I took the haters too seriously. It’s good to pay attention to what people complain about. It’s good to know if there’s constructive criticism of your work out there in the world, in case you end up feeling like, “Huh… that could be a good idea to switch things up a bit in the direction they’re suggesting.” But you have to take criticism with a huge grain of salt. Some people don’t like my voice and personality… some don’t like some of the sex, violence or scary stuff that might pop up on the show… some conservatives feel that the show gives off too “liberal” a vibe. So we do take all that into consideration and make little adjustments here and there.
As part of my series of interviews about “5 things you need to know to create a very successful podcast”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Allison from RISK!
Kevin Allison, creator, and host of RISK!, started his comedy career on the legendary sketch series The State on MTV. In August of 2009, Kevin and producer Michelle Walson started the live show RISK!, “where people tell true stories they never thought they’d dare to share in public,” at Arlene’s Grocery on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. It was an instant hit. The monthly RISK! live show, winner of an ECNY Award for Best Variety Show, now lives at Caveat in NYC and The Virgil in LA. RISK! also tours to sold-out crowds in the USA, Canada, and UK. The audio podcast of RISK!, also hosted by Kevin Allison, premiered online in October of 2009. The podcast includes not just the best stories from the live shows but also “radio-style” stories and interstitial music and comedy from artists all over the world.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit of your “personal backstory? What is your background and what eventually brought you to this particular career path?
Iwas on the hit sketch comedy show The State on MTV in the mid-90s. In the 12 years after my sketch comedy group broke up, I was doing solo work on stage as funny characters, somewhat like Andy Kaufman, but it wasn’t getting me anywhere. In 2009, I did a solo show where I played five characters, and Michael Ian Black, who was also a member of my old comedy troupe, said to me, “You should stop playing characters and tell your own true stories.” I said, “But I’m so kinky and debaucherous and strange… that seems too risky.” He said, “Risk is the whole idea.” So that week, I tried telling a true story on stage about the first time I prostituted myself. I couldn’t believe how into it the audience was. I left the theater thinking, “I should create a podcast called RISK! where people tell true stories they never thought they’d dare to share in public. Unlike NPR shows, it would be uncensored stories where the storyteller really had to step outside their comfort zone and get brutally honest.” The idea coalesced all at once because I knew that in order for any such project to succeed, I’d need to force myself to be fighting my stage fright by getting up on stage regularly… and I’d have to have some means of broadcasting it to a wider audience than you can get at small room comedy shows.
Can you share a story about the most interesting thing that has happened to you since you started podcasting?
Audience participation. Almost every day, someone is emailing us to say things like, “I was suicidal until I heard that story of that other person who got past being suicidal,” or “I was raped, but when I heard that other people talk about how they processed going through a similar situation, it made all the difference.” People have written in to say the show saved their marriage, or helped them to accept their kinks or sexual orientations, or helped them finally get off heroin, or convinced them to start therapy, and so on. The show started in 2009 with mostly comedians telling mostly funny stories. We still have tons of those. But listeners started pitching us their own stories about a year and a half in, and those started being some of the most jaw-dropping, unforgettable stories we’ve featured.
Can you share a story about the biggest or funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaways you learned from that?
I took the haters too seriously. It’s good to pay attention to what people complain about. It’s good to know if there’s constructive criticism of your work out there in the world, in case you end up feeling like, “Huh… that could be a good idea to switch things up a bit in the direction they’re suggesting.” But you have to take criticism with a huge grain of salt. Some people don’t like my voice and personality… some don’t like some of the sex, violence or scary stuff that might pop up on the show… some conservatives feel that the show gives off too “liberal” a vibe. So we do take all that into consideration and make little adjustments here and there. But we’re not going to throw out the baby with the bathwater. A lot of RISK!’s appeal is that personalities are allowed to be big, content is allowed to be uncensored, and so on. We’re now thinking of creating a separate podcast that is much more family-friendly and universally palatable, but we still want to let RISK! be RISK!
How long have you been podcasting and how many shows have you aired?
The first episode went online on October 6, 2009. Since then we’ve put out 480 episodes. RISK! is extremely “produced.” That is to say, there are about 20 people working on this show. We seek stories, we coach storytellers through an extensive workshopping process, we do live shows, we do radio-style stories with extensive sound design… it’s an enormously difficult show to produce for an independent entity. If it was an interview show or a comedic improv roundtable, any independent artists could put it out easily. But shows of the nature of RISK! are usually produced by big corporate entities with lots of money, lots of connections, and lots of full-time paid staff. So, we’re always a little amazed at how much we accomplish with so small a budget.
What are the main takeaways, lessons or messages that you want your listeners to walk away with after listening to your show?
That we, as a society, are conditioned to avoid intimacy, avoid vulnerability, avoid transparency. But if you start being thoughtful about being more transparent, sharing more of your secrets, embracing more of the “sides” of yourself, your whole life becomes richer, fuller, more loaded with possibility. There are probably desires you have that you’re sure others would think are freakish. There are probably incidents you’ve lived through that you’re sure others would consider “TMI.” But most of us share too little, rather than sharing too much. And hearing the most secretive parts of other people’s is extremely cathartic and illuminating.
In your opinion what makes your podcast binge-listenable? What do you think makes your podcast unique from the others in your category? What do you think is special about you as a host, your guests, or your content?
RISK! stories usually have a few “Oh shit!” moments in them. There’s usually a point in a RISK! a story where you think, “Oh my God, I can’t believe this person lived through this!” or “Oh my God, I can’t believe this person is being so honest about this!” So people listen for all those high stakes surprising moments. But they also listen because we make a point of mixing in lots of funny stories and beautiful stories. There’s a big range of emotions and wildly different kinds of life experiences being shared on the show.
Doing something on a consistent basis is not easy. Podcasting every work-day, or even every week can be monotonous. What would you recommend to others about how to maintain discipline and consistency? What would you recommend to others about how to avoid burnout?
Ask for help. There are members of the RISK! the team that I’m in touch with almost every single day and we do a LOT of checking in emotionally. We don’t just dive into work, but we share with one another consistently about how we’re dealing with stress or time management, how we’re feeling about the work we’re doing, how we’re balancing our personal and leisure time with our work time. And sometimes, on our Patreon check-ins, I’ll create an audio journal entry to share with our listeners how I’m holding up in terms of the work and life. And a lot of us see therapists or life coaches as well.
What resources do you get your inspiration for materials from?
Other forms of art and media. Other podcasts, plays, movies, museums, music, books, and so on. But also communal gatherings, political action groups, meditation circles and so forth. It’s key to stay engaged with creative and positive people making good things happen.
Ok fantastic. Let’s now shift to the main questions of our discussion. Is there someone in the podcasting world who you think is a great model for how to run a really fantastic podcast?
Well, there are lots of amazing interview shows, but it seems rare that someone has the talent and skill for off-the-cuff interviewing that Marc Maron does, for example. So I appreciate when an interviewer like Chris Hayes or Ezra Klein has clearly read books by or about their guest and thought through the nitty gritty of the issues they want to unpack. I think that’s time consuming and complex. You’re Wrong About or You Must Remember This are examples of podcasts that are especially engaging because research goes into each episode.
What are the ingredients that make that podcast so successful? If you could break that down into a blueprint, what would that blueprint look like?
Putting enough of your brain and your heart into the show so that you’re not just yammering. You’re not just riffing and regurgitating the kind of information the listener might find in 20 different places at the click of a button. Obviously, there are some shows that are genuinely simple, like My Dad Wrote a Porno, where three comedic personalities read out loud from the novel of one very bad author of very silly erotica. But few people are able to think of something so easy to produce and keep it interesting.
You are a very successful podcaster yourself. Can you share with our readers the five things you need to know to create an extremely successful podcast? (Please share a story or example for each, if you can.)
Get well-known people on the show. I hate having to say this because I produce a podcast the proves week after week that ordinary people often have more extraordinary stories than celebrities do. But in the world we live in, the majority of the people are under the illusion that famous people are more interesting and there’s just no fighting that. I guess I’d say to avoid feeling rejected when the vast majority of celebrities say no to doing your show, because every now and then, you might land one.
Get your audience engaged. We host discussions of RISK! on Redditt and Facebook. We’re always inviting our audience to pitch us stories. We’re always encouraging our audience to play portions of the podcast for friends and family. We give away all kinds of bonus treats on Patreon. We joke around with our audience on social media. We feature songs and other audio tidbits from audience members on the show. We have contests for giving prizes away, and so on. We do one-on-one storytelling coaching sessions with fans sometimes. Almost every member of our staff is someone who came to us because I said on the podcast, “We need a new audio editor!” or “Can someone help us with social media?”
Try to be coming out with at least one episode per week on the same day each week. If you can manage two episodes per week, even better. Regularity becomes addictive for people.
Do live appearances if possible. So much of the energy around RISK! stems from the fact that we bring it to towns all around America and sometimes Canada and England.
Have multiple streams of revenue. Our school, The Story Studio, where we teach storytelling — for personal growth, for stage performance, and for business purposes — is an essential part of our business. Advertisers on the podcast, tickets from live shows, our book and other merch, Patreon… all that adds up to keeping us afloat.
Can you share some insight from your experience about the best ways to: 1) book great guests; 2) increase listeners; 3) produce it in a professional way; 4) encourage engagement; and 5) the best way to monetize it? (Please share a story or example for each, if you can.)
1) Honestly, you just have to cast the widest net possible and constantly be trying to entice people to do the show in any way you can imagine. Sometimes, it’s a matter of saying something like, “Oh YOU would love this story that was on our show a few months back! Let me send you a clip!” Then when a person hears how unique the show is, they think, “Ahh… I have a story like that too!”
2) Always be trying new things. We have realized that RISK! is popular for being so uncensored… but also scares some people away for being so uncensored. So we’re creating an entirely new podcast that anyone can listen to while their kids are listening along in the car and there’s no need for trigger warnings. It will take a lot of work, but we think it will be a great way to reach more people.
3) Network as much as possible. Pay close attention to who has skills, who knows who, and who is willing to just give advice. We’re constantly assessing who might be able to give us advice about the technical production of the show and new developments in the online world around putting stuff out there.
4) Contests, online meet-ups, featuring tidbits of content on social media, hosting discussions of stuff on Facebook and Reddit, inviting fans to send in content, interviewing fans, giving away free storytelling lessons, and more.
5) Filling your Patreon with tons of bonus content. Having live shows. Teaching workshops. Having merch like the RISK! book.
For someone looking to start their own podcast, which equipment would you recommend that they start with?
Marc Maron and Jesse Thorn told me the same thing when I started RISK! Use the Michael Jackson microphone (the Shure SM7b), run it through a mixer (like one by Mackie) and record on Garageband or something better. Out in the field, we use Zoom mics.
Ok. We are almost done. 🙂 Because of your position and work, you are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Our philosophy is similar to one that is heard in Alcoholics Anonymous, that you’re only as sick as your secrets. The most intimate, most emotional, most challenging, or most complex experiences you’ve lived through might be hugely healing for someone else to hear and for you to share. People tend to avoid meditating on the things they tend to try to hide away or skirt around most of the time. But if you sit with that stuff, allow yourself to re-experience some of the most loaded moments from your life in your imagination, and then share that journey with others, it’s an enormous way to grow and to connect.
How can our readers follow you online?
Our website is Risk-Show.com. On Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, we’re @riskshow. Our storytelling school is at TheStoryStudio.org. And on Twitter and Instagram, I’m @TheKevinAllison.
Thank you so much for sharing your time and your excellent insights! We wish you continued success.