Two old friends from Worthington decided to start a podcast, mostly to have a good excuse to see one another regularly. Nine months later, more than 300,000 people have tuned in to learn lessons from the simple fable that is the heart of the show.
An old man told his grandson: "My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed and resentment, inferiority, lies and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth."
The boy thought about it and asked, "Grandfather, which wolf wins?"
The old man quietly replied,"The one you feed."
On a recent Saturday night, Worthington natives Chris Forbes and Eric Zimmer, both 44, stare at audio waveforms on a computer monitor in the upstairs recording space of Forbes' red-brick Merion Village home. Zimmer takes notes on his laptop while Charlie, a friendly vizsla-Labrador mix, weaves between chairs and occasionally whines at noises coming from the street below.
Forbes and Zimmer are listening to a recorded conversation with author and Breather CEO Julien Smith, to whom they spoke over Skype for their podcast, "The One You Feed." Forbes stops the recording and trims one of the waveforms ever so slightly with his mouse.
"If you tighten it up, it sounds completely live," Forbes says. "If not, there's a delay. It's just the tiniest amount, but we painstakingly edit it instead of letting it roll live, which some podcasts do. It's nice to make it a little slicker."
"A lot of podcasts, it's just an hour or two of people talking-like sitting in someone's living room," Zimmer explains. "We try to do ours more like a show-like something you'd broadcast."
That attention to detail has earned "The One You Feed" a sizable audience since the podcast debuted in January. The average podcast on iTunes gets around 1,000 listens per episode, which means by August, after 37 episodes, "The One You Feed" would have been doing well to reach 37,000 listens. Instead, the total number of downloads exceeded 300,000. The show also recently reached the No. 1 spot in the Health category on iTunes, which provides a massive directory most listeners use for discovering and consuming podcasts. At one point last summer, "The One You Feed" was ranked 35th among all the tens of thousands of podcasts in the iTunes store.
"I know a lot of podcasters, and I know a lot who launched around the time we did, and we are far and away an outlier in the success we're having," Zimmer says. "People say, 'Can you teach me how you did it?' But I don't have any marketing magic. The focus all along was, let's make a good show, and let's do it because we like doing it and because it's rewarding and fulfilling. The rest of the stuff will take care of itself."
"There's no magic secret in all of this," says Rob Walch, who has been teaching podcasters the ins and outs of the business since 2004 through his show "podCast411." "Podcasting is a lot like the movie industry. It's all about word-of-mouth marketing. If the show content is good, people tell their friends. That's how podcasts get popular. At the end of the day, people are listening because you have good content."
The good wolf-bad wolf parable supplies the entire premise for "The One You Feed." Not an episode goes by without discussing it. While it may seem unlikely one parable could provide enough fodder for discussions with dozens of guests, the story is open-ended enough that the well has yet to run dry. Similar themes routinely come up in these conversations, but Zimmer and Forbes don't shy away from retreading ground. In fact, repetition is part of the reason they enjoy doing the podcast.
"I rarely hear an idea that blows my mind anymore," Zimmer says. "I've heard most of these things before. But knowing is largely useless if it isn't put into some kind of action. I can hear something and think, 'Oh, that's profound.' I can even live that way for a few days. But sooner or later, old habits re-emerge, and then I forget. This show, for me, is the feeding of my good wolf. It's a way of keeping those ideas in the forefront of my mind so I can live that way."
"It's so easy to forget," Forbes says, then adds: "Unless you're forced to edit a podcast on a weekly basis."
Neither Zimmer nor Forbes had any podcasting experience before January, though each is well-suited to the task. Zimmer has a background in software startup companies, and he also co-founded solar-energy company Tipping Point Renewable Energy five years ago; these days, he provides e-commerce consulting for clients like Cardinal Health and The Gap. Forbes repairs audio equipment at Abel Audio by day and also does voiceover work for clients like Dairy Queen and Columbus Car Audio; for a while, he hosted "iMix," a TV show that aired on WOSU.
Forbes played guitar in Columbus bands the Black Swans and Orchestraville, and Zimmer plays guitar, as well. All the music on the podcast is the pair's creation. In fact, for each episode, they shoehorn a musical interlude into the interview. While they sometimes take advantage of the guitars hanging on the wall of the recording space, Zimmer and Forbes often have the most fun collaborating with an iPad.
"Someone does one or two tracks and then hands it to the other person," Forbes says. "Then we have full license to erase or alter whatever the last person did and then add on the next track and hand it back. It's really fun. It feels like a game."
Zimmer and Forbes have a natural chemistry born out of their decades-long friendship. The two became friends soon after graduating high school, but over the years life got busy. They weren't spending much time together, even though they wanted to. Starting a podcast was a good excuse to hang out on a regular basis.
It usually happens in two sessions per week-one to record, the other to edit. Zimmer conducts the interviews, and Forbes does the intro, outro and any promotional content from advertisers (a natural fit for a voiceover artist). Each episode features a 30- to 40-minute discussion with a featured guest-often a musician, author or spiritual or creative guru. Previous guests include musicians Dave Davies of the Kinks, Joe Oestreich of Watershed and drummer Jon Wurster; authors Matthew Quick ("Silver Linings Playbook"), Timber Hawkeye ("Buddhist Boot Camp") and Andrew Solomon ("Far From the Tree"); and guru Lama Kathy Wesley.
Zimmer and Forbes didn't have an exact template for the show, but "The One You Feed" is modeled after podcasts like "On Being" with Krista Tippett, "Good Life Project" with Jonathan Fields, "The New Man" with Tripp Lanier and "WTF" with Marc Maron. The show's website describes the podcast this way: "It takes conscious, constant and creative effort to make a life worth living. This podcast is about how other people keep themselves moving in the right direction-how they feed their good wolf."
"The One You Feed" is listed under the Self-Help subcategory in iTunes, but Zimmer is careful to note it's not a show about positive thinking. In fact, one episode is titled "Pitfalls of Positive Thinking," and another episode features Oliver Burkeman, author of "The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking."
"It's not like the parable is about taking a shotgun to the bad wolf," Zimmer says. "They're both there, but you have some choice. The decisions I make now impact the way I think and the decisions I'll make in the future, like a groove in a record. When you do something, that groove gets deeper and it becomes easier and easier to fall into it-both positively and negatively."
While much of the podcast's success can be attributed to good content, professional production and word-of-mouth marketing, Zimmer says they've also been lucky. "iTunes is probably our biggest supporter," he says. "They've featured us on the front page several times. They like what we're doing. That's been a big part of the success."
The support of iTunes is huge, says Walch, who, in addition to producing "podCast411," is vice president of podcaster relations at Libsyn, a hosting service for more than 20,000 podcasts (including "The One You Feed"). "About two-thirds of the consumption of podcasts are via software that comes from Apple. So Apple is a big influencer on the growth of a podcast, but it doesn't help you maintain your podcast long-term. You still have to have good-quality content."
Positive reviews in the iTunes store also help. As of mid-September, "The One You Feed" had 300 starred reviews, and the overwhelming majority of reviewers gave the podcast five stars. Zimmer and Forbes say they get several emails a week from appreciative listeners.
"The One You Feed" hasn't been much of a moneymaker so far, though the show is sponsored from time to time; Zimmer says they're close to signing a longer-term, more lucrative sponsorship. In the meantime, they'll keep tracking down interesting people for each week's show. The dream list of interviewees grows daily, with Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen and Buddhist nun Pema Chodron at the top.
Regardless of big names or big sponsorships, Zimmer and Forbes are content to pursue personal development and the development of their listeners, all the while strengthening their own friendship.
"There have been times when there are a million things going on, but it gets released every Tuesday. We have to get it done," Forbes says. "And it's just the greatest time."