Nonprofit transforms vacant auto-repair garage into an incubator for podcasts

Photo from PRX.

Reverend Jeffrey Brown is used to the pulpit. But these days, he’s trading it for a microphone in a cozy recording studio in Allston, Massachusetts. For the last few months, the Boston-based minister has been producing his own podcast, The Courage to Listen.

“When you’re preaching, you have an audience of people,” Brown says. There’s a call-and-response pattern in his work as a preacher. With the podcast, there’s only one person in front of him. “There may be an audience, but the audience won’t be talking back to you.”

For someone who’s spent most of his career writing sermons, not scripts, adjusting to the new medium presented certain challenges. One was becoming aware of both the tone and loudness of his voice. “When I first heard it [my voice], I thought, Oh my gosh, is that me? As I kept listening to my voice, there were ways in which I could speak that could be appealing. It was helpful to hear it in order to figure out how to speak in podcast,” he says. Brown’s producer, Geoff Nesnow, still reminds him to maintain the same distance from the mic throughout the interview: “I can’t help that I like to move.”

It’s taken eight months, but Brown feels more confident about his podcast skills these days. That’s because he and his producer aren’t working in isolation. Since last September, they’ve relied on a community of emerging and experienced audiomakers at the Podcast Garage. The duo has gotten feedback, technical support, and skill-building as they’ve created, produced, and launched their show out of the space, which is nearing its one-year anniversary.

Reverend Jeffrey Brown records in the Podcast Garage studio. Photo by Geoff Nesnow.

The brick-and-mortar enterprise is the brainchild of Public Radio Exchange (PRX). At its core, the Podcast Garage is one part community recording studio, one part educational hub for audio storytelling. Kerri Hoffman, CEO of PRX, calls Podcast Garage the network’s skunkworks, “a laboratory where diverse voices can hone their stories and talent.”

It’s the latest in a series of experiments by PRX. In the 14 years since its founding, the nonprofit has evolved from humble origins as a distributor of radio programs into an award-winning digital media company. It still pushes out content from independent producers, but PRX also launched the podcast network Radiotopia, developed the curation app RadioPublic, and co-founded the media-focused accelerator program, Matter Ventures.

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The Podcast Garage was originally conceived as a pop-up program of Zone 3, a Harvard-led initiative to activate Western Avenue in Allston and Brighton, two up-and-coming neighborhoods in Boston. Last summer, PRX was approached by Zone 3 to create a pop-up “listening lounge” for people to partake in podcasts in a communal setting. Hoffman didn’t think the idea was “sticky enough,” so she counter-proposed, pitching a permanent audio production facility and community center. “There’s a real hunger to learn how to do audio storytelling,” she says, “both from journalists in public radio stations and also individuals.”

The Garage sits in a nondescript parking lot a few blocks south of the Charles River. Imagine an old Jiffy Lube, but with a colorful, hi-tech facelift. Outside, a mosaic of blue and yellow hexagons cover the walls, juxtaposed against a simple logo containing the words “Podcast Garage PRX.” The Garage’s three glass doors, spaced evenly across the front, are a throwback to the space’s original purpose.

“It was literally a garage, and we thought that was the right aesthetic,” Hoffman says. “Garages are places where things get fixed and tinkered with.”

Today, the building provides a different kind of tune-up. Inside, air compressors and frame machines have been replaced by bean bag chairs and soundboards. There’s a community room on one side of the space, a recording studio on the other. The community room is multimodal; it adapts to the programming as needed. On a Monday afternoon, work tables and chairs transform it into a coworking setup. Later that night, the scene could be cleared out for a lecture or cocktail party. So far, the Podcast Garage has adapted to the needs of 80 different classes and workshops.

For the past year, audio storytellers have gathered for production and narrative skill-building workshops; veteran radio producers have trained and mentored aspiring journalists; and podcast fans have eagerly listened as producers of their favorite Radiotopia shows unpacked their latest episode.

“We think of the space as engendering a love of audio and contributing to the growth of the field,” Hoffman says.

The studios are outfitted with high-end recording and sound equipment. Photo from PRX.

The studio space has attracted seasoned shows, like America’s Test Kitchen, and novice podcasters alike. The larger studio fits up to four people around the table, and a smaller vocal tracking booth accommodates an additional two. Both are outfitted with high-end recording and sound equipment from companies like Shure, Sonos, and Sennheiser. Members can operate the sound-isolated studios on their own or bring an engineer. At the garage, podcasters can record, edit, and publish their shows with audio-editing programs like Pro Tools and Hindenberg. It was important to build the studio with the digital environment in mind, Hoffman says, while also keeping the costs low for the community.

The membership model is constantly evolving; Hoffman and her team have tweaked it based on feedback from the community. Right now, members pay $35 per month for perks like discounts on studio time, access to the coworking space, and free feedback sessions at the end of every month. “We’ve made it so that it’s accessible to people at any income level,” Hoffman says. So far, there are 20 members who record shows spanning topics from social justice to comedy.

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Reverend Brown is one of those members. For his show, The Courage to Listen, Brown invites one or two guests to the Podcast Garage, where they share their stories, insights, and solutions on reducing violence in Boston and other cities around the country. He’s spoken to activists pushing for body cameras in Boston, academics studying Black Lives Matter, and organizers advocating for nonviolence in Chicago.

Brown was one of the architects behind “The Boston Miracle, a collaborative effort between black ministers, the Boston police department, and social scientists to reduce youth violence in the city. In a now-popular TED Talk, Brown explains how listening, and not preaching, to those kids helped them reduce violence in their own neighborhoods. His podcast, and soon-to-be-published book of the same name, follows that guiding principle. It’s an outgrowth of the work he’s been doing for the past 20-plus years.

“I like the form [of podcasting] and getting people’s voices on there,” he says. “You get into the interiors of someone’s actions and give them space to mold and shape as they see it.”

There’s a certain freedom with podcasting that other mediums don’t allow, Brown says. With each episode, he can delve into someone’s life in a way he can’t do with his Sunday sermons. He’s not preaching; he’s in conversation. It feels one-to-one, even though it’s one-to-many. “When you’re preaching to someone, you don’t get a chance to talk to each and every person,” he says.

Brown started working on his podcast with Nesnow, his producer, during the fall of 2016. Before then, his knowledge of podcasts, let alone how to make a podcast, was limited. “I knew my children listened to podcasts a lot,” he jokes. “When Geoff first introduced the idea of making a podcast to me, I needed to call my kids.” He listened to shows like This American Life and Serial, and was immediately hooked. “I’ve listened to some other podcasts, and they didn’t seem professionally done,” he says. “With the Garage, you have the opportunity to produce a quality project.”

That’s a big reason Brown and Nesnow became members. The quality sounds professional, and their guests are always impressed by the setting. It’s much than better meeting these guests at someone’s home or in a noisy café, especially given the subject matter. The studio has also forced Brown to improve his hosting skills. “There’s a certain way to preach, but this isn’t about preaching into the microphone,” he says. It’s about having a conversation. Brown approaches each interview as though it’s happening in his living room. “You have to be aware of moments when you need to go off script and go where the spirit takes you,” he says.

Outside the studio, Brown and Nesnow have turned to their Podcast Garage peers for other tips and tricks. They’ve participated in forums and workshops, plus more informal listening nights for shows like Ear Hustle. Brown’s biggest takeaway from his fellow podcasters? Be yourself. “Listening to some of the other podcasters, the ones I like and admire are relaxed and break away from journalism,” he says. “They let their personalities come out.”

Peer-to-peer support is part of the Garage’s DNA. Just like blogging in the early 2000s, podcasting can be done anywhere. It’s a medium unconstrained by geography and physical space. And it’s often a remote and solitary endeavor. There’s a common (albeit relatively accurate) narrative that podcasters sit in their closets, blankets over their heads and microphones in hand. The overwhelming majority aren’t This American Life or Radiolab or WTF with Marc Maron. With approximately 400,000 podcasts listed in the Apple Podcast store, only 1 percent have 50,000 or more downloads per episode. “It can feel lonely,” Hoffman says. The real power of podcasting comes when people leave the (dis)comfort of their closets.

The Podcast Garage hosts events like workshops and storytelling nights. Photo from PRX.

A few years ago, a space like the Podcast Garage wouldn’t have been possible. The so-called “podcast boom” following the success of Serial catapulted the medium into the zeitgeist. Everyone has a podcast now, maybe even your dentist. Podcasting is a growing field, but it’s suffering a talent gap, Hoffman says. Right now, PRX’s goal is to move content from good to better, from better to great. You can do that through four-week training programs on narrative structure, or workshops on design thinking, she says. In the case of Brown’s podcast, they needed the technical tools to create a quality product. The Courage to Listen is one of 17 podcasts that have launched out of the Podcast Garage. Think of the space as an open invitation to the next generation of makers.

“We’ve taken a two-pronged approach: Provide access to high-quality equipment for current podcasters, who are working from home or coffee shops, and open the community to create more opportunities for people entering the field,” Hoffman says.

In Boston, there are more opportunities for fledgling audiomakers than exist in other cities. It has its own audio ecosystem, the Podcast Garage being just the latest addition. The city has two longstanding public radio powerhouses, WBUR and WGBH, which were born out of the city’s sprawling university scene. There’s the Sonic Soiree, a meetup for audiophiles organized by independent audio producer Daniel Gross. Boston’s also home to the Association of Independents in Radio (AIR), a global network of audio producers; multimedia journalists; and public media programs, networks, and stations. And, of course, there’s PRX.

“As the intellectual hub of the country, if not the world, Boston breeds an intellectually large and curious audience,” says Anne Donohue, an associate professor of journalism at Boston University. She’s an award-winning public radio producer and editor who has contributed to Monitor Radio, NPR, the BBC, WBUR, and WGBH. Boston is an academically driven city, and public radio was an offshoot from that intellectual fervor, she says. A place like the Garage seamlessly fits into this community. The Podcast Garage is just the beginning, a “prototype,” according to Hoffman. PRX wants to expand the concept to other cities, but investing in permanent facilities carries risk. So they’re experimenting with ways to scale the model. One such experiment includes a pop-up storytelling weekend in Kansas City, Missouri, this fall, which will be half training and half technical, like a hackathon for audio. They’re also flirting with the idea of launching an online curricula and Web tools based on their current programming.

Tonight, the Podcast Garage celebrates its first birthday. The one-time auto body shop has come a long way from its days of oil changes and brake alignments, but to some degree, the space still serves a similar purpose. “We’re not knocking things down,” says Hoffman. “We’re building things up.”

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Meg Dalton is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.