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Off The Charts: Noise Picnic

Greetings adventurers! It's time for another exploration in podcasting. Today we find ourselves in the Twin Cities! Minnesota! The chef's toque on the titanic and terrifying baker that makes the Midwest. Home to Paul Bunyan and Babe, his ox of a different color.

The Twin Cities is also home to Aric McKeown, one half of the men behind the curtain at Noise Picnic, a brand new podcast network. I spoke with Aric about his network, his podcasts, Better Strangers and The Mustache Rangers, and how you – yes, you - can join Noise Picnic.

MEL PAYNE:  You have joined the ranks of Chris Hardwick, Jeff Ulrich & Scott Aukerman, Jesse Thorn --

ARIC MCKEOWN:  Yeah, I don't know if “ranks” is the right word...

MP:  When people start listing podcast network moguls, you will be somewhere on that list.

AM:  Yeah, mogul is a great word... I agree! Continue.

MP:  So, you've started a new network called Noise Picnic. Was there a particular reason why you wanted to start a network? Why not just do your own thing?

AM:  Well, I've been doing my own thing for a few years now with The Mustache Rangers podcast. Then I started the Better Strangers podcast, and then I had a friend who just started up his own podcast and I thought, "Wait a second... This is two people, three podcasts. This could be the start of something." We're in the improv community here in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and there's so many talented people in that community that if they were just able to put their stuff online they could reach a much wider audience. And I'm not saying, "I know how to get numbers!" I've, you know...I don't. But! It seems like a group is almost a better way to build a community; taking an improv community and moving it online. And not just improv. There's a lot of independent art up here. And just giving them the tools and the knowledge - again, I've been doing this for...three years? Fours years? Something like that.

MP:  Ahh, probably ages!

AM:  Ages! I've gained knowledge on how to make things sound okay, how to, maybe, edit things sharper. Experience to help get people off to the right start, and making my minimal amount of audio equipment here available to people to create their own stuff.

MP:  Oh, that's great! So you're opening up and giving people a venue to perform on?

AM:  Yeah, a venue and the tools they need, you know, people think podcasting isn't really that hard. You can get a cheap-ass boom-mic which we got from Target. The sound was terrible, so it's like training wheels. You can get going for a minimal amount of effort but just having everything already there available to you just seems so much easier.

MP:  Yeah. It would really help nourish a little bud into a beautiful, blossoming flower!

AM:  Right. And like, "don't make these mistakes, because we did. So just skip past that part." So, knowledge. Knowledge would be a nice thing to pass on. A lot of friends are just smart, witty, talented, and successful in other parts of performing that spreading it out so the country could understand and hear what's going on here.

MP:  With the internet being the tool that it is now, you're not just localized. You don't necessarily have to be a big fish in a little pond.

AM:  It's really Jeff Ullrich's fault. From listening to Wolf Den, I think he recommended Tribes by Seth Godin, which is all about being a leader, taking the reins and leading a group of people to success. Being that go-to person. I picked it up and I started reading thinking, "I'm not this guy!" Then I thought, "Can I be this guy?"

MP:  [laughs]

AM:  The only thing holding me back is me being like, "I don't want to be important or lead anyone, I just want to do my thing." It started to seem like less of a crazy idea.

MP:  To backtrack a little, you said you didn't want to be a leader. What got you into improv to begin with? Did you start very early on, like, right out of high school? Or was it something that you had in the back of your mind and eventually just doing?

AM:  I actually started in high school. We had a pretty great theater coach who had started improv, I think, in middle school. He taught Steve Zahn and Mo Collins. His inspiration there just continued to have an improv show at the high school, so I just got into that Sophomore year. Looking back I was terrible at it, but that's sparked something that I wanted to keep doing. It has really been enjoyable and one of my passions. It's something I love to do and it's nice to get up there and perform to...people who like it? [laughs] Like me, by proxy, right?

MP:  [laughs] "I seem to enjoy getting up in front of people, so hopefully..."

AM:  In person I'm pretty shy, generally, and on stage it's totally not that way. And, I guess in the same way with podcasts you put yourself out there. It's a flip flop of how I act in one instance of life to the next. I find that when you get on stage you almost have a - and you'll find this within a lot of performers, they will tell you that they are shy in person, but when they are on stage. It's like you have a job to do, so there is a reason for you to be up there. So you don't have to think about what you're going to say because you have a purpose.

MP:  Right, these people are paying to listen to you, unlike Jerry in the cubical next to you, who just wants you to shut up.

AM:  Right. [laughs]

MP:  I've listened to Mustache Rangers. I enjoy the show. It's in very short bursts, I've noticed. And according to the site, or it has been described as a cross-section of Buck Rogers and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

AM:  That's for the dumb people.

MP:  So that's for people who need something to associate it with.

AM:  That's right! We say Buck Rogers and Beckett to the smarter people.

MP:  [laughs] I was noticing, in my mind at least, that I was drawing a lot of similarities to The Ventures Brothers, in that it's supposed to be an action-packed situation but you're really focusing on more of the minutiae.

AM:  Yeah...I agree, sure! I like the Venture Brothers when I see it, but I've never made it a point to go through the series. I think the humor is great in that show. I think we've both been trained as improvisers to make things more personal, or make things more about the characters, then, say, "oh, are they going to defuse this bomb in time?!" Bringing that sensibility past what it should be to just absurdity. Taking relationships and twisting it enough to show it's underbelly.  ...This is sounding pretentious! I'm making things up as I go along right now.

MP:  No, it's fine! It's sounding really good, it's sounding really good!

AM:  Yeah, we like to focus on more of the relationships and the down time in-between adventures. I'm going through all of the old episodes and re-editing them because they sound pretty terrible with my non-knowledge skills. 

MP:  Well, it was the early days. They're being re-mastered!

AM:  Yeah, they are re-mastered, and tightened-up, and the sound quality's better. Just going back and seeing the early days of improv skills. One of them was we were on a planet picking out tiles for the bathroom. That was an episode. And sometimes we killed aliens! But that takes more technical knowledge, maybe? Like, “oh, we've go to deal with other people.” It's easier, I guess, when it's just the two of us and then the computer comes in every so often.

MP:  To shift gears a little bit. Sorry, I don't want to jar you.

AM:  No, you can jar me!

MP:  Okay! You're from Minneapolis and with the network you're branching out to the creative community in Minneapolis. I've noticed there is a lot more popularity coming out of the Twin Cities area. Do you feel like it's starting to come together as a creative community, or is that just my own interpretation as someone on the west coast?

AM:  I can't speak to the all communities. I should be better at it. I'm a little sheltered in other aspects of theater. I know HUGE theater just opened up the first long-form improv theater here in Minneapolis. We've been performing there. We have, you know, The ComedySportz and the Brave New Workshop here that has been doing satirical and long-form improv for a long time. They are second to Second City as far as age goes. They had the first espresso machine west of the Mississippi, if that dates it correctly. It's just branching out here. Improv is branching out spectacularly. I know stand-up is enjoying quite a Renaissance, I believe. Theater in general has been pretty consistent here for a while. It's a little...I'm not quite sure how to describe it. "Oh, Little Hollywood!"

MP:  I don't know if there's a such thing as a geographical voice, but it's good to have a group of artists come out of one place. It's refreshing.

AM:  I see people say, "I've got to move to LA if I'm going to make it," but if everyone moves to LA we're not going to establish anything here. Enough talented people have to stay and make something of it where they are to make its own center inner forum or a community. And podcasts are everywhere! You don't have to be in the Earwolf studios to make a popular podcast because people can get them anywhere.

MP:  Better Strangers is another podcast of yours and the premise is that you speak with someone you've had very little interaction with and don't really know that well. Was there anything that inspired you to start the project?

AM:  Well, I can only get my improv partner over to record once every four weeks. So we generally record a bunch at the same time. I needed something that I could sort of control a little more. I was just thinking about what kind of podcasts there are out there. I have one friend, Troy, who came out and said I was the second-most awkward person in the improv community to converse with. I'm not denying that....I just didn't know how to converse that well. So, I thought, well, why don't I call my friends? And I still kind of had trouble having a conversation with them when I call them and record. It didn't feel like it was enough, though. That's not unique enough. And then, again, listening to Wolf Den, there are all these great ideas that are out there. It's like, "oh! I've got it! Strangers!" Let me jump right into the fire and talk to people I don't know at all. Admit things are going to be awkward, have that awkward first conversation. You also learn more about how to have a conversation. So, I think I'm getting better at it. I'm learning not to be afraid of other people as much as I am. Bringing that on stage person I am off stage, being that outgoing person who is able to chat. Other people are so interesting, too. So, why am I shying away from learning more about them? It's like a KFC bowl full of everything, all of these reasons all piled up into one bowl to make the Better Strangers podcast.

MP:  I like Better Strangers podcasts, but I don't know that that description helps you, saying that you are like a KFC bowl…

AM:  The corn and the cheese and the chicken and the mashed potatoes...  All my insecurities mixed into one bowl. And fed to the people.

MP:  Okay. Are you looking for podcasters in the Minnesota area to join Noise Picnic?

AM:  We are. We're looking for uniqueness. There's enough two guys chattin' in a room about pop culture that something would have to be unique enough about that to make it stand out, or make it different. There's got to be a reason why someone would listen to this over any others that are just like it. So, yes, we are looking for podcasters to join the network! We're also going to have an editing eye for, "that doesn't sound right, do you want to tweak that?" We don't want to tell people how to do their podcast. We're not going to be in charge of the content they put out. We'll give them the tools to make it themselves and put it up.

That's all for now, my companions. You can learn more about Noise Picnic at NoisePicnic.com.
New episodes of Mustache Rangers plop Mondays and new episodes of Better Strangers plop on Thursdays.

By the way, you can listen to the sound of my voice on Episode #10 of Better Strangers! There are plenty of podcasts left to discover and pemmican recipes to share.

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