Robert Andersson's Awful Grace reminds us of something that seems overlooked in the growing podcast mania. That the medium is a launchpad for fresh, thought-provoking, beautiful, outrageous, often unique artistic expression that otherwise would never see the light of day or tickle an auditory nerve.
Not even a year old, Awful Grace, like Love + Radio and Here Be Monsters, is just too potent a home brew to be served up in the narrow confines of public radio as we know it. But when you want to curl up with a good podcast, add this one to your list — even if it doesn't lead to a peaceful night's sleep.
Why Awful Grace even exists is an amazing story in itself. For producer Andersson, it's not just personal expression, it's a kind of therapy — a continuation of when he was in college and searching for something to hold on to.
The Awful Grace story is also about the journey of a guy with a masters in journalism and love of This American Life who caught the podcasting wave just as it was breaking. It serves as a case history of a one-man producer/interviewer/musician/graphic artist/writer/webmaster team as he defines and shapes his work in progress.
And when he's not crafting a new Awful Grace episode, the 32-year old Andersson is a paid intern at Chicago's WBEZ, happy to do everything but a Starbucks run while soaking up all he can about the medium. Except for his occasional dip into the gig economy, it's an all-in obsession with artful sonic storytelling.
Will his WBEZ experience open doors to something bigger? "No, I don't think this internship will necessarily lead to a job," says Andersson. "More likely it will lead to opportunities. Jobs are so scarce in this industry, it seems a more realistic approach to try and create your own content, audience, etc. instead of depending entirely on established media companies for permission, support and opportunities.
"Joe DeCeault, the podcast guru at WBEZ, has already shown me so much about the realities of podcasting. A lot of the nuances of it were beyond me before, and many still are. But it's been a distinct advantage to be able to sit in on meetings, edit various types of shows and talk shop with people who've been doing this work for years."
Does joining a podcast network appeal to Andersson? "I was in talks with a relatively new podcast collective to join some months back but it didn't work out for reasons beyond me. So yes, I've given it some thought. I'm very curious though to see how these Radiotopia clones come out and whether they have as much success in creating a community that possesses a sense of ownership and agency as well as (Roman) Mars' does."
Any podcast network interested in Awful Grace should be advised that Andersson's standards are rather high: "Is the medium being used in novel ways by member programs? Is there a racial and philosophical diversity in both your pool of producers and the people they feature? That's where I think these collectives could really be valuable, in helping promote voices and stories that aren't often heard. So if your collective is a handful of white people in their 20s and 30s telling stories about coffee shops or the life-changing road trips, I don't think you're utilizing the potential these collectives represent. We need new voices, novel ways of telling stories through audio, not more ham-handed This American Life and 99PI clones."
What's next for Awful Grace? Stay tuned. Andersson says he's hoping to release an episode about the Japanese author Yukio Mishima early in September. That should give you time to absorb the in-your-face sound design of Hardway, the quiet confessions of Robert Taylor in Revolver, or any of the other nine episodes in the series.