According to Merriam-Webster, a podcast is “a program (as of music or talk) made available in digital format for automatic download over the Internet” and the first known use of the term was in 2004—still 3 years before the first iPhone was released. Even so, it wasn’t until 2014 that I first tuned in to the breakaway hit “Serial,” an investigative podcast from the creators of “This American Life” and co-produced by a Chicago, Illinois radio station.
“Podcasting is really good at investigating true crime,” says Conal Byrne, president of HowStuffWorks (HSW). “It’s a great medium for it, probably because it lets creators dive in as deep as they feel they need to into a topic.”
Byrne certainly knows his stuff. As the largest for-profit podcasting company in the world with more than 1 billion downloads, HSW oversees more than 20 leading brands with a library of 6,000-plus podcasts—and growing. Perpetually ranking high in Apple’s charts are HSW’s “Stuff You Should Know” co-hosted by Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark, and “Stuff You Missed in History Class” co-hosted by Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that HSW entered into true-crime territory. Ponce City Market, the hip, mixed-use building with a history all its own, is home to HSW’s Atlanta headquarters and deserves part of the credit.
Byrne says it’s a funny story: Apple pointed out that Tenderfoot TV’s Payne Lindsey and Donald Albright were working on the popular “Up and Vanished” podcast just steps away from the HSW office. Host Lindsey had made national headlines after renewing interest in the unsolved disappearance of Tara Grinstead, the largest case file in Georgia’s history.
“We were sort of like ships passing in the night, both knee deep in this new medium, podcasting a couple floors from each other,” Byrne says. “We ended up having coffee and talking to [Tenderfoot TV] about how we wanted to broaden what we do and tackle new categories.”
The coffee and conversation led to collaboration. Together, HSW and Tenderfoot TV created “Atlanta Monster.” In hopes of telling the true story of one of the city’s darkest secrets, the ongoing series is re-examining the decades-old investigation surrounding the Atlanta Child Murders.
Sure, true crime can be easy bait to lure in listeners. But having the right host or hosts is perhaps the real hook to successfully connect with listeners in this realm— regardless of a podcast’s genre.
“Podcasting is a very unique medium in so far as it’s truly an intimate, personable kind of content. The hosts who perform best in this kind of a medium are those who are truly authentic, who truly are themselves and who would truly be doing this whether or not the mic was on,” Byrne says. That through-line is valued in all HSW’s hosts, from veterans like Frey to fresher additions, like “Part Time Genius” co-hosts (and Mental Floss co-founders) Will Pearson and Mangesh “Mango” Hattikudur.
“That enthusiasm for history and the hidden spots of history is really who Holly is, whether you’re talking to her at the water cooler or actually listening to her show.”
Frey echoes the sentiment, sharing that her favorite part of hosting a podcast is always learning something new, and shining a light on things that haven’t gotten enough attention, which can be really fulfilling. What about her favorite little-known fact about Atlanta history?
“It was covered on our show, but the building we work in was initially constructed to be the southeast Sears, Roebuck & Co. headquarters. There’s a spring that runs underneath the property that some people used to believe had curative powers.”
Of course, Ponce City Market continues to play an important role in making HSW, well, work.
“That’s a real home for us. It’s not a place where we just put our name up on the door but no one actually goes there,” Byrne says. “You can really meet Holly or Chuck Bryant or Ben Bowlin from ‘Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know’ in a hallway. You’ll end up an hour later realizing that you’ve just gone through a time warp and they’ve bent your ear in the craziest ways on either what they’re working on now or the kind of stuff they’ve got coming up.”
Even if crime cases or historical curiosities don’t get your ears burning, odds are another topic HSW covers will—or a new topic will soon. HSW recently received an infusion of $15 million in capital, led by The Raine Group, to accelerate growth as well as opened a new studio in Los Angeles, California.
“I think people are realizing that there is something for everyone in the podcast realm,” Frey says. “I also think that while more and more podcasts are being made all the time, the level of quality also keeps going up.”