Perhaps you were hunting around iTunes one day and came across a list of the top audio podcasts. There in the top five among the usual suspects from NPR was something called Stuff You Should Know. And once you started listening, you were hooked on the congenial chit-chat between hosts Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant, senior writers at HowStuffWorks.com (owned by Discovery Communications). And the topics, oh the topics, with one outdoing the next: How flamethrowers work, how you clean up an oil spill, and how hard is it to steal a work of art.
Stuff You Should Know About ‘Stuff You Should Know’
> The podcast was first started in April 2008 with Josh Clark as host with rotating co-hosts, with Chuck Bryant joining him to form the dynamic duo in August 2008.
> They are not experts. Really, they’re not.
> There’s a TV show in its second season on Discovery Channel based on HowStuffWorks.com, but Josh & Chuck aren’t involved with it. They would like to do something like that one day.
> They have made more than 250 podcast episodes, and it has peaked at #1 on iTunes among all podcasts.
> The shows take as long as they take. A show on cliff diving clocked in at 27:19 while a show on serial killers took 44:41.
> In April 2010, the podcast had more than 3.5 million downloads. How do I know? Josh & Chuck’s PR person told me that.
> Josh & Chuck still write for HowStuffWorks.com, and have become senior writers. They don’t have the time to start another podcast, but do have a blog and would love to take a live show around the country based on an upcoming audiobook.
I had the pleasure of talking with Josh & Chuck recently in a wide-ranging phone chat, and the following is an edited version of that conversation.
How did you get started with the podcast?
Chuck Bryant: Josh and I were both initially hired as writers, which is what we continue to do, for HowStuffWorks.com. We did that for a solid year before the podcast started. Josh was approached by our editor in chief to start the podcast. Josh even thought of the name, “Stuff You Should Know.”
Josh Clark: Yup, I did … HowStuffWorks is perfect for this kind of media and they wanted to expand the brand a bit [with a podcast]. I had no idea how to do it, and Chuck you didn’t know how to do it?
Josh: And, frankly, to be honest I had never listened to an actual podcast before we started making one. Luckily we had a great producer and we were put together [as a team] and it worked out. We were surprised as anyone, probably moreso, that it’s worked as well as it has.
Chuck: The great thing about it was that there was no pressure at all at the beginning. We were writers for the website and that wasn’t going anywhere, so if the podcast failed miserably they would have shut it down and we would have gone back to writing. We have a great company and a parent company Discovery Communications [that allowed us] to let it grow organically, by word of mouth, and it’s been a big success.
Josh: We found the only real pressure is when we are above Ira Glass in the iTunes ranking. Otherwise, we’re fine and feel like we can do whatever we want.
Chuck explains why he think podcasting has staying power even with the rise of video:
Were you the first podcast produced for HowStuffWorks?
Josh: We were the first one and it was a shot in the dark. It started to take off like a rocket. So they said, “Let’s get everyone on the content side doing podcasts.” We had our history podcast that started out as “Fact or Fiction” and I played the gullible rube who would say, “I heard this about this historical event. Is that true?” My co-host would say whether it’s fact or fiction, or would say — and this would rile people up — “that’s faction!” That went the way of the dinosaur pretty quickly and was replaced by “Stuff You Missed in History Class,” which evolved out of that and has been very successful.
We have TechStuff, which is a great tech podcast. It has a great following, and the guys, Chris and Jonathan, are perfect foils for one another. They’re very subdued and rambunctious, respectively. We now have 10 total podcasts with a video podcast.
[UPDATE: Actually, it turns out that HowStuffWorks.com founder Marshall Brain did the first podcast for the site called BrainStuff. And now there are 3 total video podcasts out of 10.]
Why do you think it became so popular?
Chuck: The comment we get most from our fans on email or our Facebook fan page is: “It feels like I’m listening to a couple of my old friends from when I was in college, sitting around in a bar, having a drink.” The everyman quality that we both bring to the show really hits home. We’re not experts, we don’t profess to be experts. We mess things up every now and then, and people call us out and we read the correction on the air, and people get a kick out of that. It’s just a very down-to-earth smart discussion, usually pretty funny, and people get to learn something and have fun at the same time.
Josh: The conversational tone that we manage to strike in every podcast is another compliment we get. “It’s easy to listen to” is something we hear a lot. The reason for that is we don’t practice together or rehearse. We both read the same article from HowStuffWorks.com, and we read it independently, do our own side research, ask our own questions and go over the topic and tear it apart and explain it bit by bit, including stuff we found in the article and elsewhere. We go off on tangents. We have a way of dating things by if it was before or after the first “Ghostbusters” movie came out.
Every bit of this podcast has come about organically, was given room to grow on its own. That accounts for its success as well.
Chuck explains how they never script anything in advance and try to spring little factoids on each other:
So you base your subjects on a story that’s been written for the website, right?
Josh: That’s right. That’s what gives it the structure. We both know the meat information that we both read over and over again to absorb it. That provides the loose structure, but within a topic … one of my favorite topics of all time is How Zombies Work. That was cut into two parts. One was movie zombies and surviving a zombie apocalypse. That was semi-fictitious. Then there was the true part about Haitian zombies and how they’re created. Knowing that’s how the article went, we knew when it was time to switch gears when we’d used up our external research.
It’s very easy to tell, after doing this so many times, when we’re done. But at the same time, we’ve never been very pretentious about this. So we’ll say, “Do you have anything else?” And that stays in, it doesn’t get edited out. We’re not bashful about letting people see through the veneer of what we’re doing at any point. Though we do edit out any egregious mistakes — most of the time.
You cover some pretty serious subjects but you have a light tone. Does that become difficult for you or upset the audience?
Josh: Yes, every once in a while we get listener mail and are taken to task and scolded. It’s very rare. In almost every case, the person says ‘“I am not going to unsubscribe but I wanted you to know you ruffled my feathers.” When it comes to a heavy topic like “How Comas Work,” we treated it slightly more heavily than we did “How Twinkies Work” but it still has the Josh & Chuck tone. After it was released, we knew we hadn’t said anything offensive there but we wanted to make sure we hadn’t inadvertently offended anyone who had a family member in a vegetative state. And we got listener mail from people who do have relatives in comas, and they thanked us and said, “You guys did this very well, it was factual and respectful and you didn’t sensationalize it.”
Since that point in time, we’ve become a lot more confident that our approach could be applied to anything. So we’ve done “How Tourette’s Works” and we got compliments from people who have kids with Tourette’s. I think people identify with us on a personal level and they’re willing to forgive us.
Chuck: We now cover ourselves a little upfront with a disclaimer of sorts. We did a show on serial killers and it turns out we’re not the only ones endlessly fascinated with serial killers. And we knew we would be joking around on the show, because that’s what we do, so we said, “We just want people to know that while we are fascinated with this and into this, we do know there are real victims and we don’t want to make light of that, so let’s get on with the show.” Every once in a while a little disclaimer goes a long way.
Josh: Physics doesn’t really work in Chuck’s or my brain, it doesn’t fit that well. So we’ll research our little hearts out and try. We did a recent podcast on the Hadron Collider, but we did a disclaimer at the beginning of that one too, not that we would offend anyone, but that we would surely get several things wrong on this. And if you can correct us, please do. And we got corrections from astrophysicists. As recently as last Monday an astrophysicist came up to me and said, “You guys really screwed up the Large Hadron Collider.” But in a successive podcast, we read all the corrections on air, so the bad information we give out is corrected by someone who really knows what they’re talking about.
How do you get your audience involved? They suggest topics and correct you, but is there any other way you interact with them?
Chuck: I can’t say enough about our fan base. We’ve been lucky enough to meet some of them here on our trip to New York. We had a little get-together last night and are having another one tonight. They’re the kindest, smartest, most interesting, curious, inquisitive people we’ve ever met. Josh always says that they’re the largest collection of friends who have never met before. We get 350 fan mails a week, and our Facebook page has more than 10,000 fans after being up two months. We go onto Facebook a lot and we’re really active there, it doesn’t just sit there, and they appreciate that. It’s a big happy family.
Josh: Plus, our Kiva team is another way people have got involved in a really tangible way. We did a podcast on how microfinance works, and how you can give loans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. We partnered with Kiva.org and set up a Stuff You Should Know team, and got to $100,000 donated within a couple months. [The total is now beyond $150,000.] There’s a subsection of fans that has taken over our team and are leading the charge to raise a quarter-million dollars to loan to entrepreneurs in developing countries by the end of August.
Do you have plans to expand into other formats or do other projects?
Chuck: We’ve done a few live speaking gigs and spoke at an education conference and that’s opened up a whole world to us, speaking in front of live humans, instead of just the two of us sitting in a room.
Josh: If you want to be baptized by fire do your first speaking gig in front of a group of teachers and principals — especially if you were a smart aleck in school. They can tell 20 years on that you were somebody who would have given them trouble at their school.
Do you think the reason you’re so popular is that typical journalism is not doing a good enough explaining the basics?
Chuck: There’s some validity to that. Journalism and television media these days is pretty rapid-fire. You don’t get a lot of in-depth discussions on things. That’s why I love TV shows like “Charlie Rose” where you can get to the meat of the matter. We’re both big NPR fans; they do a good job of that. We’ve been able to expand the show, and when you have 45 minutes to discuss a topic, you can break it down, and it’s just a gold mine for guys like us. It used to be five minutes long and it became really hard to work in those constraints and so they just got longer and longer.
Josh explains how the subjects for the podcasts “comes from our brains”:
What do you think about Stuff You Should Know? Why do you think it’s successful, and if you’re a fan, explain why in the comments.
Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.