From a basement to the studio
The end of one DIY podcast, the beginning of another
Michael Zampino and Hilton Price, hosts of Opinions Like A-holes
Three years ago, Jason Ferguson started a podcast. The scruffy musician was gorging on the booming medium, listening to shows by comedians like Marc Maron, Joe Rogan, and Bill Burr. Like many of us these days, he was smitten with the concept of a do-it-yourself, no-rules radio show, and decided he’d start his own.
“[Back then] there were podcasts around and doing well, but it was right before Serial [popularized the medium in the mainstream],” Ferguson said. “I was listening to podcasts all the time and thought it was cool, and I thought, ‘Oh, I wanna do that.’”
In May of 2014, Ferguson launched From a Basement in Tulsa. His first episode featured El Dub (real name Lee Walsh), a musician who, at the time, lived in an RV and traveled from town to town playing solo shows. True to the podcast’s title, the episode was recorded in Ferguson’s basement apartment in Owen Park.
“I didn’t know what I was doing, I was just trying to get comfortable talking into the microphone—and learning how to turn a microphone on,” Ferguson said.
As he tells it, he had no agenda—or plan, really—he just wanted to talk about cool stuff with his friends over beers and record it. He and his musician friends started the podcast just hanging out at his house, where they recorded a few proto-episodes that were never
Soon after its beginning, Lourdes Alcala, Ferguson’s girlfriend, took on the title of executive producer and started handling the podcast’s marketing, branding, social media, and—most crucially—the
“I made a huge deal about releasing episodes consistently,” Ferguson said. But, he was also lackadaisical about scheduling interviews. With Alcala on board, From a Basement in Tulsa became a well-oiled machine, producing podcasts made up mostly of interviews with local musicians, artists, and national and regional acts passing through town.
As a host, Ferguson was a natural—affable, easy-going, focused, and knowledgeable. But his passion for podcasting started to dwindle as he became more focused on music. After a few months of wrestling with the idea, he and Alcala decided to throw in the towel. The last episode of From a Basement in Tulsa—his 131st—was posted on Nov. 6, 2016.
The guests were Kylie Slabby and Kylie Hastings from Tulsa garage rock band The Daddyo’s, and the episode was recorded in a basement of another kind: a recording studio Ferguson had taken over at the bottom of an office building downtown.
“It kind of became a little bit of a job, and I was becoming obsessed with recording music,” Ferguson said. “The first time I really recorded music was people playing live for the show, and I found that really fun … I was spending so much time editing the show … I don’t know, I wasn’t having as much fun, and with something like that, if you’re not having fun, there’s really absolutely no point.”
At the same time that Ferguson and Alcala were putting the finishing touches on their last episode of From a Basement in Tulsa, Tulsa comics Michael Zampino and Hilton Price launched their own podcast from a makeshift studio across town. Opinions Like A-holes is a weekly riff session during which Zampino and Price bullshit about pop culture news of the day with various guests. Since posting the first episode last Halloween, the two have managed to produce consistently, posting a new episode nearly every Monday.
I initially reached out to Zampino to ask if I could watch them record an episode for this article; Zampino responded that I should be a guest. When I arrived at the studio, it was in the earliest stages of what looked to be a lengthy buildout, save for a fully functional podcast recording studio in one room, where Zampino and Price were preparing the talking points for the day’s episode on a dry erase board: Movie trailers (“The Dark Tower” and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle”), the recent Hall and Oates concert, the Fyre Festival debacle, and the new At the Drive-in album, among others.
“Guns ‘n’ Roses and The Who announce a joint tour?!” Price said incredulously as he scanned the internet from his Mega Man-adorned laptop. “Alright,” he shrugged. “You wanna do that one?”
“Yeah,” Zampino agreed. “We’ll end with that one.”
Opinions is the product of Channel Four and a Half, a fledgling production company/comedy collective led by Zampino, Andrew Deacon, Landry Miller, and Ryan Green. In October of last year, the group rented out an office space in a modest shopping strip near 51st Street and Peoria Avenue, and began the process of turning the space into a full-fledged production studio, with plans for video webcasts, podcasts, and other ephemera. The goal is to provide support and an outlet for local comics serious about producing content, specifically webcasts and podcasts. Channel Four and a Half already hosts about a dozen programs on their website, which they do as a service—they never charge for hosting.
“[The company] started as a combination of a place to put all the stuff we were already creating and an avenue to help the other super creative people around us who had great ideas, but didn’t have the equipment or know-how to actually record or film,” Zampino said. “Some people had a way to produce a show but wanted another option besides just throwing it up on YouTube
Last year, 57 million Americans listened to a podcast at least once a month, according to Edison Research, a market research company based in New Jersey. More people listen to podcasts now than use Spotify, by a wide margin, and the number of active Twitter users and podcast listeners is about equal. The medium is experiencing rapid growth in listenership, but measuring the number of podcasts being produced is another matter—according to the Pew Research Center, nobody really knows. In Tulsa alone, new podcasts seem to pop up every week on topics both local and national, from broad subjects like film, comedy and the arts to specific interests and fields like vinyl, real estate, and city politics.
“There are no widely accepted estimates of the total number of podcasts in the U.S.,” said Pew contributor Nancy Vogt in a June 2016 story at journalism.org. However, she goes on to say, Libsyn, one of the largest podcast hosting companies (which hosted From a Basement), hosted 28,000 podcasts in 2015, up from 22,000 the previous year and 16,000 in 2014.
Speculating beyond these numbers is a fool’s errand for the same reasons it would be absurd to try to measure the number of teenagers recording songs in their parents’ basements.
And that’s part of the appeal: literally anyone can play radio host now—the motivation, talent, and labor it takes to produce a podcast is only slightly higher than what it takes to run a well-curated Instagram account. At the very least, one only needs a laptop, a microphone and some basic software to record what sounds and feels like a legitimately produced radio show. Press record, talk, add some intro music, design a cool logo, throw the file up on iTunes and Soundcloud, and start promoting it on social media.
But this ease of use is also why it’s so hard to build a sizeable audience, much less monetize it. It’s more likely that your cat meme will go viral than you’ll ever make money off your podcast. For larger organizations and institutions, such as news outlets, churches, and various pockets of industry, podcasting is a low-stakes, low-cost way to boost traffic and visibility. But for DIYers, it remains a hobbyist’s medium, sustained only by the passion and devotion of its creators. When the passion runs out, the podcast usually follows.
For more from Joshua, read his interview with filmmaker and Tulsa icon Larry Clark.