, I was on a road trip heading northwest from Memphis to Seattle. In fact, I think we might have been in Missouri on the same day.

JEFF EMTMAN

Really?

THE TIMBRE

Yeah, you mentioned the Joplin tornadoes on the podcast and I was in St. Louis the day they touched down in Joplin. It was such a surreal experience hearing about your trip because you end up in Memphis and I ended up in Seattle.

JEFF EMTMAN

Oh, wow.

THE TIMBRE

It was one of those moments that struck me. I am sort of obsessed with the simultaneity of human experience and the idea that I am going to have this conversation with a person in four or five years who is traveling the reverse path as I am and probably searching for similar things and seeing things that are familiar to me and I am seeing things that are familiar to him. I thought it was so cool to hear that.

JEFF EMTMAN

That’s so poetic.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs>

JEFF EMTMAN

I always hate to tear the veil down, but I think I got picked up in Missouri after the tornados.

THE TIMBRE

Well, then you ruined it.

JEFF EMTMAN

Did I describe the guy who picked me up on the show?

THE TIMBRE

Was he the religious man?

JEFF EMTMAN

I’m not sure. I had these unwritten rules when I was hitchhiking. Actually, nope, I wrote them down. I had these written rules about when to turn down a ride. One of them was to never get into a car with someone who is on their cell phone when they pull over.

THE TIMBRE

Why?

JEFF EMTMAN

To me it showed that they were kind of in a different world and not paying a lot of attention to what’s going on. But right when I was near Joplin, I was on this on-ramp and it was apparent I was going to be there for a long time. After about 45 minutes, this guy pulls up and he’s on his cell phone in this big truck. I look down in the passenger seat and there are just two empty stiletto heels.

THE TIMBRE

Oh my.

JEFF EMTMAN

I’m like, “What?” But I got in anyway.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs>

JEFF EMTMAN

We just take off. I’m thinking to myself, “You just made the worst decision of your life. The person who was in these stiletto heels is obviously no longer here.” He’s talking on his phone and I can’t even get a read on him. But he was talking about the Joplin cleanup. Eventually he got off the phone and he was like, “Yeah, I do labor to try to clean up the City of Joplin.”

I was still just really nervous about these giant stiletto heels the whole time. He was this really tough looking guy. He drove me for maybe a half an hour or so and then let me off on the side of the road. As I was getting my bag out of the back seat of his truck–

THE TIMBRE

You saw the dead hooker?

JEFF EMTMAN

No, even better. I saw his feet, which were barefoot.

THE TIMBRE

Ahhh.

JEFF EMTMAN

The only logical conclusion I could come to from these giant stiletto heels and the bare feet were that they were his.

THE TIMBRE

Wow. That’s wonderful.

JEFF EMTMAN

It was the most unexpectedly not bad ending to that story I could have thought of.

THE TIMBRE

It feels like the kind of thing that would happen to you because it’s the kind of story that seems like you would seek out. These forces that are sort of conflicting and they’re all occurring in the same person or the same place.

You’ve actually been in my ears for the last few days. I’ve been going back through your Here Be Monsters catalogue. I feel like you’ve been hanging out with me, which has been fun. Though one time I fell asleep listening and had some pretty wild dreams.

JEFF EMTMAN

I’m glad you feel that way. I know some people listen to the show when they’re falling asleep and I’m like, “I wouldn’t be able to do that.”

THE TIMBRE

You’ve heard people say that?

JEFF EMTMAN

Yeah! I mean, whatever floats your boat, but I don’t know if that’s a boat I would want to be riding on.

THE TIMBRE

No, probably not. Although I feel like you’ve been veering more toward this kind of “creepy” thing in the later seasons. Going through your older episodes, it seems like a lot of that was a bit more memoir related. Kind of your personal monsters and not as much the world’s monsters.

JEFF EMTMAN

Exactly. To be entirely upfront, when I started the show, I was running at such a breakneck speed, I was pulling in old interviews that I had done. So that was part of it, too. A lot of that was stuff I had recorded for other purposes that I was retooling for the podcast as opposed to now where each story is created out of nothing.

THE TIMBRE

It’s funny with your show, I feel like I am always trying to figure out what it’s about or what it is. It is so slippery, I can never nail it down. I was curious what you would say your show is about.

JEFF EMTMAN

I really like the aspect of the show that keeps it from having to get pigeon-holed. Maybe some people think it lacks direction, but the most basic way I can think of it is: when I was about 22 or 23, I was just really afraid of a lot of things. I was kind of having these tumultuous nights when I couldn’t sleep and all of these things were changing in my life. Realizing I was afraid of so many things in the world and there was so much uncertainty, I tried to do something about it. I wanted to take a little bit of initiative in my life. This was the thing that made sense to me, chasing these things down through a podcast and sharing that almost therapeutic experience with other people.

THE TIMBRE

Do you feel like that’s still what guides it?

JEFF EMTMAN

To a certain degree. You’re right to say that it’s less about me now. It’s not just personal autobiography. I think the point it’s at right now is saying, “Look, I’m a contributor to the show, but there are a lot of other people who need to go on this journey as well.” It’s branching to a broader scheme, which I think was the plan all along.

THE TIMBRE

In no way do I mean to suggest it lacks direction. I actually think more than any other show, your show makes me a better listener. I feel like with a lot of podcasts, there is a little bit of predictability to them, even if they are really excellent. There is a sense of like, “This is our topic and we’re going to explore it and we’re going to do so through these different lenses. One might be a little more personal, one might be a little more scientific or philosophical.” But your show always takes turns that I don’t expect. I’ve stopped trying to anticipate it.

JEFF EMTMAN

I’m really glad to hear that. That’s exactly what I hope for. I think the difference between Here Be Monsters and a lot of other podcasts that I listen to is that a lot of them focus on a central topic. Instead of focusing on a central topic, we’re focusing on a central question. That frees up the topics to be absolutely anything. If it was a podcast about science, you kind of have to squeeze everything into that world. Instead I am saying, “What are we afraid of?” and I am finding everything I can see in that world. Tracking down fear is a framework I think any topic can fit into.

THE TIMBRE

What were you doing prior to Here Be Monsters?

JEFF EMTMAN

I spent two years in college working as the news director of a small station up in Bellingham, Washington, called KUGS. It is affiliated with the university I went to called Western Washington University. Those two years were really amazing. I had a really supportive supervisor, but I was given a lot of latitude to experiment in the field. I was given free rein of a volunteer news team that I found and trained. We were reporting issues around the community and a couple of cases outside it and around the world.

That is actually where I met Bethany Denton, who I work with now. I met her as a volunteer at the station. She decided to do a lot of training with me. That situation was really funny because I didn’t know what I was talking about, but I was talking about it. I wound up training her on radio and she wound up producing some really amazing pieces for that station. We’re now working together in an ever-expanding capacity.

THE TIMBRE

Was that your first experience with telling stories?

JEFF EMTMAN

It is kind of strange because sometimes I try to figure out where I came from and why I have this perspective. Growing up I didn’t have a ton of friends. I hung out with my cat a lot who was a really good cat.

THE TIMBRE

<laughs>

JEFF EMTMAN

I was in rural Washington over by Idaho. It was a really funny little town. The whole length of my childhood, I was playing with that cat, playing with legos, and listening to books on tape while I did those things.

THE TIMBRE

Hang on. Is there a plane going over you?

JEFF EMTMAN

I thought that was on your end.

THE TIMBRE

Hmm. That’s odd. Monsters? Do they follow you?

JEFF EMTMAN

My mom used to think she was cursed. It was kind of a joke. She had a bad habit of making electronics malfunction when she got close to them. There was that theory for a while that certain ghosts exist in computers.

THE TIMBRE

Was your mom kind of into mystical stuff like that?

JEFF EMTMAN

Actually the exact opposite. I come from a really logical family. Scientific. But also very religious. I spent a lot of time in church, but not like Pentecostal. It was the most polite form of religion. Talking about the mystic wasn’t really something I got from my family. It was from listening to these fantasy books on tape. Whether it was C.S. Lewis or Tolkien or Harry Potter. That was where I was getting mysticism. But mysticism and magic were not really supported by my family with one notable exception other than religion.

THE TIMBRE

What was that?

JEFF EMTMAN

It’s something I’ve been dying to do a story about. Despite being an incredibly practical family, my mom will occasionally witch wells.

THE TIMBRE

Pardon?

JEFF EMTMAN

<laughs> Do you know what water witching is?

THE TIMBRE

No.

JEFF EMTMAN

It’s a form of divination, which… this is going to sound really crazy. There are multiple ways to do it. Some involve a willow rod. But the way my mom does it is with copper rods. What you do is you have these two copper rods that are shaped like capital Ls and you hold the short end of the L in your hand. You have these two copper rods sticking out in front of you and you walk around with the rods kind of loosely flowing. When you’re standing on top of water, the rods are supposed to cross over each other. That’s where you should dig a well.

According to the lore and the folk legend, it’s something that is genetic. I have this memory of one night being down in the basement with my brother, my mom, and my dad, and my mom was showing us how she thinks she is able to pick up on the pipes in the house. Because she knew where the pipes were, the rods were crossing when she was standing over them. But my dad tried and he couldn’t do it, and my brother tried it and he couldn’t do it, and I tried it and I could do it.

Despite coming from this family that has very little belief in magic, this is one thing that my family does that most people think is bat-shit crazy.

THE TIMBRE

How old were you when that happened?

JEFF EMTMAN

I’m actually not sure, but I would guess it was some time between the ages of 8 and 12.

THE TIMBRE

Those little moments can almost bring something that is already there online. Where you realize like, “Wow, this is fascinating to me,” and you didn’t even know that could be fascinating to you. Because you’re young and your experience is limited. Was that one of those moments for you where you felt like you tapped into the world of the unknown?

JEFF EMTMAN

I think it would be really easy for me to say yes, but in all honesty I don’t think I ever connected the dots when I was younger. My fascination with belief as a child was “What do I believe in?” I never really externalized that out to “Let’s pay attention to what other people believe in.”

I mentioned that my family’s religion was very polite, but I kind of became a religious zealot as a child. My best friend in middle school and throughout high school was Muslim and, I don’t remember if I ever said this to her, but I have so many distinct memories of me holding myself back from breaking down in front of her and saying, “I don’t want you to go to hell.” Which is a pretty fucked up mentality to have.

When I was younger, I wasn’t really focused on looking at things from an outside standpoint because I was so focused on what I believed must be true. I wanted to proselytize to everyone.

THE TIMBRE

It’s really interesting that you had that perspective as a child because, on your show anyway, it seems like you are so open to the possibility of anything. Do you feel that way?

JEFF EMTMAN

I can see how I could come across that way. I think I am better about it than I was. I think I am a little bit more even-handed now than I was. I find the ridiculousness of the left as fascinating as the ridiculousness of the right.

THE TIMBRE

So often what guides your stories as a listener is that there is a lack of commentary on the subject. By that I mean you’re not telling the listener how to feel about what you’re presenting.

JEFF EMTMAN

The idea of judgment coming through the show is one of those points where I really differ with a lot of the establishment here. I see these two competing camps of documentary or reporting work. One is that kind of old archetype of journalism being this entirely nonjudgmental space. I think the phrase is “Just the facts, ma’am.” It’s sort of dry, fedora-wearing journalism. Then it seems like there is this other movement that is like, “You can’t be nonjudgmental, so you just have to focus on your personal experience and what you personally believe.” That to me kind of seems like it also has some caveats. Because there are things that we know. You can’t live in such a wishy-washy existence. I try to make it clear what my biases are, but I try not to let it override someone else’s experience.

There is a really strange power dynamic that exists in interviewing, which I’m sure you’re aware of. When you’re talking in an interview like we are right now, we kind of have equal say in the conversation. In this situation, I am doing a lot more talking than you are, so it kind of makes it seem like I’m in the position of power. But the hours that go in behind the scenes where you’re editing someone and getting to choose what they get to say and what they don’t say in the finished piece that people actually see or hear, that’s kind of messed up. So I try to make a conscious effort when I am doing the final mixes on these pieces–whether I am reporting them or someone else is–to try to remove that kind of moralizing that I was really good at as a child. I want listeners to draw the message that they need to draw from the pieces. I really try not to tell people what to think.

THE TIMBRE

How do you maintain a narrative arc with that approach?

JEFF EMTMAN

It’s a little bit more difficult. You have to avoid cliches. It’s hard to avoid cliches. But, like the most recent full episode about White Supremacy, there are just so many easy ways to tell that story. Not to pass judgment on anyone else’s story that has come to kind of a clean conclusion, but we were trying to write all these conclusions to it and none of them were right. Both of us felt so torn about the situation and whether or not it was okay to hate someone.

THE TIMBRE

I loved that episode. I was blown away by how restrained it was in commenting on it, but I felt like it was clear that you could read into it whatever you wanted. If you happen to be a White Supremacist, you could listen and be like, “Hey, preach on, buddy.” I assume you’re banking on the fact that most people aren’t, but there isn’t any need for you to tell people how to hear that. That turn to empathy at the end was so surprising and such a challenge. I wondered a lot about how you guys arrived at that as the structure.

JEFF EMTMAN

Through a mechanism that I am ashamed to employ as often as I do, which is, twenty hours before press time, I call up the producer and say, “We need to do a re-write on this whole section.” We had gone through five to ten drafts of a script for that end section. Then at the end–and I feel really bad about this because I do this to people a lot–I said, “Start this from scratch. We need something new.”

THE TIMBRE

What was it originally?

JEFF EMTMAN

It was a ton of things originally. Some of the endings came out condemning him and some of them came out being really compassionate toward him. In the end, we decided not to pass a judgment, but instead have other people write in and say what they thought. And people did and it was really nice to see that people were thinking about it in ways that Emile and I both missed.

THE TIMBRE

You almost got the best of both worlds. I don’t mean that as a cheat, but I feel like you’re being honest with it. Tell me if I’m wrong, but it seems like you’re letting the reporting talk to you rather than the other way around. Like it’s telling you that you don’t have a conclusion instead of you forcing one on it.

JEFF EMTMAN

Absolutely. I think that’s the big downside of Storytelling. Storytelling with a capital S. It really focuses on conclusions and wrapping things up with a bow. That feels fairly dishonest to me because nine times out of ten that’s not how the real world works. In Here Be Monsters, I think the beginning is the focus of the story. The setup and the location and the characters are so much more important than how they all come together in a neat way in the finish. I think that really serves my ideal of the show and the aesthetic of the show, which is to be more reflective and meditative than a lot of the other offerings right now. But it also limits it’s packagability for a wider audience because the establishment right now is really focused on traditional storytelling. It isn’t always interested in these more meandering things.

THE TIMBRE

I was going to save this for later, but since you brought it up, I know you mentioned on your show that you were looking to pair with a larger network. I was curious about that decision and where you were with it.

JEFF EMTMAN

Bethany and I worked up a big business pitch and we mailed it out to a handful of people. We were really surprised that they all wrote back. No one got the pitch and was just like, “See you later.” That was really great. For strategic reasons, I can’t tell you everything that is happening right now. All I can say is that the response has been really good.

It is looking like there’s a handful of places that we could wind up. Or the show could remain independent. In these conversations I have been having with these institutions, it’s really easy to see where the values of these institutions lie based on the questions that they ask me. Some have been really focused on numbers. They say, “How many downloads do you have?” and “What’s your listener engagement rate?” and “What percentage of people are leaving reviews here?” I understand why that happens, but it always surprises me. I know you can’t just live for free. But then these other conversations I’ve been having feel so much less like an interrogation and more like a real conversation about things like, “What is the future of the medium?” and “What are you doing to change it?” and “What do you hope happens in the future of this medium?” Those sorts of broader questions are much more appealing to me because it shows me what they are hoping to do.

THE TIMBRE

It’s kind of funny because I get where you’re coming from about these conversations about numbers being kind of off-putting, but at the same time you are making a decision to go to a network, so there must be something of that thinking going on for you as well. There must be a business side that is driving that decision.

JEFF EMTMAN

Oh, yeah. For a lot of the show, I’ve had a day job. A day job not in radio–and that is intentional because I would just get burned out by it. I work in the fast food industry. I’m a bike deliverer. I actually really like my day job. It’s not that many hours a week, but it’s physical and it wears me. But for all the things that I love about it, it really keeps the show from developing to where it needs to go. Bethany works a day job, too.

There are shows that we want to do that involve travel and investigative research and shows where we would have to hire out other people and musicians. If we had just a little bit of money coming in, we could make the show more frequent, more deep, more thoughtful. All the things that we want. We could promote more independent producers and musicians, which is very important to both of us. It honestly is just a time and money thing.

THE TIMBRE

Are you worried at all about the creative control of your show if you were to join a larger network?

JEFF EMTMAN

Absolutely. When you’re working under someone else’s name, there is an inherent understanding that you’re not allowed to run that institution’s reputation into the ground. That’s not a risk for a lot of people, but I think it’s a risk for us because we do touch on some pretty dark topics. If someone in the media wanted to cherry pick quotes out of Here Be Monsters shows, they could very easily destroy this project just because, on the surface, talking about white supremacy or bipolar disorder or dealing with anger issues, those sorts of things really touch on some dark stuff. I understand why there has to be that kind of oversight. I just think some folks are much more willing to go to bat for a small show than others who have bigger fish to fry.

THE TIMBRE

I might not have as good a handle on the world as I would like to think I do, but it seems that there are only a handful of these networks and there are many talented independent podcasters, but especially in this investigative/narrative world, there are only a few that are able to garner the attention that a show like Here Be Monsters has. This is going to sound kind of odd because of course I want success for you, but I sort of mourn the idea of an independent podcaster no longer being independent.

JEFF EMTMAN

<laughs> Well, remaining independent is certainly an option on the table. And now that there’s a sizable audience, it’s not a scary proposition either. The show is going to succeed either way. When Bethany and I have these discussions, we talk about “What is the best decision for the podcast?” Money is one of those considerations, but it’s certainly not the biggest one. I don’t know. I’m a frugal person. I can live a really good life on a little bit of money. I really like making this show and if it turns into a career, it turns into a career. But I think it’ll be successful whether or not it is backed by one of these names that we hear floating around the industry. The longer the show remains independent and the larger an audience it gains, I think the larger impact it can have on the medium as a whole.

That being said, there are a couple of people who we have been talking to who fall into that category of people who just seem to get it. That’s really powerful. It’s kind of a question of “Do you sign up with someone who has 90 percent of things going the right way?” or “Do you resist signing up and build your own model at the expense of ten years of hard business lessons?” Either option is good. It’s just a matter of finding out which is better.

THE TIMBRE

I guess there is a third option that we’re too cynical to acknowledge, which is that one of these networks might have ideas that will actually further the vision of your show in exactly the ways that you would want and that would be surprising and sort of enchanting to you.

JEFF EMTMAN

<laughs> I’m not too cynical to admit that. But you’re right to point out that it wasn’t one of my initial assumptions. I think that I’m just enough of a hippie to inherently mistrust business–and not enough of a hippie to throw out the proposition entirely. But it’s strange what influence money has on art. I look forward to trying to navigate that world without turning into a cynical bastard.

THE TIMBRE

The influence of money on art can be really tragic.

JEFF EMTMAN

But I think people have succeeded in this dilemma before. The way I approach is it is that I say “The path of least resistance is not going to result in a happy life for me.” I have a fundamental need to feel like I am doing good things in the world. The path of least resistance wouldn’t serve that.

THE TIMBRE

Yeah, or you would have ended that white supremacy episode saying what a bastard he was–and everyone would have said, “Oh, good. We think so, too.” But it wouldn’t have challenged anyone.

JEFF EMTMAN

Right.

THE TIMBRE

I hope you’re right, though. Podcasts are so young right now and I feel like they attract an audience that thinks about these questions more than other audiences do. Maybe that’s not fair. Maybe we’re just seeing that conversation play out in real time. But it feels like there is such an opportunity for podcasters and networks to look at the mistakes that have been made in other mediums and the way the art has been denigrated as a result and choose to do it differently.

JEFF EMTMAN

The nice thing about a new medium is that we can look at the closest thing to happen before it and try to avoid some of those pitfalls. As we know from the conversations of, say, online journalism compared to newspapers, we know that some of those things were avoidable and some of the challenges faced by online news outlets are entirely different and new. I think that in the next five or ten years, the medium of podcasting is going to experience its set of crises and scandals that are probably completely outside the realm of understanding to us right now.

That being said, I think there are a lot of things to look forward to as well. I am just going to hold out for the wild and more chaotic spirit of podcasting that we’re allowed to have right now before the rest of the world catches on that you can use this as a tool to make a lot of money.

Author Description

Devon Taylor is co-founder and editor in chief of The Timbre. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic, CutBank, and The Tottenville Review. She grew up in New Jersey, received her Masters in creative writing at the University of Memphis, and lives in New York City.

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