I hate driving to work. People drive like assholes. They cut you off, speed up on-purpose when you want to get over and don’t turn their headlights on when it’s raining or foggy. In-between the honking of horns and mean looks are extended moments of boredom. Even though it can be slower, I take different routes home to keep from going mad. I’d rather be watching movies, reading comic books, or taking a nap. But, until driverless cars are available, I can’t do any of those things. In the meantime I listen to my entertainment. I do this throughout the entirety of my over two hours round-trip daily commute. I cycle through music, audiobooks and The Howard Stern Show.
The Stern Show is like a soap opera. It was probably the first reality show, except on radio. Getting to know the personalities of its cast, coupled with Stern’s opinions and critiques of their lives, was addictive. It was my obsession for years. Until I discovered “Stuff You Should Know.”
The Stuff You Should Know podcast, produced by the company HowStuffWorks, launched on April 17, 2008. It soon rose to be one of the top 10 most listened to podcasts on iTunes, and still holds that spot as of this writing. The show covers about any topic you can imagine. Subjects range from history (“How did 168 conquistadors take down the Inca empire?“), economics (“How Dark Money Works“), science (“How Big Bang Theory Works, with Neil deGrasse Tyson”) pop-culture (“How Play-Doh Works”), the supernatural (“How Ouija Boards Work”), and more. Any topic you care to know about has been, or eventually will be, covered by Josh and Chuck.
Josh Clark and Charles W. “Chuck” (AKA “Chuckers”) Bryant are the show’s co-hosts. Josh has been there since the show’s debut episode (“How Grassoline Works”) and Chuck fully joined by episode 7 (“Why Does Toothpaste Make Orange Juice Taste Bad?”). Their producer, Jeri, is always spoken of but never speaks on the show (there’s even some fans with conspiracy theories that she doesn’t exist, even though she’s made public appearances with Josh and Chuck). The appeal of the show is not so much it’s subject matter, but Josh and Chuck. Other podcasts exist that have a similar format, and cover the same topics, but many of them are missing the element that makes Stuff You Should Know top of the charts: Interesting hosts. These two interact like a couple of dudes who aren’t always self-aware that they’re doing a show with an audience. You feel like you’re a passenger in their car rather than the driver of yours. Their conversations veer in different directions. You’re not getting a lecture or a documentary view of the subject. You’re getting the subject filtered through their personalities. These qualities are what drew me to the Stern Show. Another factor I admire is their self professed “to each their own” attitude. Yes, their opinion on a subject may come out during the episode, but it doesn’t prevent them from covering all sides of the topic fairly. They also don’t bash listener mail when reading it at the end of the program.
Being a completist I’ve been listening to the episodes chronologically. The first year is rough, as many shows can be while they’re figuring things out. For me the podcast got its groove going by episode 46 (“How Carbon Capture and Storage Works“). By that one the two hosts sound like the Josh and Chuck of today: Relaxed, natural and confident in their delivery. Today they even do live shows where they cover new subjects that haven’t been done on the podcast yet.
I wanted to know more about these two so I got ahold of Josh and asked if he’d be up for talking with me. He graciously accepted and even offered to work the interview around MY work schedule. Our chat began with him thanking ME for interviewing him. Super nice guy. Here’s what he had to say…
How are you doing?
Good. Thanks for interviewing me.
Oh, well jeez. Thank you. I appreciate it. I got into your podcast a few months ago and basically just got hooked. I got into it and I just started burning through episodes.
How many are you up to?
I’m all the way through 2015, and up to date on 2016. But I recently discovered that you guys have additional shows that are on the website, but not on iTunes.
Yeah, eight hundred.
Eight hundred plus shows. Yeah, I feel bad for you. You’ve got a lot of episodes left ahead of you.
I do, yeah. And even if there’s something like a TV show or a book series, even if it’s a boring one, and not so good, I feel the need to have to complete it completely before I go to the next step.
You know, I’ve run into that before, too, and I finally came to the conclusion, I’m like, “Dude, the book is not catching my attention” or something. I’m just not going to plow through it. I can’t. It’ll take too long and it’ll keep me from doing too many other things, you know?
You start thinking about mortality and you’re like “Oh my god. When I die there’s going to be so many things I didn’t read or see.”
Right. That was the impetus for me, as well. But I’m thirty-nine, and I realized I have fewer years. I’m not going to waste them on books that suck, you know?
So HowStuffWorks is a company. It’s a company that your show is a part of, and there’s a bunch of shows. Is that an actual company? It’s called HowStuffWorks?
Yeah. So back in 2007, Chuck and I were both hired on as regular old staff writers for HowStuffWorks. And HowStuffWorks was, at the time, an independent company. It had been started by this dude with the actual serious name of Marshall Brain and he started a website in his kitchen in North Carolina. He was an instructor at North Carolina State University and he decided that he wanted to start writing articles for the web explaining things. So he sat down and went through the obvious ones. He has a very mechanical engineering type mind, and he went through things like air conditioners first or whatever. But he’s also an interesting dude, so then he quickly went to how black holes work and how diamonds work and so on and so forth.
All of a sudden he realized he has a pretty decent repository of articles. Then he was selling ads on the website and making a little bit of money and was able to start hiring other writers, I’m sure freelancers at first. And then the site went on and on and he ultimately sold it to the guy who founded WebMD. And then the guy who founded WebMD turned around and sold it years later for a kajillion dollars. He owned HowStuffWorks when I got hired on. So HowStuffWorks is just this awesome website. HowStuffWorks was initially, when I got hired on, this repository of tens of thousands— literally tens of thousands—of articles that were well written, well researched, credible, and in a voice that was approachable. So the whole point of HowStuffWorks is to take a difficult idea and break it down so that anybody who comes along and wants to understand it can, right? And when I got hired on, I got hired on by this guy named
and he saw very clearly that there was a lot of people out there that would love this stuff, but like you, aren’t going to just sit there and read stuff on the web. It’s a certain type of person and it’s a fairly narrow demographic, honestly. And he had been aware that podcasts were a thing for the last couple of years by that time, and he was like, “We should just take these articles and turn them into podcasts. Basically repurpose them. Who do we have that’s excited?” And I think the head of video or audio or whoever at the time said, “We have nobody.”
So they ended up trying me and some of the early editors I had, and they were okay. We’d just take an article from HowStuffWorks and talk about them, and the early incarnations were like five minutes long. And then they brought Chuck along, and it was like why didn’t we start out with Josh and Chuck, you know?
After Chuck came along there was no going back. So the podcast took off very quickly. It was like people were waiting for it almost. So we started in April of 2008. By November of 2008 I believe we hit number one on iTunes. It came out of nowhere and was number one on iTunes, and it’s stayed in the top ten ever since. So we still work for HowStuffWorks. HowStuffWorks has changed hands a few times, but it’s still kept doing what it’s doing which is “Let’s write an interesting article about this topic.” With Stuff You Should Know the process starts with an article, from HowStuffWorks, where Chuck and I will pick a topic—or an article—and we’ll both go off and read it. Then we’ll do all of the other research, answering all the questions that come up from reading that one article, and then we come back together and we discuss it. So ultimately it is very much like a repurposing, a taking of the articles on the site and changing it into something for people who like to listen to things, for them to enjoy it as well.
Yeah that’s me. I have a long commute to work and a long commute home, so I listen to a lot of audiobooks and radio. I’m one of those people.
Yeah, I am too. But I like to read on the web, actually, but I can definitely get burned out on it. And I very equally love to watch old Frontline episodes, and I listen to Fresh Air. I understand how people feel about Stuff You Should Know because I know how I feel about Fresh Air. Not necessarily the reviews or whatever, although I like them, but this is just a really interesting article that Terry Gross is talking about with whoever wrote it.
Do you guys have complete creative control? Or do you have to review show ideas or the completed episodes with like a supervisor of some kind?
No, we’re really lucky. We have complete creative control. We don’t run our ideas past anybody. No one listens to it for content before we publish it. We just accrued a lot of trust over the years just from putting it out. And our producer’s Jeri, Jeri Rowland. And a lot of people don’t believe that Jeri actually exists, but she does because we’ve always gone out of our way to make sure her face is covered or something like that, just to kind of mess with people, but she very much exists. At the beginning she really helped steward the podcast along, and as it’s gone on the roles have kind of gelled so that Jeri and Chuck and I are all kind of equals in there. So there’s no boss paying attention to the type of content we’re putting out or anything like that. We’ve just gotten nothing but support basically.
Have you had a change in your position on a subject once having done an episode?
I know I have, but I’m trying to think of what that might be. I can’t think of anything that has changed my mind. I know for a fact that I have because I’m not a ridiculously close-minded person. A lot of things have just kind of widened my perspective or opened my eyes more. We did one on Enlightenment which was one of my all-time favorite episodes. One of the reasons why it was because I knew about the Enlightenment, but when I started researching it I realized that Enlightenment is basically rational humanism lashing out against religious mysticism. That was what the Enlightenment was all about. And I started researching the Enlightenment and seeing all the thinkers and the theories and the back-and-forth, basically, and I realized that battle is still going on. It was really interesting for me to see how clearly that same dispute is still playing out today. That definitely opened my eyes, because I saw my own contemporary age through a new perspective. I could look at history and say, “This is a really good guide for understanding what we’re dealing with right now” and you can kind of hear my awe and wonder when we were doing that episode. I recommend that one big time.
What’s the craziest gift you’ve received from a fan? Or most expensive?
There was this one guy who made a homemade cheesecake and I ate it and it was delicious. He could’ve spent fifty bucks mailing this cheesecake and I still just could not believe it. And I actually got to meet him, and later on his mom, at the show at South by Southwest that we did. We hung out and everything. He was a nice kid. So I was just blown away that he’d spent fifty dollars to send a cheesecake. And it was a delicious cheesecake. It was worth every penny that he spent, but I just thought that was nice that he did that. Even though, if I had made something for somebody, I’d be like “They’re going to love this” and if I got to the post office and the post carrier said “Fifty dollars, please,” I would be like “Well, this was a good idea. I’m just going to go eat the cheesecake myself.” I can send them an email, and they’ll get a laugh out of the story. I wouldn’t pull the trigger on the fifty dollars just for postage, you know. So that one stuck out to me.
If you could go back in time and start your podcast journey again, what would you have done differently?
All of this is me speaking for myself. I’m sure Chuck has his own idea that would be totally different. Mine would be to take advantage of more live show opportunities or appearance opportunities. I really had some serious stage fright for many years when we started out doing this. And everyone saw how I would just force myself to go do something or whatever, and it ultimately kind of was driven away. Just the more I did it, the less stage fright I had. So now it’s at the point where I’ll still get stage fright, but it’s ten seconds before we’re about to go out on stage, and it goes away within a few minutes. Whereas before I would be wrecked for days leading up to it—maybe a week or more—just knowing that this thing was looming on the horizon. I would just have this horrible sense of dread. And then the closer and closer the day came, the more acute the dread would become.
I really wish that I had just kind of tackled that, taken it by the horns and gotten rid of or done something about it. Gone to Toastmasters, who knows. Because I really think that it would have just been a.) a lot more satisfying, and b.) we would have had that much more exposure. I also would have been more in charge of my stage fright. That’s what I would have done differently.
Do you have any favorite cities that you like to visit on your on live show tours?
Yeah. D.C. and New York are two places where I actually still get tremendous stage fright going out. In New York the last time we were there, I almost turned to Chuck and said, “You’re going to need to push me out on stage” but I managed to gather the will to go ahead and just do it. And the reason why is I just admire the people who come to our shows at these cities for being so smart and cultured and just out there and doing it. We have great receptions everywhere we go because the people who are at our shows are very much into us. Like there’s maybe five people at the show that don’t know who we are, they got dragged along. So at every show, we’re going to see the finest the city has to offer, because everybody’s there to see us and they’re happy we’re there and we’re hanging out.
We were in D.C. once and we did a show and it was the day the Supreme Court ruled that gay marriage was legal and D.C. was just buzzing. I’m sure any major city was buzzing at the time, but D.C. was like, it happened, it was at the heart of the whole thing. That led to a really killer show. And New York I think I probably have an affinity for, actually, because that was one of our first shows. Our first real show was in New York at the Knitting Factory and the fire marshal had to come out because it was just so packed people had to leave.
We get great reception everywhere. I don’t want to downplay anybody in any town that we’ve been to because at our shows everybody’s awesome. But I do have some affinity for New York and D.C., for sure. I also think that the Pacific Northwest treats us really well.
Your show covers different themes, history, science, pop culture. Is there a category you have more fun covering?
History’s usually fun. That’s what I studied in college, so I just see things through the lens of history. Our history ones I just really like. I think one of the things I like about it is it’s set, it’s there. Like we’re still unraveling it, we’re still understanding it, most cases it’s still being investigated or written about. But it’s there. It happened. You can say, “Here is everything that happened that had to do with this.” And then the other thing I like about history too is how connected things are, like I said with the Enlightenment episode. And that said, I love a pop culture one, too. Like we did one on how Barbie doll worked. We’ve done them on Silly Putty and Yo-Yos. Things that are kind of iconic tend to be really good episodes, just because there’s a lot to them and they resonate with a lot of the listeners. And they resonate with Chuck and me, too.
So the pop culture ones, the history ones, and then the dark ones. Things don’t get dark enough, I think, when you look around in the media. I mean, they’re dark and depressing, but everybody’s pretending that it’s not, you know? We did one on whether it’s legal to sterilize a drug addict or not. Turns out it is, if they’re willing to accept money. We’ve done a lot on dying, which to me isn’t dark. A lot of people take that as dark. I don’t know what dying is, but it’s not dark. There’s a lot more dark stuff out there, like giving money to drug addicts so that they won’t have more children. That’s pretty dark to me. So I just find it very interesting when we come across topics like that.
You guys have said before you have a lot of fun on the tour Do you have any pet peeves on a tour? Things that make you grumble inside or dread? Like “Oh God, THIS is going to happen again.”
Well, that’s the lucky part. There’s nothing dreadful about touring. It’s actually still a lot of fun, and I think the reason why is because we could do less of it than we could, so it’s not a drag. But we did figure out that being away from the family five, six, seven days starts to turn into a grind after day two or three. So now we’re trying to do something different where we’re doing a few weekends a quarter. Well, twelve weekends throughout the year we’re going to do two cities a weekend and see how that goes. We really like just being removed from our life for a little while in this weird alter-life where everybody you see is just so glad to see you and there’s no problems or anything. It’s just like you’re removed from your life. But you miss it after a few days. Hopefully this new method of touring will cut down on that.
A few days after my chat with Josh I saw his and Chuck’s live performance at the Neptune Theatre in Seattle. I found it ironic that the show I saw was on D.B. Cooper (the mysterious hijacker of a Boeing 747 passenger jet, who parachuted our of the plane and was never found again). My interview prior to Josh was with Brian Churilla, who wrote and illustrated the graphic novel “The Secret History of D.B. Cooper,” a historical speculative story on the subject (you can find that article on this site as well).
The Stuff You Should Know podcast is available on iTunes as well as the iOS Podcast app. Every single episode ever is also available as downloadable mp3s from their website, StuffYouShouldKnow.com. You can also check out their videos on their YouTube channel, and follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.