Podcast for the people: The wonderful and wide-ranging world of Midwest Real
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With podcasts now dedicated to topics as specific and obscure as being a new mother, the paleo diet, improv comedy, and Dennis Miller, it’s safe to assume the informative and entertaining audio format is here to stay. Still, our fair city is under-represented in the podcast community. In December 2012, however, four Cream City creatives set out to do something thought-provoking, inclusive, and real. Since January, the Milwaukee-based podcast Midwest Real has gathered in a living room one night a week with the aspirations to “Wonder. Unite. Create.”
Originally, Shane Langenfeld and Michael Nelson—both of local rock outfit City Of Ghosts—planned to do the podcast themselves. When Nelson approached Dead Yellow author Dana Heitman to be an early guest, it was decided that three would be better than two. “I called him up and we had a really good conversation,” Nelson says. “Immediately from the conversation, I thought, ‘Maybe I should get this guy in on it, too.’”
Heitman then enlisted his roommate and Dead Yellow editor Hansem Castillo to round out what the group now refers to as a “family podcast,” in which the quartet and, usually, a guest spend an hour (oftentimes longer) discussing anything and everything that interests them that particular session. “It really comes down to wanting to be aware of everything,” Langenfeld says. “That’s a common characteristic that we all share, where we’re interested in gaining more knowledge, regardless of what it’s about. As long as it’s important to someone, it’s usually important to us.”
Early episodes have featured an eclectic guest list that includes an independent strongman, a transcendental meditation instructor, an Al Jazeera photojournalist, an Iraq War veteran, a mason (with an extensive Freemason background), and a touring guitar tech. While the majority of guests to this point either live in Milwaukee or have local ties, the topics covered are relevant to people both outside the city and internationally. “It just sort of boils down that we’ve found people that are from the Midwest,” Castillo says. “But they all have this kind of international appeal, where everyone can relate to them and everyone can learn something.”
While many podcasts adapt their shows to fit the guests—who are often there to promote something—Midwest Real seems more interested in the guest’s new perspectives lent to an unscripted, free-wheeling format. “Oftentimes, when a person comes in under the moniker ‘strongman’ or ‘musician,’ it ends up being a jumping-off point and turns out to be a deeper discussion between people,” Nelson says. “We do want to talk about artistic and creative endeavors, but we also want to build actual relationships with the audience and each other.”
At times, members of Midwest Real broach topics like politics, religion, consciousness, technology, music, and even Oscar Pistorius with passion, vitriol, and a fully forged opinion. Other times, a reactionary or contemplative approach is taken to discuss topics, finding all those in the proximity of a microphone questioning a number of elements of the universe and the diverse collection of people who inhabit it. “We’re just having conversations,” Heitman says. “We’re not geniuses on any topic. We just read things and inform ourselves and talk to each other. We wanted to talk to different people because we felt there was this space for it. We didn’t see it happening [in Milwaukee], so we were like, ‘Fuck it, we’ll do this.’”
Now eight episodes in, Midwest Real averages more than 1,000 downloads per installment. Currently, listeners hail from 64 United States markets and approximately 20 different countries. In addition to the weekly podcast, the creative collective writes blog posts about topics not yet touched upon on the air, ranging from the Gnostic evolution of the Internet all the way to AMC’s The Walking Dead.
Keeping with its interactive aspirations, the group is open to posting content about almost anything from interested outside parties. “We want to show that there’s a huge overlap with every single human being. You can relate to people without a lot of work nine times out of 10,” Nelson says. “We’re all actively trying to work on ourselves. It takes a certain amount of narcissism to promote yourself, but we’re trying to shift that egotistic intention into something that’s an inclusive intention—something that’s not just to pump yourself up, but something to give other people an outlet, and something to latch on to.”
While there were some early hiccups (“Learn to make an aggregate device!” Langenfeld warns), Midwest Real appears to be encouraged and motivated to grow, gain listeners, and bring in an even wider and more impressive scope of guests to partake in the basic-yet-inspiring session of wonder, unity, and creation.
“Anybody could do this,” Langenfeld says. “It’s not something fantastic. We’re just breaking down those boundaries and communicating with other individuals.”