Podcaster points mic at local arts scene
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Patrick Felton is being interviewed by his hometown paper -- that would be this one -- at Moxxee Coffee, while Felton's own interview subject cools his heels a few feet away.
Felton, creator of the Charleston Podcast Project, is my subject for this story on his local arts podcast, "That Conversation."
But his interview subject for the podcast's next episode -- local artist, photographer and Charleston franchise rep for Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School drawing sessions -- embodies why Felton is being interviewed in the first place.
"Chase Henderson is an interview one of my listeners has been requesting for a long time," said Felton, sporting headphones connected to a Behringer Xenyx 802 mixer hooked to a couple of cardioid microphones.
"Chase is doing really interesting, cutting-edge stuff in the community with Dr. Sketchy's, which has become sort of a weird surprise cult hit among the artists in the community. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the scantily clad women and men that are a part of it. But he's an incredibly talented visual artist who I've known peripherally a long time," Felton says.
While he has toyed before with podcasting -- which to the uninitiated simply signifies a listenable, downloadable audio file on the Internet -- Felton's "That Conversation" now has a host of shows under its belt since April.
"We've done eight episodes so far. I say 'we' -- it's mostly me. The next step is we're going to try to get two more episodes in by the end of the year."
He can't help with the "we," apparently. But he has ambitions for his hyper-local show devoted to Charleston's cultural scene, which you can subscribe to through the iTunes podcast tab, download from ThatConversation.wordpress.com, or find on Facebook at That Conversation (Podcast).
The St. Albans native believes his show is taking a stand at defining the richness of the local arts scene in the face of the usual choices. Or for the matter in the face of the serial stereotyping of backward West Virginia in its latest form -- MTV's "Buckwild" reality show, coming in January.
"We have such a wealth of unique and cutting-edge artists in this community and the only two people we seem to be talking about are Landau Murphy and Jesco White," said Felton. "That puzzles me."
Asked for a sort of podcast mission statement, here was the result:
"We're a podcast that's trying to incorporate and give visibility to low-profile artists who are making a large impact on our community. People that you may not have necessarily heard of before," he says.
Or, if you have heard of his interviewees, you may not have had a chance to hear why they do what they do.
"The personalities I've tried to bring on the show are interesting. I was very lucky that with the first episode I was able to get playwright Dan Kehde, who has a huge following in this community. ... I was very lucky he was willing to come on when I only had one subscriber. Which was me.
"From that interview, I've gotten so much feedback of people just wanting to know about these people that they maybe have seen in one context, but don't necessarily know the thought and process that goes into their work."
Advocating for local artists is nothing new to the 28-year-old.
"This has been a part of my life for many, many years. Which is why when I saw the press release for 'Buckwild,' it was such a slap in the face. Because I feel like there are so many talented artists in this community that it is a real crime to have someone else be defining our community for us. And it is going to keep happening unless more people are speaking up and willing to showcase themselves. And not just in the traditional ways.
"I mean we've done it to ourselves, too, when we present West Virginia Appalachian arts to the community as the dulcimers and the quilts and the clogging -- all of which I love -- but we're not foregrounding the people who are doing really interesting experimental stuff. Like filmmaker David Smith, who did a lot of stuff in Huntington using consumer-grade video equipment."
One of his favorite interviews was with local artist and blogger BZ Tat, which the show's website described this way:
"BZ Tat and Patrick debate the roles of prettiness, politics and pets in the world of painting. Plus, BZ Tat tells us about the role of marketing and social media, how a chance meeting with a stray cat changed her life and leads us down the rabbit hole into the subculture of pets that blog."
"She is a visual artist that does a lot with painting of cats and pets. And she's also a Twitter personality; she tweets under her cat's name. Really fascinating to me to see someone who's able to talk really articulately about both the artistic process and also the process and reality of trying to make a living in the arts."
Which brings Felton to a point he and his podcast harp on regularly.
"One of the recurring themes on the show that we always talk about is the idea that art is not free. This was said in the first episode with Dan Kehde and has been repeated over and over again by artists in the show."
As for his podcast's own survival, costs are low, but to expand he's looking for sponsors. He also ponders seeking listener support, just like public-radio fund drives.
"The show is so focused on the Charleston community that I would love to see someone like the Arts Council or FestivALL or even Bayer come on, even for exclusivity at this point."
He said he's also doing more than interviewing. "We're also incorporating site-specific audio experiences, radio drama."
The BZ Tat episode, for instance, featured a segment called "All Dogs Hate Patrick":
"When I'm walking down the hill to catch the bus, inevitably every single dog within a mile radius will start barking at me. So, I just recorded all of the dogs barking at me and looped it over itself and added some ambient sound."
"That Conversation" has also become more interactive as a way to hook listeners. This was the solicitation on the podcast's Facebook page Monday: "OK, folks, it's teen poetry time again. This week's topic: Write a free verse poem that begins with the line 'Oh Garfield, My Garfield.'"
A bit goofy, yes. But it's a way to direct ears to the show, said Felton. "A lot of people like to listen to hear if their poem is read."
After all, he has lots of room to experiment online.
"Because it's the Internet, I don't have anyone telling me how long they are. They're usually as long as I want them to be or about as long as I feel editing them to. The shortest episode was about 60 minutes and the longest was a mammoth interview I ended up breaking up into a couple episodes that were each about 90 minutes."
Since he's hunting sponsors, he's leery of divulging subscriber numbers, as the show is coming off a hiatus that likely diminished an already low number, he said. "I have a very loyal but small fan base. But I would say we have more listeners now than we've ever had."
Podcasting was hot some years ago, declined and is now experiencing a bit of renaissance. That's partly due to successful comedy podcasts like "WTF with Mark Maron," which marked its 300th episode in July. Public radio's "Bullseye with Jesse Thorn" is also "a huge influence," said Felton.
His broadcast influences extend into the past too.
"As a child, 'Coast to Coast AM with Art Bell' was a huge part of my childhood because of the ability to tell these strange stories, which it didn't matter whether or not you believed them. It was just radio of the mind, theater of the mind. That's something I would like to do more of with the new episodes."
Podcasting is obviously not his bread and butter. Felton has a communications degree from West Virginia State University, where he is an adjunct professor teaching some mandatory student classes -- "Origins" and "Race, Gender and Human Identity" -- in the general education department.
He also has a master's degree in television, radio and film from Syracuse University, which reveals something about his podcasting passion.
"It was the only master's program that had 'radio' in the title. Even when I was at State I'd always had a radio program. By the time I'd got to Syracuse, I'd been tempted by the other side and got pulled over into film. It's taken me six years to realize that what I really wanted to be doing was talking to people."
There aren't many people doing what he's doing in the Mountain State, he said. "Off the top of my head, I can only think of three or four other podcasts in West Virginia."
But he feels he's filling a niche that West Virginians need to be filling.
"I also think there's sort of a vacuum for long-form interview journalism 'infotainment' right now in our community. We've got 'Radio Free Charleston,' which is doing really interesting stuff with capturing performance. But there's not a lot of people sitting down and talking about what it means to be an artist in the 21st century around here.
"What I'm shooting for in every interview is to just get past the [BS]. I feel like artists feel like there's a specific way they're supposed to act in public if they want to get visibility. I think it's much more interesting to just approach it as 'We're both human beings. Let's talk.'"
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-3017.
In the spirit of podcasting, hear the full audio interview with Felton at my personal blog, WestVirginiaVille.com.