On April 26, 2005, two months to the day before Apple CEO Steve Jobs would unveil version 4.9 of his company's iTunes software — an upgrade to the ubiquitous computer-based audio player and online music store that would enable users to subscribe to, download, and organize prerecorded audio files known as podcasts — a 26-year-old married Mt. Pleasant couple named Nate and Di Fulmer were walking into a downtown Charleston church.
Clutching their iRiver, a tiny digital music player/voice recorder outfitted with an unobtrusive microphone, the pair seated themselves in a pew close enough to be able to hear the service clearly, switched on the voice recorder, huddled over the mic, and began a whispered, wisecrack-filled, Mystery Science Theatre 3000-style commentary on the service. Within 15 minutes, after several fits of suppressed laughter and perhaps one too many mock-serious "Amens," the pair were approached by an usher and promptly bounced out of the service.
The podcast that Nate and Di built around the short recording was the fifth they'd created in as many weeks, writing and editing when they weren't working at their day jobs: Nate at a local laboratory supply company, and Di at a self-storage facility in Mt. Pleasant, where the couple lived in a windowless 30-by-30 storage unit that had been converted into spartan living quarters.
Set to the seraphic strains of the Hallelujah Chorus of George Frideric Handel's Messiah, the episode begins as the previous four had: with a tongue-in-cheek "mature content" warning snippet lifted off a network TV program and a montage of pop-culture soundbites from TV, film, and newscasts. Then, the hosts:
"Hey, everyone, and welcome to another very special edition of The Nate and Di Show. Tonight is our churchgoin' episode."
"That's right. It's been recently suggested to us by e-mail that we could do with a good churchin'. And naturally, being us, we decided we would have to take you with us. So we packed up the recorder, drove into downtown Charleston, and sat in the first church that caught our eye."
"Now Di and I haven't been to church in quite a while..."
"And so we were unprepared for the types of people that we would meet there."
"And as you'll soon see, they were also a little unprepared for us."
"So put on your Sunday best, folks, as we go deep into the underbelly of the Bible Belt."
Two days later, on April 28, when Episode 5 of The Nate and Di Show, titled "Nate and Di Go to Church," was uploaded to a public server on the internet, an automated "feed" for the 24-minute program showed up in hundreds of thousands of software-based podcasting aggregators, or "podcatchers," on personal computers everywhere. On that day, still two months before iTunes incorporated a podcasting aggregator into its software, there were already myriad sophisticated podcatchers available to web-savvy internet users across the globe. Suddenly, millions of people — anyone with a computer and internet access — had immediate, easy, free access to Nate and Di's podcast.
The very next day, Nate Fulmer was fired from his job. "They made it very appealing to go," he says with a smile.
The "church episode," as it's become known among podcasting insiders, remains the stuff of legend: a watershed moment for the couple — but also for the amateur podcasting community as a whole. Exactly two months later, Apple introduced iTunes with podcast support and transformed a geekish, subversive, underground industry into one of the hottest new mediums of the modern era. This month, as Nate and Di mark the one-year anniversary of their weekly, variety-style comedy and talk show, they have nearly 15,000 regular subscribers on six continents: huge by podcasting standards, given than an estimated 96 percent of all podcasts today have listenerships of just 300-500.
After declining, in February, a contract offer from self-anointed "podfather" Adam Curry to join his San Francisco-based syndication service PodShow, and following a brief dalliance with an online head shop in the U.K., The Nate and Di Show became one of 20 podcasts selected by HBO for a new ad campaign to promote its latest Sunday-night series, Big Love, which premiered March 12, with another campaign scheduled to begin later this spring.
Success, such as it is in the nascent world of indie amateur podcasting, seems within the grasp of Nate and Di Fulmer. What that means for them in reality — in terms of full-time careers, financial compensation, benefits, creative independence, and upward mobility — is hard to define at the moment, since almost everyone in podcasting is still looking for a clear business model for the medium. It may become more clear with time, but as any podcaster will tell you, podcasting time is different from ordinary time: in their world, a single month is like seven years. Anything could happen.
If you're one of those still struggling to grasp exactly what a podcast is, you're far from alone. The word "podcasting" is a portmanteau coined by a British business writer in February 2004 combining the words "iPod" and "broadcasting." (Though podcasts can be listened to on dozens of brands of portable media players, it's a testament to Apple's domination of the market that its player had become the default basis for the technology's name before the company had even acknowledged such a thing existed.)
The simplest way to understand what a podcast is is to think of it as a prerecorded radio show that, instead of being broadcast on the radio, is distributed over the internet for listening on personal computers, or on mobile devices, whenever and wherever a listener wishes. If you're a fan of National Public Radio programming, for example, but you're unable to listen on weekdays when All Things Considered airs, you can subscribe to NPR's free podcast Most E-Mailed Stories, or perhaps its Story of the Day. Your podcatcher (iTunes or another one) will automatically download each new program as it becomes available.
In fact it's only recently that big corporate entities like NPR have begun to create podcasts; until Apple shook up the industry by incorporating an aggregator into its iTunes software last summer, podcasting was an underground activity, like pirate radio, that few knew about and even fewer understood.
Yet even with its anointing by popular culture as the "new" new thing following the iTunes announcement ("podcast" was the New Oxford Dictionary's word of the year for 2005), podcasting remains an enigma for many consumers. A recent study by Forrester Research reveals that while the idea of listening to podcasts appears to have strongly penetrated the consumer mindset, relatively few people seem in fact to be listening to them yet. The Forrester study showed that about 25 percent of online users have an interest in podcasts, but only 1 percent of online households in North America actually download and listen to them. Despite that, Forrester predicts that the number of households using podcasts will grow from the current 700,000 to 12.3 million in the next four years in the U.S. alone.
Those are the kinds of numbers that make advertisers sit up and pay attention. But, so far, podcasting has resisted easy comparisons to commercial radio's ad model, in part because the medium is just emerging from the fog of independent, amateur, and underground programs that it began with. What's more, a listenership of 15,000 people, like The Nate and Di Show has — big by current standards — is spread out geographically across the country, even the globe, which is useless for local retailers. And for most national advertisers, the distribution has appeal but the total numbers are insignificant.
But podcast listenerships tend to fall into extremely narrow demographic niches, and for certain kinds of audience-specific advertisers, that has tremendous allure.
Much of The Nate and Di Show's popularity can be attributed directly to the church episode, Nate's subsequent firing (or "doocing," as it's called), and the alarm that event sent echoing throughout the close-knit community of amateur podcasters.
Since their show's start, Nate and Di have had a strong web presence that features an extended site and an online forum, where listeners and friends can exchange thoughts on the show and other topics. "For about three months afterward," Di says, "the church episode and Nate getting fired was the main topic of conversation coming from our listeners in e-mails and comments on the forum and voicemails. It also helped create a huge buzz around our show at a time when the podcast community was first starting to get on its feet. It was definitely a defining moment for the show," she adds, "but not something we necessarily wanted to be considered the definition of our show."
The feedback about the incident, both recall, was overwhelmingly positive. Of course there was also the predictable outrage from offended church-goers, right-wing conservatives, and even family members (most of whom also belong to one or both of the two previous categories). But all of the reaction was welcome.
"In that early stage, there was very little response from our listeners, because, you know, we still didn't have that many, so we didn't know how we were doing," Nate recalls.
"Up until we started getting feedback, it was almost like we were sitting around talking to ourselves," Di adds. "Then we started getting responses, and we realized there were people out there actually listening. It was amazing. It was a revelation."
Today, the pair's program currently ranks among the top-rated comedy podcasts, as measured by the internet's highest trafficked podcast portals, such as Podcast Pickle, Podcast 411, Podcast Alley, and even iTunes' massive directory, where they regularly slip in and out of the top 100. There, The Nate and Di Show shares shelf space with the likes of Ricky Gervais and Jack Black, as well as newer 'casts from recognizable names like The Onion, Nike, MTV, the BBC and other corporate and professional content providers who've lately seen value in branding themselves with the new medium, even if for the moment it's free to users and something of a mystery when it comes to how much, if any, advertising content the programmers and their listeners will support.
Some of The Nate and Di Show's success is also likely due to the fact that its hosts, like many of their peers among regular comedy show podcasters, are tireless social networkers. When they're not holding down their day jobs (Nate now also works at the self-storage facility; he was hired by Di in January "in a blatant act of nepotism"), they're listening to an average of 40 podcasts a week. And many, if not most, of the people who are voting for their favorite podcasts on sites like the Pickle and the Alley and Podcast 411 are 'casters themselves, often friends of Nate and Di.
One of the most valuable tools the two have on the PCs in the bedroom they've converted into an erstwhile recording studio is the open-source, peer-to-peer internet telephony software Skype. Skype allows the couple to place free realtime telephone calls via their PCs to any of the 180 or so other podcasting pals they have in their contact lists — and record those calls for later playback, editing, and insertion into one of their shows. They can do the same with calls and voicemail anyone leaves for them. This makes for a massive give-and-take community of willing, creative content providers. The two describe some days in which they'll spend three or four hours "Skype bombing" this group — running down their contact list and placing phone calls to each one in turn, leaving comical voicemails which will not only keep them fresh in their friends' minds but invariably turn up as content itself in any number of their peers' podcasts in the following weeks.
"We have podcasting buddies on six of seven continents, and in over 50 countries now," Nate figures. "We don't talk to all of them every day, but we do try to chat at least once a month just to keep up with what's going on with their shows and lives. More important to us is the smaller, yet very close, circle of podcasters we talk to almost every day. We have several podcasters we run skit and bit ideas past before recording them, and they do the same with us. We've laughed, cried, and argued with these people, on many levels and with more sincerity than most of our past friendships and relationships in real life."
The couple's 90-minute-long, one-year anniversary episode of The Nate and Di Show, which they posted on April 8, is mostly a retrospective of their listeners' and podcasting peers' favorite bits from the past 12 months. The church episode is in there, of course, but so are dozens of snippets from other podcasters' shows, in which they either talk about Nate and Di or create content of their own based on the pair's offline antics. For one sketch in Episode 50, in which Nate and Di decide "it's better to burn out than to fade away," the couple stage a double shotgun suicide, complete with grisly sound effects. The highlight is Twisted Pickle host Corby Bender's radio-drama-style visit to their shed/home, where he discovers the decomposing, bloodied bodies of his friends and a note asking that their final recorded show be uploaded for all to hear.
"Oh my God, this is horrifying, their bodies have been here for days. There's blood everywhere. It looks like, oh God, this is ... it's like somebody threw a pipe bomb at the Kool-Aid man. This is devastating."
Bender eventually begins scavenging, palming the best of his dead friends' choicest audio equipment ("I don't think Nate and Di will be needing this iRiver anymore ... or this mixer ... or, hey, this is a nice mic stand."), before noticing an open drawer in the bedroom.
"Oh my mother of God! Jesus H. Shitpants Fucknut! The sex toys that these freaks have are a tremendous treasure trove of orgasmic bliss. I might just have to help myself to this little guy, and omigod this looks like a nine-foot-long ... oh, Jesus Christ, it's loud! Oh man, I can't turn the motherfucker off. Di, how did you work this thing!!?"
What is it exactly that listeners find so compelling about a couple of left-leaning college dropouts from Aiken, S.C. who smoke a lot of pot and have no background in radio internet technology or, for that matter, comedy?
The Nate and Di Show, like many of the more popular casts, combines an aggressively uncensored talk format with comedy bits, sketches, games, prank calls, segments submitted by distant "correspondents," interactive features that require listeners to visit the NaDS website, and lots of recorded chats with other podcasters and voicemail-leavers. There's also plenty of progressive news commentary, ridiculing of loudmouthed religious leaders and conservative mouthpieces, and other generic liberal editorializing. But even when they're delivering massive strikes on self-righteous religious types or skewering Bush administration missteps and cover-ups, Nate and Di never really descend into meanness or cruelty, as many ostensibly funny radio commentators often do.
"There's a lot of comedy in our show, obviously," Di says. "But there's also some political commentary in there everywhere. They get worked-in together, ideally. We like to smash the comedy and political stuff together into a big ball. That's the best."
Nate and Di laugh almost constantly: snickers, guffaws, snorts, hoots, and smirks. While recording and in person, they finish each other's sentences as if reading from a script (in fact, scripts are rare for them), and they speak entire paragraphs in a back-and-forth game of verbal handball. They often utter exactly the same phrase at the same moment, in a sort of freakish serendipity. They have the kind of comedic timing that only partners who've been working together for years achieve: Burns and Allen, Aykroyd and Belushi, Cheech and Chong.
A given Nate and Di Show usually starts with a rambling monologue of five to 10 minutes. Then they might segue into a "NaD News with Nate and Di correspondant Steve Dupont" segment (tagline: "Better than a fat baggie of the good stuff"), in which the Montgomery, Ala.-based Dupont, as natural an embodiment of the late Hunter S. Thompson as exists in the podcasting realm, waxes journalistic in thoughtful personal essays or, alternately, a man-on-the-street-style segment called "Let's Fuck with People." Next up might be the two hosts dropping a supposedly unbreakable bong (from brief U.K. sponsor Weed City) off their balcony, only to watch it shatter into oblivion. One might hear "Stupid Religious Leader Statement of the Week" or the "Censored Word Game," an interview with another podcaster or an original bit of musical satire from Nate and Di or a musician friend. In between there will be poop and fart jokes, lots of smoking of weed, plenty of blunt sexual innuendo, and a meandering comic discussion of Nate and Di's daily lives. Along the way, the pair make as much fun of themselves as they do of anyone else.
The result is a curiously compelling mix of sometimes pitifully juvenile bathroom humor and witty, intelligent fun. They're best friends and lovers who happen to be funny. In a medium that increasingly rewards cynicism, hate, bitterness, humiliation, self-righteousness, accusations, spite, antagonism, and incivility, Nate and Di seem incongruous for coming across as — there's no other word for it — happy.
"The Nate and Di Show is a podcast intended for Mature Audiences Only," a banner at the top of their website reads. "We are blasphemous and have potty mouths."
There's no official FCC oversight of podcasting content, since it's not a broadcast medium, and the demographic and psychographic niches most podcast listenerships fill is razor-thin, so programmers like Nate and Di, as with thousands of their peers, are free to fill their shows with the kind of talk and subject matter that would make a drunken, pissed-off, down-on-his-luck pimp blush. Explicit sex talk is a common (and often hilarious) feature of the show, as are references to scatology in all its myriad incarnations, an endless variety of bodily fluids, methods of masturbation both mundane and exotic, underwear, orgies, the Antichrist and Jesus H. Christ, profanity of every flavor and stripe, and, of course, marijuana — which is both spoken of and indulged in, regularly and often, with a dedication that's reverential to the point of being totemic.
"Our best episodes have been inspired by pot, I would think," Di says, completely serious. "We're pretty much almost always high when we're doing a show. The one exception in probably the past 30 episodes may have been the one where you were here interviewing us last time. And you can really tell, too. It was much less creative. That wasn't your fault," she deadpans. "We were just out of pot."
Most shows have content warnings sprinkled throughout, at the beginning and before new segments — as a kind of fun introduction, usually highly creative and done with professional voice talent (they often use friend and Budweiser ad veteran Scott Fletcher, who they met through the podcast network): "Warning: the following material may not be suitable for small children, some adults, a few senior citizens, many farm animals, and most household appliances." Or: "Please be advised that if you're listening to this show while near religious friends, relatives, coworkers, or pets, they may get offended."
In a recent segment, Di announced at the show's beginning that the couple had a potential bombshell announcement to make:
"All right guys, as you may or may not know, there's a possible development on The Nate and Di Show. Nate and I think we could be pregnant. And I can tell you right now, that really freaks me the fuck out .... So it's time to put it to the test. We're looking over the instructions right now, I've got the test right here ... I'm gonna take this all with me, and you are gonna join me in the bathroom, and we'll see where it goes from there."
Nate: "Good luck and godspeed, Di."
We ultimately learn that Di is not pregnant, but not before listening to her struggle with stage fright in the bathroom and, at last, successfully urinate on the tab, while keeping up a play-by-play commentary throughout.
"I don't know why I just consented to peeing in front of thousands of people. Some of whom may be perverts. If any of you people out there just touched your naughty bits to the sound of me taking a whiz, you're definitely a perv. Please don't ever write me and tell me that you did that."
Although both Nate and Di had strict religious upbringings (Aiken, S.C., natives, they were brought up in the most evangelical of Southern Baptist and Church of Christ traditions, respectively), the two left their own faiths behind years ago. They regularly skewer outspoken religious leaders and fundamentalists on the program, though they claim they have no truck with garden-variety Christians, only with those who try to interject their personal beliefs into other people's lives.
"A lot of people write us and tell us we need to find God and that we don't know the Lord," Nate says. "But we were both raised in very, very religious households. I had Bible Drill Team on Tuesday nights, church all the time, several times a week. Di's dad was a deacon in the Church of Christ. They've got the whole Bible memorized front to back. They take it very literally. And we had to as well. So we understand the church. Believe me."
"But I also also understand Greek mythology," Di adds. "That doesn't mean I believe it."
The church episode has proven to be one of Nate and Di's most popular ever, still getting regular downloads a year later. Late last summer, however, in an effort to move beyond the sensationalism and prove there was more to their show, the pair began a concerted effort to downplay the incident and stopped responding to interview requests, which were still coming in. They also eased off the use of copyrighted music on their show and began featuring the music of friends and unsigned MySpace bands. There'd been no official action from the RIAA against podcasters, but the lawsuits it continued to file against private citizens had plenty of 'casters on edge. For months (or years, in podcasting time), they'd been operating like pirate radio broadcasters, under the radar of most of the rest of society. Suddenly people were listening to them. Closely.
In November, a wealthy listener bought Nate and Di airfare to the Portable Media Expo in Los Angeles, where they met in person many of the podcasters they'd known before only by voice. There, they also spoke at length with Adam Curry, whose offer to sign with PodShow they declined earlier this year. ("The contract is complete crap: all pennies and promises, very little actual compensation. And you're required to give away pretty much all of your creative and future licensing rights.")
Then, in January, they drove to Chapel Hill, N.C., for Podcastercon, a symposium-style event where they met and had dinner with, among many others working in the industry, former Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards and his wife Elizabeth, whom they continue to correspond with.
When the couple heard in late February from Podtrac, a targeted advertising company catering to podcasters, that HBO was interested in placing ads on The Nate and Di Show, Nate says, "we danced around the studio like a couple of certified crazies for a few hours. After turning down a PodShow contract the previous month" (which would have prevented them from accepting the sponsorship), "it was a vindication that we had made the right choice. The pay and terms were much more appealing. In dollars, roughly 20 times more appealing."
The HBO check also allowed Nate and Di the luxury of considering the possibility, seriously for the first time, of making a living at this gig — either with their own show or by creating enough of a presence to be hired to do something similar elsewhere.
"The endgame would be to support ourselves doing this," Di says. "This is my dream job." She pauses, considering. "If I was forced to, I could take out the swearing. But I might need electroshock."
"We're in it for the long haul," Nate agrees. "And it might take a long time. Right now, everyone who's finding success is getting picked up from new media — bloggers and that sort of thing. So there's somebody out there who could hear us." The two mention satellite radio companies Sirius and XM Radio, as well as the possibility of being hired to produce a corporate 'cast someday.
Nate and Di aren't what you'd consider the most likely of corporate assets — but then neither was Howard Stern. And while the two are saddened to some degree by the slow but inevitable mainstreaming of their heretofore underground, fiercely independent medium, they recognize that such is the way of the modern world. And they also realize that big checks from companies like HBO go a long way toward assuaging that sense of loss.
"We'll see increasing encroachment by corporate 'casts," Di acknowledges. "A year ago, it was just people in their living rooms and garages and basements. But, you know, we're also clamoring for advertising. So it's a give and take."
The pair are emphatic that podcasting — whether or not it has legs as a viable new communications medium — is a grassroots response to the metastasizing homogenization of traditional mainstream radio — and that means it's here to stay. Programming like The Nate and Di Show, they insist, is just the beginning. Not being limited by the size of the broadcast spectrum (or the thumb of the FCC), the internet provides a vast alternative to the mainstreaming of modern media. And people will continue to take advantage of it in creative, unexpected new ways.
"There's a beauty to media that's created by private citizens," Nate says. "We refer to what we do as 'citizen-created media.' It isn't a new term or idea; podcasting has just made it very easy and inexpensive to create. It's easy, it's cheap, and almost anyone can do it now."
And, with luck, there's a living to be had in it. Eventually.
Nate thinks for a moment. "Still, I'd be satisfied with having small pay and a big audience. It's nice to have a pulpit. It gives us something to do in our spare time other than sitting on the couch."Experience Nate and Di for yourself by clicking here.