Jeff Emtman graduated from Western Washington University in 2011 without much of a plan. He only applied to one internship and wasn’t hired. After much deliberation and many sleepless nights, Emtman decided to use background in media and audio production to start a podcast with a unique focus: fear of the unknown.
The podcast, Here Be Monsters, officially launched in 2012 and now has over 230,000 followers on SoundCloud. Emtman has produced 39 episodes and leveraged the popularity of his show into a burgeoning freelance radio career. I spoke to him about his initial struggles after graduation, the world of freelance radio, and how other aspiring podcasters can learn from his journey.
What was your plan after graduation?
That’s something that surprises me about my life and career. When I graduated, I applied for an internship at a well-known radio outfit and came close, but I didn’t get it. It was a big setback for me, as I had pretty much put all my eggs in one basket. I was way too arrogant and didn’t consider the possibility that things wouldn’t go according to that plan.
How did the podcast get started?
After failing to get the internship, I had these nights where I just couldn’t fall asleep, and I’d incessantly think about what I could do with my life that would have a lasting impression on the world. I’ve always had this long list of fears I had always wanted to address. So I started the podcast initially to face and hopefully vanquish all of my fears and hopefully do the same for listeners.
How did you come up with the name Here Be Monsters?
It’s from a term used in old cartography, where the mapmakers take the margins of the map that they didn’t really know about and draw these exquisite sea monsters in the water. There’s this old bronze globe called the Hunt-Lennox globe, and on the northern edge of China, in Latin, it reads “here be monsters.” Over time that’s slowly turned into this colloquial phrase that covers anything outside the margins of your vision or knowledge.
Did you have any initial startup costs?
SoundCloud, one of the most popular audio hosting sites out there, did this call for submissions a couple years back to award grants to 10 people with unique audio projects. I put together this big presentation for them, and I received a small grant that was enough for me to quit my job for six months, living very frugally of course. Enough to put full-time development into something that hadn’t existed before.
Has the podcast started to earn revenue?
When I was with the Mule syndicate, they were helpful in getting sponsorships because they had bulk buying power. I was relatively small on my own, getting about 4,000 downloads [per episode] at the time, which is too few for most sponsors. But when Mule sold ads in bulk for all their podcasts, I would get a cut. On my own, I haven’t really managed to get too many, but it’s starting to happen a bit. One episode recently hit 10,000 downloads, and that’s really the magic number.
What was your first major freelance gig?
I applied for a grant from a Seattle-based radio station to do a piece about a Native tribe in Northern Washington and its fishing rights. It was for a local NPR station, so it has a very traditional and rigid feel.
I took a draft to my editor there, and we both looked at each other and just knew the piece wasn’t working, because I was trying to be more like NPR and less like myself. He told me to go ahead and embrace my voice and aesthetic and that he would back me up even if he got in trouble. He said I had a unique style that was interesting and needed to be heard, even if it ruffled some feathers at the station, and that it might just alter the status quo of what’s acceptable on public radio. It was a really empowering experience to have an editor stick up for me like that.
What kind of doors did that piece open for you?
That was a big example of the freelance work benefiting the podcast, whereas before it had mostly been the other way around. I remember right when it was published, the podcast got an influx of followers on Twitter. That was when I realized people were actually listening.
Have you done any other freelance work?
I’m pitching the same Seattle station that I got my first gig from, though it’s a shortened version of an episode of the podcast.
KCRW in Los Angeles has this 24 Hour Radio Race, where you have 24 hours to make a radio piece. I signed up for that last year, and lucked out in finding a lucha libre competition happening in South Seattle that day. It ended up being an even better story, as one of the luchadors was unmasked during a match, which is a really big scandal. I didn’t win the competition, but later, the host of the competition emailed me to say he had wanted my piece to win, and that he’d like to license it from me. That started a great relationship with that station.
Do you mainly enter contests or pitch editors directly?
Now, I pitch editors most of the time. Once you have pieces on top radio stations that people can check out, you have a better time pitching editors of those stations. The podcast Snap Judgment picked up a piece I did about a guy who would dress up like Sasquatch and go scare people in a national park, and how he almost got shot while doing it.
Do you do any other freelance work?
I’m doing some freelance sound design work for an up-and-coming radio drama and new podcast that’s trying to get off the ground. I also freelance doing tape syncs, where a reporter doing an interview remotely needs a freelancer to record the interviewee on location. It’s fairly easy work and reasonably lucrative.
How often do you do those?
About once a month, usually.
How do you find the gigs?
Through the message boards of the Association of Independence in Radio, for the most part. I find most of my freelance work there, actually.
Would you say that your freelance work aids the podcast more or vice versa?
I’d say vice versa, because I wouldn’t be able to get all the gigs if it weren’t for my portfolio, much of which comes from the podcast and pieces I’ve licensed out. I control every aspect of the podcast, so I’m still hesitant to sign on with something bigger that might force me to relinquish control. I was on a syndicate for awhile actually, that is largely shut down now.
What are some of the biggest roadblocks you’ve dealt with trying to make the podcast successful?
One of the hardest parts for me is that after working a part-time job, it can be hard to come home and immediately think “oh, now is when I really have to clock in.” It takes a lot of self-control and drive. My time management skills in and after college were terrible. They’re still not great, but they’ve improved. I was not really prepared for that lifestyle, where I don’t have a boss or a teacher telling me when something needs to be done.
How do you think you got to your current level of fame, no matter how small you consider it? How did you build your audience?
I’m doing something new that has caught on and attracted fans. I’m going to keep pushing and continue to be different and new. My plan has always been to look at what I’ve done after five years, and decide where to go after that. But honestly, at this point I’ve exceeded my own expectations. I truly believe in the thesis statement of the show, which is that we are afraid of the things we don’t understand. When we finally do understand those things, we at least dull the sharp edges that we fear.
Any final thoughts?
I think it’d be really easy to attribute all of my success to some sort of divine insight or something… but I think the modest success I’ve had has just been a matter of luck and persistence. I’m glad I didn’t take an internship after college, I’m glad I have the quality of stubbornness, and there’s no way I would have succeeded if I didn’t actually believe in what I was doing.