When Justin Mitchell brings his podcast guests into Biloxi’s Sun Herald newsroom, they head for a small storage room crammed with metal filing cabinets. The labels on those cabinets include “1984 World’s Fair,” “Parrot Head” and “UFO Sightings.”
Mitchell, the Herald’s social media editor, opens up his laptop and starts a videoconference with Jordan-Marie Smith and Davin Coburn in Washington, D.C.
Smith and Coburn aren’t there as guests. They’re the podcast’s producers.
On Monday, McClatchy debuts its fourth podcast, “Out Here in America.” The podcast, which explores what it’s like to be gay in the Deep South, is the first of the bunch hosted in a local McClatchy newsroom.
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The company’s 30 newsrooms around the U.S. have historically operated independently, said Coburn, McClatchy’s senior podcast producer. When his department launched, Coburn was looking for shows that encouraged collaboration between those newsrooms. He knew that, along with shows on politics, sports and investigative journalism, he wanted a podcast on LGBT issues.
Coburn didn’t have anything more specific than that in mind until he stumbled on a piece by Mitchell titled “I’m young, I’m gay and in Mississippi I’ll stay.”
“I thought, OK, this is the man for the job.”
Mitchell’s column about being gay in the South brought protests to the newsroom. When he wrote about a teen who made a video about being a drag queen that help him get a scholarship to Harvard, people canceled their subscriptions. So Mitchell wasn’t expecting someone to hand him a microphone.
“I was like, shut up. Literally, shut up,” he said. “When you work in a place like Mississippi, even though where I’m from it’s a little more free-flowing, it’s still really hard to live in the South.”
The podcast revolves around a central theme each week tied to the culture of the South, including the military, religion, small towns and the concept of home. Amanda McCoy, a Herald photographer, helps repurpose video equipment for the recording and works as the podcast’s audio technician.
Once the recording is done, they send the raw audio to D.C. for editing.
Coburn isn’t facing pressure to monetize the podcasts yet, he said. They will look into different ways to monetize eventually, and they’re already having preliminary conversations with potential sponsors for Mitchell’s show.
McClatchy doesn’t disclose overall listener numbers, but Coburn said listenership for each of the shows is growing.
“Looking forward, the social media feedback on just the trailer for ‘O.H.I.A.’ suggests we’ve found a topic people are eager to talk about — and we’re really excited to continue building out this podcast initiative and adding more shows soon,” Coburn said.
Based on the way Mitchell’s stories about LGBT have performed online, they have evidence these stories don’t just resonate locally, and they’re not just for one specific audience, he said. Mitchell’s column on being gay in the South got close to 10,000 pageviews, and his coverage of the teen drag queen got more than 21,000 pageviews.
“This podcast is something that everyone can listen to and learn a little bit from,” Mitchell said. “In the South, a lot of people tend to put gay people in boxes.”
Mitchell still works in that storage room for intros, outros and promos, but he’s learning that he’d rather talk to people in their own homes or places where they’re comfortable. He flew to Orlando to talk with a fellow Southerner who moved to Orlando and was at Pulse Nightclub on the night of the mass shooting there. And he drove to New Orleans to talk with comedian Tig Notaro.
Mitchell’s also using a bit more than the hour a week he told his editors he’d need for “Out Here in America.”
But, he said, “it’s totally worth it.”