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Here Be Monsters heads back out into the wild

When I spoke with Jeff Emtman last week, he was hunkered down somewhere in North Idaho, having made an extended pit stop in his big move across the country. There’s been a great deal of change for Emtman, who recently learned that KCRW, the Los Angeles public radio station, would not be renewing its distribution deal with Here Be Monsters, the relatively small but mighty podcast he’s been making for over a half decade.

Emtman wasn’t mad about the decision. “That’s their call to make,” he told me over a crackly phone line. “They don’t owe us anything. It’s not like this was a money-making proposal for them.” Still, he just wished he was given more time. The non-renewal notice came less than a month before the last distribution check came through, leaving him — as well as Bethany Denton, the show’s managing editor and Emtman’s collaborator since 2015 — to scramble for income to keep the lights on.

Here Be Monsters is hard to describe, which is perhaps part of the point when it comes to a narrative nonfiction show that largely (though not always) focuses on the strange, the weird, and the peculiar. Over the years, it’s amassed a vibrant anthology of otherworldly stories, from a profile of an artist who illustrates cadavers to a tale about a book bound by the skin of its author. The pieces are often unsettling, rich, and patiently told. Some come from contributors, though the bulk are produced by Emtman and Denton. The show has more in common with the equally hard to describe Love + Radio — you could say they’re part of the same aesthetic cohort — than with the increasingly voluminous genre of extensively-researched chat podcasts that trade in scary or murder stories and others of the kind. Here Be Monsters is a labor of love, but it takes an incredible amount of labor nonetheless. The predominant sense of the enterprise is one that feels like an effectively run yet painfully small literary magazine.

Emtman started Here Be Monsters in 2012, primarily off a $4000 “community fellowship grant” from Soundcloud. (This, he pointed out joking, was back when Soundcloud still had money. I suppose it’s only fair to correct the record by saying that Soundcloud has new money now, after selling a minority stake to SiriusXM in February, but that’s not germane to this story. Moving on…) That wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough for him to quit his day job and live frugally while getting the show off the ground.

That grant money funded the first two seasons of the show. Then, in 2013, he aligned with Mule Radio Syndicate, the short-lived podcast network launched out of the interactive design studio known as Mule Designs that once housed John Gruber’s The Talk Show and Audio Smut (later reimagined as The Heart). According to Emtman, that arrangement involved a single ad buy and some cross promotion. The network shuttered in the summer of 2014, leaving the show out of the wilderness once again.

Serial would make its debut a few months later, and the deep wave of new attention it drove trickled down to Here Be Monsters. “People were suddenly looking for other podcasts to listen to, and the podcast ended up on all these lists,” he said. Those list appearances translated to new audiences, and Emtman used those expanded numbers to shop the show around.

That’s when he got the call from KCRW, which offered a distribution deal as part of an opportunity for the show to join the station’s Independent Producers Project. The money wasn’t very much — “not enough to live on, but enough for it to be the majority of what I make” was how Emtman put it — and it would change from year to year, but the terms were minimally invasive, which appealed to him. So he signed the deal, and that was how it was for a number of years. Emtman and Denton would complete five full annual contracts, at twenty episodes a season, before the non-renewal notice came in.

KCRW’s decision to part ways with the show was likely spurred on by the pandemic. The economic fallout has resulted in a budget shortfall at the station, and last month, the We Make KCRW Twitter account made public the fact that station management has formally presented voluntary buyout options as a first step in addressing the financial picture. Bigger moves are expected, as are more surgical ones, like the decision to let Here Be Monsters go. It’s not too much a stretch to imagine that other KCRW-affiliated podcasts could be cut as well.

When I reached out to Paul Bennun, KCRW’s Chief Content Officer, he characterized the move somewhat akin to a rebalancing of the podcast portfolio. “We love Here be Monsters, and we’re sad we’re parting company — but it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “The podcast was supported by KCRW’s Independent Producers Project, which has as its mission finding and amplifying new voices in audio culture. After 100 episodes, Here Be Monsters is well established now. It’s time for us to find new voices, stories and storytellers. KCRW is as committed to this mission and to the IPP as it’s ever been, and we’re excited about what the future holds.”

He added: “It’s normal for stations, services and studios to look at their output regularly and ask how they can serve their audiences better. Even in these hard times, KCRW is entering a time of renewal — we don’t intend to stand still, but to keep pushing forward.”

Emtman is sympathetic to KCRW’s situation, but again, he just wished there was more notice. Nevertheless, the show is back out in the wilds, and he’s still trying to figure out what an independent podcast operation actually looks like today.

He has some ideas. “I’m trying a model for the show that is a bit more akin to community radio, in which local businesses fund the programming,” said Emtman. “In my case, the ‘localness’ isn’t geographic, but local in the sense of the listeners, who are local to the podcast.” He talked about being inspired by public access television, local media, as well as college radio, where he’d hear ads for the very places he’d patroned. To that end, he’s developed a bespoke ad unit for such sponsors, and has so far accrued a list of clients that includes a music album, an indie video game, a dog walking company, a podcast production house, and a shipping logistics company. There is also, customarily, a Patreon.

The money isn’t much at the moment, but the show’s priority right now is simply to reach a place where it can pay for itself while Emtman and Denton pursue contracts on the side to make the rest of their income. It is, undeniably, a tough situation in a tough time, but surprisingly, Emtman expressed a measure of relief. Without the KCRW affiliation, he claims to feel more free now, believing that this new (riskier) independence affords greater opportunity to realize a fuller creative freedom. He speaks of being unburdened by guilt: “I really want to try new formats that I wouldn’t have felt comfortable if I was being paid someone else’s money for that, you know what I mean?”

I suppose I do, though I’m still thinking through the larger takeaway from this story. I feel strongly that there should be a place for Here Be Monsters in the world, and that there should be ways for smaller, stranger shows — smaller, stranger businesses — to opt out of the increasingly industrialized sensibilities of the growing podcast industry. This problem isn’t new, not in the media business nor capitalism, but still, it’s a problem, and many years in now, solutions continue to feel elusive.

Whether it’s his distinct strangeness or some innate hopefulness that I don’t possess, Emtman seems at peace with this. “I think you can boil it down to this: there are podcasts people like and there are podcasts people listen to, and I think you, as a podcaster, have to pick being one of them,” said Emtman. “Then again, if you get the thing you want, then you probably lost artistic credibility, right? It’s a tale as old as time.”