"The idea generally is to tell the best story as simply as possible," says Jeff Emtman. "I struggle with that."
Emtman is sitting with his back to the front window of Cafe Racer, talking to me about Here Be Monsters, the ingeniously dark, audaciously constructed podcast he has been producing since 2012. Emtman, who learned the radio ropes at Western Washington University's station KUGS, originally conceived the show as a series of "documentaries about things I'm afraid of" and produced them in a style that deliberately confounded the rigid norms of traditional broadcasting. What has emerged in the two years since is a fascinating hybrid of reportage, sound collage, confession, intellect, emotion, and psychological inquiry across 40 episodes about such diverse subjects as photophobia, the therapeutic value of drugs, white supremacy, scuba diving, the Juggalo nation, and the grieving process of crows, to name a few. Though it incorporates some of the familiar conventions of shows like This American Life and Radiolab, the sonic fabric of Here Be Monsters is restlessly, mischievously experimental, and not always pleasing. The atmosphere that prevails, however—anchored by Emtman's own voice, which is oddly both high and deep, and which lies low in the mix, as if he'd been shrunk down to Fantastic Voyage proportions and perched in your ear canal—is original and provocative, demanding and rewarding close listens.
It's also popular. Emtman estimates that his audience has more than doubled in the last month alone, aided no doubt by the rise in podcast awareness that followed the popularity of Serial, as well as by some fortuitous press. Here Be Monsters's 34th episode, "The Grandmother and the Vine of the Dead," about the use of ayahuasca as a means of grief therapy, came in at number 25 on Slate's recent list of "The 25 Best Podcast Episodes Ever." "It was the lowest on their list but the highest on the page," Emtman laughs, "so I think that worked out in my favor." As of last week, the most recent episode—an omnibus sampler of the first three seasons—has been downloaded by more than 29,000 people so far.
It's an impressive figure for an art project, especially one as willfully abstruse as Here Be Monsters sometimes is. But Emtman has ambitions for his podcast, and the large-small audience (or is it a small large one?) that it has attracted is a tricky value to gauge in terms of the entertainment industrial complex. The old temptation of wanting to maximize the reach of an idiosyncratic art project without sacrificing the very thing that gives it its appeal is an old saw for bands, writers, and artists, and now for podcasters. At least for this one. Before he commences work on his fourth season, Emtman is actively looking to partner with radio and/or podcasting networks in the hopes of bringing his show to a larger audience, and more to the point, paying himself and his collaborators for their labors. The ambition arises from confidence in the work they've made thus far, but it stirs up a whole new set of anxieties.
"I have to become an entrepreneur," Emtman says, "which is a word I hate. I've never met someone who introduces themselves as an entrepreneur who I've liked." The thought of being forced to work with advertisers that are "breaking the world instead of fixing it" by "peddling capitalist serotonin-inducing bullshit" makes him uneasy enough, but the real anxiety comes from the prospect of having to sacrifice "the central tenet of the show: We're going to look at dark things that, generally speaking, people run away from. If that was not in the show, it just would not be something I'd want to hear."
Regardless of the business outcome, business-wise, Emtman insists that Here Be Monsters is a long-haul proposition.
"Beards are cool right now," he explains. "I have a beard. When beards are the most uncool thing in the world, I'm probably still going to have one. And when podcasts are the most boring and dry thing in the world—which some people would say is right now—I'm still going to be doing it, for better or for worse." And though better would obviously be better, worse might not be so bad, Emtman assures me, as long as the show continues to develop and the intimate connection he shares with his listeners remains strong.
"You have to think about the audience, and—" he interrupts himself. "Well, actually... no, I'm going to take that back. I think the real question is: Is it something you would listen to? And if it's something you would listen to, it's going to attract other people like you, and they're going to love it."