I was very keen on doing this interview, as Astonishing Legends, is the very first podcast that I featured in the newsletter, all the way back in Edition #1. And while it was the first show that appeared on my radar that I had not heard of before, and thought more people should, I was amazed at how detailed Forrest Burgess, co-host, of Astonishing Legends had to say.
It comes through both in the podcast they produce and the answers that Forrest had for me, how much effort, time, and frankly, joy goes into the production of Astonishing Legends. And perhaps that’s one of the missing pieces that many podcasters often miss. Joy. A genuine love of the show that you’re producing will come through and lead to more downloads and greater success. It’s hard to fake that.
Here is my interview with Forrest Burgess of Astonishing Legends!
There are plenty of quality podcasts out there that cover similar topics to the ones you discuss. So tell me, what makes Astonishing Legends different from competing podcasts?
Forrest: I think the main thing that makes us different is what has developed organically since the beginning of our show. Due to our previously unrecognized obsession with learning as many details about a story as we can, we tend to bring that to our episodes. So for better or worse, we’ve become kind of known for taking deeper dives into a topic than some other shows.
Because the podcasting medium’s freedom lets us say as much as we want, we can often spread a subject’s coverage over several parts. However, we only try to do that if we think our findings warrant it, and we’re mindful to keep the discussion and the tangents relevant as well as informative and entertaining.
We hope our conversational style and insights mixed with all this detail bring a sense of camaraderie, inclusion, open-mindedness, humor, curiosity, and wonder to the listener, making us stand out a little. Not that other shows in our category don’t achieve that in their own way. We’ve become friends or acquaintances with many podcasters in our genre, I think, because people interested in the paranormal share an inherent understanding, so I don’t feel much competitiveness. There’s room for everyone.
And while we may all cover many of the same stories and at least come up with mainly the same general information about a topic, we all present it a little differently and bring something unique to the table.
Why did you start Astonishing Legends?
Forrest: Although our circles of friends overlapped, we actually never got the chance to hang out much back in the 1990s. But the few times we did, we found we had a mutual interest in the kinds of subjects we cover on the show. Not many of our other friends were all that interested in discussing things like the paranormal or weird and obscure historical facts, bizarre phenomena, and the like.
In July of 2000, Scott had tried to launch an internet venture called Reality Feed with some other friends that would be like a YouTube, years before it existed. The idea was that friends and associates in their various locations would send in video clips of local stories they shot and produced themselves, like “Citizen Reporters.” Viewers could then access the videos on a website.
I think the venture didn’t fully take off because it was a lot harder back then to shoot and edit a video report and then get the media to where it needed to go. And it was certainly not as easy as it is now to have it distributed to the masses, marketed, and consumed via all our mobile devices. So the idea was terrific, but a little ahead of its time.
Then sometime around 2012-13, if I remember correctly, I think Scott and I were probably discussing Reality Feed and what it could’ve become. I had been listening to podcasts since 2008, and I believe we were marveling at how people are producing their own media so much easier nowadays. It then kinda dawned on us simultaneously that we could create our own show – a podcast, and it could be about the paranormal and other things we already liked to talk about.
We had working backgrounds in video Post Production, so we were familiar with producing media, and with no visual component, it would be a lot easier. So Astonishing Legends started with a desire to work on an independent creative project that would be ours. We were done working on everyone else’s. It could be a show about the ideas and stories we had an interest in and wanted to know more about and achieve with the skills we already had, on a platform that was made for it.
Tell me about your process and the things that go into producing each episode?
Forrest: Each episode or series starts with a topic we think is fascinating, and we hope others would find it fascinating too. We never wanted to limit it to the paranormal, even though perhaps most of our subjects could fall into that category. But it could also be about obscure, mysterious stories in history, the Old West, myths, legends, lost treasure, weird science, unusual phenomena, captivating biographies, etc.
We’ve carried around some of these stories since our youth when they first grabbed our attention. Once we started seriously thinking about producing the podcast, we made an informal list of subjects we could cover to get it going. So, an idea for an episode could come from our long list of topics we’ve always thought about, or we could be inspired to cover something we recently came across in the news or any media we happen to see.
The listeners also send us plenty of ideas for shows or share a captivating anecdote, and we’ll sometimes pull from those submissions as well. We then try to space out the genres of topics to give some variety to the feed’s lineup. For example, we won’t try to do three UFO encounters or ghost-related episodes in a row unless it’s a series because we know that not everyone cares for the same subjects, and we’re trying to reach the broadest audience.
Once we’ve decided on a topic, we’ll start an outline for the episode, collaborating on Google Docs, and begin to go through articles, books, documentaries, any decent research material we can find, and write up notes from them. We’ll also try to line up any interview subjects which we think could give the episode some expert insight with an informed discussion.
We’ve also been pretty lucky that we’ve had listeners since the beginning approach us wanting to help with the research, a few of which have become close friends. One of the first who fits this description is Tess Pfeifle, who became our head of research and an invaluable producer who wrangles a wide range of various production elements.
But we needed a way to cull and organize the information coming to us, so the Astonishing Research Corps or “ARC” was created to coordinate the volunteers’ efforts and the material they were digging up. We have the researchers, whoever wants to weigh in on a particular topic, upload their findings into a work collaboration app called Ryver, where we can pull from the thread of related story elements. We still find a lot of the research material we end up using ourselves, and we all come up with much of the same content, but the ARC will often find some overlooked gems of info and pose theories based on their areas of expertise, which are really helpful.
Once we have enough details, we’ll try to start weaving a narrative of facts and observations we think tells the story, in as much depth as satisfies us. Some sections of the outline are just bullet points with details that we’ll “riff” on, but we’ll often write out what we want to say for others where the concepts are more complicated.
Usually, what determines when it’s time to record is not so much that we feel the outline is complete; it’s that we’ve just run out of time for researching and writing and have to lay down what we have so far to meet our deadline for posting. Once the main body of content for an episode is recorded, if we end up still having more of the outline we’d like to get to, past what we think is enough for a single episode that’s not too bloated, we’ll then decide if we have enough for a second part or more.
Sometimes, we’ll also know before we start, of course, if we’re already planning on dividing up a story into multiple parts. But even after doing this for several years, we often surprise ourselves at how much we can blather on and on about a subject we’re excited to discuss and end up having a lot more material than we intended. The raw audio file then goes to our wonderfully talented Audio Editor Sarah Vorhees Wendel and Sound Designer Ryan McCullough.
During that time, we’ll usually record the “Cold Open,” which is an opening introduction or description of the upcoming episode, the “Housekeeping,” which is any news outside of the show’s content we need to share with the audience, and commercials. Once it’s all assembled, Scott will do a QC or “Quality Control,” which is a final listening pass for any corrections or trims. While that’s happening, we then create a webpage that’s specific for the episode, with reference links, photos, sponsor offers, related books, etc. and then finally, the finished audio file is uploaded, and the webpage is published.
What have been the most challenging aspects of producing the show?
Forrest: I think the primary aspect has got to be the relentless production schedule. Sometimes it can be quite hard and a challenge to get motivated to really dive into researching a topic. But usually, as the date for recording gets real close, fear of not having the outline ready can light a fire under you, and we’ll start to get into a groove of “breaking the episode” or fleshing out the bones of the narrative as it were.
Unfortunately, we’re often at our swiftest pace a day or two, or the night before we record. It can be fun and engrossing searching out bizarre connections within stories or going down research “Rabbit Holes” when you happen upon something startling, or a fact you never imagined. Still, the pressure of a deadline is always mounting.
If you’re fortunate to grow your audience enough to get sponsorship, you’ll most likely have to stick to an advertising Air Date schedule. Since most companies and their Advertising Agencies have planned for a “Live Read” spot to drop on a specified week because of a timely campaign, like a sales push or a seasonal product, they require that your ad runs following their marketing plans. Meaning, you can’t just run an ad for a company whenever you feel like it. Once you let whoever is selling ads for your show know your release date schedule for the year, you have to adhere to it barring any emergencies, as they’ll try and pre-sell ads for the available time slots.
We’re incredibly grateful to all of our sponsors, so we strive to be as diligent as possible, and even though it’s a challenge, it’s a good one to have. There is also a lot of background work that can go on for mid to large-sized podcasts, like financial and business dealings, promotions, live shows & events, listener engagement & Meet-ups, Social Media, etc.
But for us, I’d say overall, it’s the research-heavy style of the podcast combined with the ongoing production timeline obligations that have proven to be the most challenging. If you’re behind in your schedule or even just keeping up and treading water, you can quickly feel overwhelmed like you’re always “chasing it,” and there isn’t any time left over for your personal life. Scott and I always joke that we should’ve just done a podcast where we have drinks and talk about movies, but I doubt it would have much of an audience. Something else we always say that I’m sure any podcaster will agree with is that what’s much harder than starting a podcast is keeping one going.
From a personal standpoint, why do you do the show? What do you get out of it?
Forrest: For me personally, I’m finally doing something I can consider a career. Since graduating from college, I’ve been lucky to have reasonably steady employment in jobs that were somewhat related to my chosen field of Cinema and Television or just general media and event production. However, while the assignments and projects I worked on sometimes required a little creativity, I didn’t feel like I was creating anything with lasting value and nothing I could call my own.
Although many of these past jobs were quite stressful at times, I appreciated and learned from the experiences that have informed what we do now and really enjoyed getting to know the people I worked with, many of whom have been lifelong friends. But with each phase and project, I was never enthusiastic enough to pursue higher positions with more pay and greater responsibilities. As much as I liked my co-workers, these were still just jobs to me and not a career and not something I wanted to do for the rest of my working days.
So it happened serendipitously that when my last freelance project ended, and due to Scott’s work and his family situation being flexible, we could pursue the podcast fulltime. We didn’t know if we’d ever make any money at it, but we took a chance and feel incredibly grateful that through a lot of hard work and good fortune, it’s become a career and a show that we can be proud of. This podcast is probably the most demanding project we’ve ever worked on, but knowing we created something from nothing, something that’s ours, and I get to work on it with one of my best friends for as long as we both have the desire is profoundly rewarding.
The other profound reward of doing this podcast for me is everything I’ve learned from researching all the varied subjects that I’ve found fascinating. Specifically, when studying the paranormal and supernatural, it’s said that the more you look into it, the more one is left with questions rather than answers. That certainly seems to be the case, but I’ve found the quest for understanding to be enriching nonetheless. I actually feel like I’ve broadened my perspectives and evolved my consciousness slightly, and you can’t say that about every job.
Do you ever think about the lasting impact of your podcast? What would you want it to be?
Forrest: Yes, we occasionally wonder what our legacy will be, as long as there’s an Internet, and these shows exist somewhere online. One starts to do that as they get older, we’ve noticed. We’re certainly no experts by any means on the topics we cover. Still, we hope that at least with some of the episodes we’ve done, they can be looked at in the future as providing a decent and relatively thorough exploration of the topics.
And maybe we’ve even uncovered something previously unknown or never considered every once in a while. While we view what we do to be entertainment or maybe “infotainment,” we’re still dedicated and serious about providing accurate and responsible information. So it’s gratifying when someone officially associated with a subject points people to one of our shows as a good place to start for finding out more about it.
We don’t take ourselves too seriously, but we strive to be the “podcast of record” when it comes to specific stories. Regarding stories about the paranormal, we’re not out to change anyone’s mind. But I personally hope that a lasting impact of this podcast (and all the others that deal with this field) would be that people start to at least consider the possibility that otherworldly and impossible things do seem to happen in our reality.
Most people will never experience anything out of the ordinary, but it has affected their lives significantly for those who have. I think it’s important in general because these events are clues as to the true nature of our existence. That’s a grand idea, but hopefully, we can at least be entertaining to an audience and give people food for thought for years to come.
Something else I’d like to last is the community of listeners in our Facebook Group. We’re delighted that thousands of like-minded people have created a space for themselves to discuss the episodes, share stories, anecdotes, news, thoughts, and feelings about the things that interest them in this realm. Our stalwart Admins work hard to make it a safe place where these online friends won’t be subject to the ridicule and eye-rolling they would likely get from most folks they shared this with but still can respectfully debate the ideas.
Another by-product of our show’s genre is that we get more than a few listeners reaching out to us, asking for guidance about something supernatural that has troubled them somehow. We don’t have many answers, and the few we might provide are speculation, of course, based on cases we’ve come across, but I hope that we pointed them in the right direction so that they could gain a little more understanding and peace of mind.
Mostly, it seems many listeners just want to share their stories with someone who won’t automatically judge them as crazy. Some will tell you that just listening to the show has provided them a little comfort and companionship during a difficult time. So that’s a direct and personal impact I’d like to think has lasting positive effects on these listeners. Finally, it’s nice to hear when someone tells you that our podcast has inspired them to make their own podcast. That DIY spirit and egalitarianism are at the heart of independent podcasting. If a couple of ordinary dudes like us can start a podcast, so can you!
How do you promote your show? What have you found to be the most effective?
Forrest: Unless you have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on advertising and marketing your show, like a production from a media corporation, you have to do as much as you can with what you can afford and manage. When we were first starting out, that meant getting an online presence going, like a website, a Twitter and Instagram account, a Facebook page, an email account, everywhere you can be that you can keep up with.
You’ll have to be as interactive as you can on those platforms and consistent with your show schedule, or people will lose interest. As you start to gain some notice, you might have other podcasters in your genre reach out to you, or you can reach out to them to do some cross-promotion or a Crossover Show or Roundtable where you can be on each other’s shows and generate some synergy. So we did as much Cross-promotion, collaborations, interviews, and appearances on other podcasts as possible, and I think that helped to connect our respective audiences. You’ll at least start to get name recognition in your genre.
A terrific opportunity to reach a broader audience beyond that, and a good example is the interview you’re reading right now, graciously offered by Sebastian and Find That Pod. Then within the last couple of years, our awesome podcast distribution platform Audioboom has worked out an advertising budget for us, so we bought an ad in Fangoria magazine and are looking into marketing on other media platforms like relevant YouTube channels.
Since visual media still has the biggest audiences, we’re also beginning to develop content for our own YouTube channel, starting with posting our podcast episodes and eventually creating original content. A growing number of people are turning to YouTube to listen to podcasts, rather than the usual aggregator apps. In the end, for the independent podcaster and probably for most corporate-backed podcasts still, Word of Mouth is the primary way people find out about podcasts they want to check out, and newsletters like Find That Pod are helping to spread the word.
What advice would you give to a podcaster just starting out?
Forrest: I’d say, first, figure out what you want your podcast to be for you. What do you want to get out of it? Do you just want to get together with your friends every once in a while and talk about something you all enjoy? Do you want it to be a personal creative endeavor where you can express yourself to an audience? Would you like to grow your audience to the point where your podcast is making money?
The great thing about podcasting is that anything you choose is fine; your show can be whatever you want it to be. But setting goals and a firm intention before you start will define your podcast, keep you motivated, and determine your practices. Whatever you choose, you should make it as good and listenable as you can, because what’s the point in spending all that time and money to present it to an audience and expect them to listen if it isn’t? If it’s just a hobby, you can still make it entertaining or informative and “have fun with it.”
That sense of enjoyment will convey to your audience. If you want your show to be profitable, at least to pay for itself, I think there are things you can do to maximize your chances. Our goal was to make a living from ours, so we’ve always tried everything we could to appeal to the listening public’s broadest segment. So the following are some best practices we try to adhere to and things we keep in mind.
We’re mindful of that old adage, “Know your audience.” Who is your show for? What would your target audience like to hear or not hear? Do what you can to keep them engaged and try not to upset them too much. Some folks will be unhappy no matter what you do, so just try to do what you think is right for the majority. Take note of constructive criticism and adjust if you think it’ll be helpful or try new things, but don’t be too swayed by negative comments or bad reviews. Eventually, you’re going to get some mean comments. It’s human nature to want to complain about everything, and it’s too easy with the internet and Social Media to be a semi-anonymous jerk. But you’re putting yourself out there to the world, so a thick skin and an actor’s courage comes in handy.
I believe in respectfully defending one’s ideas, but don’t see much worth getting into nasty exchanges with strangers. They’re just opinions, and everyone will have an opinion on how you should do your show but remember it’s YOUR podcast. Don’t let them discourage you. But in conjunction with that, be honest with yourself about your show.
Because it’s not relevant to what we talk about, and one half of the world would disagree, we don’t get political. Because we’d like to reach the most people and have families listening to us, we don’t use profanity. Not only is it like a movie studio would prefer to release a PG film rather than one with an R rating to have access to a bigger audience, but I also wish I had something like our show to listen to when I was a kid. Whatever you do, try to have a different spin or unique angle to your presentation, whether it’s the format, subjects, insights, and discussion; there are over 700,000 podcasts out there, so it’s beneficial to have something that makes you stand out.
And whatever your podcast’s subject, find something you have a genuine interest in, something you’ll never get tired of talking about, because there will be times that you are. Find some podcasts you think are great and study what you like about them and what you don’t. Listen to some terrible podcasts, and don’t do the same thing. Get inspiration where you can find it. We try and be as professional as we can about everything we do, figuring that sense of professionalism and craftsmanship will translate to the listener. Be consistent with your release schedule, so you build routine and anticipation for your audience. You’re going to be very eager to launch your podcast as soon as you can and get out there, but consider finishing 5 or more episodes before you do, maybe even a whole season if that’s your format, because once you do, you’ll be “off to the races.”
If you’re dedicated to sticking to a release schedule, you’ll thank yourself later for having a production buffer to ease the pressure of always “chasing it.” Remember that a podcast is a performance. Do your research or homework, prepare your notes, be prepared to deliver on the mic. If you’re not “into it,” the audience will sense that, and why should they be if you’re not? Try to get the best mics and gear your budget allows, but more importantly, record in a space that you’ve set up to have good sound dampening qualities. Any annoyances for the audience in sound quality go against that listenability factor, and they’ll go elsewhere.
There are plenty of other choices for podcasts out there. Check out online instruction about producing the best podcast audio – recording, editing, mixing, publishing, etc. You can also attend online conferences and workshops on podcasting like Podcast Movement if your budget allows. Some podcasters will offer their own training courses. You can also find people to help you with audio Post Production on a freelance services site like fiverr.com or on Social Media, or use them to find someone to create a logo and graphics for your show.
Make sure one of your logo design variations looks iconic, graphically strong, and readable as a tiny thumbnail because that’s what will show up next to your show and episode titles on mobile devices. Do cross-promotions and Crossovers with other shows about your size, as I mentioned above. It doesn’t hurt to ask experts in your subject, people who might make interesting guests, or hosts of other larger podcasts to be interviewed on your show. However, you can expect them to have busy schedules, and you can’t expect they’ll want to plug your podcast on their show. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
And finally, the best media producers I ever worked with knew exactly how the project should be, so create with determined intention to manifest your clear vision, and then let go of any attachment to the outcome. There are certainly much more successful podcasts than ours that didn’t do all this, but I believe leveraging every advantage available has helped us get where we are.
What do you think the future of podcasting holds? More walled gardens like Spotify and Luminary or open RSS feeds?
Forrest: Since it’s beginning, podcasting was seen by the business world as an amateur’s hobby, not something to be taken seriously and not deserving of respect. However, as the audience for podcasts has grown and advertisers have seen their Return on Investment grow with it, so of course, we’ve now seen media corporations and networks scramble in the last few years to get their share of the consumer’s dollars.
But the consumers determine what flies, and they’ve become accustomed to getting great podcasts for free for all those years. We’ve seen different attempts at monetization models like Paywalls and subscription services rise up, and I’m sure they’ve generated moderate amounts of income for their investors, but I doubt the entire industry will go to a 100% subscription-only model like Netflix. We’re all getting tired of paying $5.99 and more a month for everything, and there will always be good podcasts to listen to for free in the genre you like. Not all podcasts a person likes will be on a single network they’re paying for, and I doubt they’d want to subscribe to several.
I think what will remain are companies that do well with offering a blend of mostly free content along with premium paid-content and bonus material. And these network models might work better depending on the genre itself. For example, Earwolf seems to be doing fine with the model just mentioned because they can offer an extensive collection of Comics doing podcasts exclusive to their network.
I’m not sure that would work as well with True Crime. Good comedy is a specific talent and art form, whereas you don’t have to be a Criminal Justice professional to produce a decent True Crime podcast. People also seem to be willing to pay a subscription for a service where you get a bundle of multiple offerings with it, like music, news, podcasts, movies, and TV. So now, you have Spotify and Apple battling for the top spot because they can offer a lot, although Spotify seems to have overtaken the once-dominant Apple in the podcast department.
Ultimately, I think corporate-backed and larger independent podcasts will still settle for Personal Endorsement-Live Read and Brand Advertising as their primary revenue generator. So I feel we’ll always have most of the bigger shows for free as long as we’re willing to listen to ads and pay for ad-free or archived episodes. The good news is what I’ve been saying throughout the interview – because of podcasting’s heritage of a free, egalitarian, and homegrown media for the masses, there will always be a place for an independent podcast of any size. It’s not easy to produce an independent movie or TV show, and video production brings its own challenges. But the audio medium offers unique creativity as a “theater of the mind,” and with a low learning curve and a little bit of gear, anyone can learn to make a quality podcast. Podcasting is one of the best and most relevant examples of the Marshall McLuhan aphorism, “The medium is the message.”
Aside from your show, give me 3 of your best podcast recommendations.
Forrest: This will actually total more than three individual podcasts, but here are three podcasters’ whose work I can recommend in our genre: Micah Hanks’ podcasts, which you can learn more about at MicahHanks.com. Some of the first podcasts I listened to were Jim Harold’s, considered one of the “Podfathers” of paranormal podcasting, and you can find them at JimHarold.com. And a good friend, British radio presenter “Gledders,” is restarting his podcast Anomaly, which you can find at www.anomaly.co.uk. And because I’m probably breaking all the rules of this interview format anyway, I’m also going to suggest the Loremen podcast, which I’ve been enjoying.