Asheville’s literary podcast scene blossoms

THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS: Rachel Hanson, left, interviews poet Evan Gray for an episode of "PBL Pod." Photo by Thomas Calder

“There are podcasts all over the place,” says Hendersonville-based poet Tony Robles. “For every type of interest or persuasion, you can find something.”

Including literary podcasts, which have begun to multiply in the Asheville area over the last year. In addition to Robles’ “Listen & Be Heard,” which he co-hosts with Greenville, S.C.-based poet Martha Cinader, local podcasts “PBL Pod” and “Rock Is Lit” offer diverse takes on the writing community and explore what motivates authors in their creative pursuits.

Organic matter

“PBL Pod” wasn’t something Rachel Hanson had on her mind when launching the nonprofit Punch Bucket Lit, which hosts a monthly reading series at rEvolve in West Asheville. But as the events became more popular, she saw an opportunity to give writers more space to talk about their work in detail, especially those who had or would go on to read in the series.

“There is a lot to love about our readings, and while I’m not opposed to Q&A sessions, it’s never been something I wanted at our series for multiple reasons,” Hanson says. “The podcast then, in a way, sort of replaces a Q&A session. Plus, it has a wide reach. If you can’t make a reading, listen to our podcast to hear authors read a bit and talk about their work.”

These conversations are published on a weekly basis and, due to scheduling conflicts among her four-person leadership team (which includes Xpress managing editor Thomas Calder), the bulk of the recent interviews have fallen to Hanson. While her goal is to dole out future hosting assignments across the squad, her current practice has helped Hanson hone her approach — one modeled in part after her all-time favorite podcast, “Doughboys,” in which comedians/hosts Mike Mitchell and Nick Wiger review fast food.

“I’m inspired by how they listen to their guests and ask follow-up questions — or, at the very least, acknowledge what the guest has just said,” Hanson says. “That’s kind of a pet peeve for me: hearing an interview where a question is asked, answered and then the host just moves on to the next question.”

One topic she’s less motivated to bring up in “PBL Pod” episodes is an author’s process. Though Hanson acknowledges that everyone has a different approach and it seems like a question audiences are interested in, she finds the topic less appealing. She attributes some of this sentiment to her profession. In addition to running Punch Bucket Lit, Hanson also teaches creative writing at UNC Asheville, where she regularly discusses process with young writers.

“So, when I’m in conversation with another writer — as opposed to a writing student — I am personally more interested in the intention behind a project,” she says. “‘What’s the story about, the intention and why is it so important and crucial that a writer had to get it on the page?’ For me, that’s way more interesting than any ‘how to’ kind of stuff.”

Asheville-area and North Carolina-based writers remain high priorities for Punch Bucket Lit. But as the podcast evolves, Hanson and her team are interested in expanding the show’s reach to include authors and poets from outside the region and state.

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That’s my jam

Local author Christy Alexander Hallberg began her podcasting career as a guest. In 2021, she appeared on numerous shows to promote her debut novel, Searching for Jimmy Page. Later, Peter Ferioli, co-founder of Pantheon Podcasts, approached her about launching her own.

She considered the proposal and reflected on existing podcasts that explore the intersection of music and literature. “There are a ton of shows that focus on nonfiction music-related books — rock criticism, memoirs, biographies, etc. — and some of those shows do include the occasional rock novel like mine, but none of them are devoted to that subgenre of literature,” Hallberg says. “I pitched the idea of a podcast focused on rock novels … and ‘Rock Is Lit’ was born.”

In September 2022, Hallberg hosted her first guest, author Jeff Jackson, who is also the singer of the Charlotte-based punk band Julian Calendar. Hallberg credits Jackson with introducing her to the rock-lit genre. Years before either her book or podcast came out, she interviewed him about his 2018 novel, Destroy All Monsters: The Last Rock Novel, for a print publication. During their exchange, Jackson listed off a series of other novels that explored the music industry such as Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document; Janet Fitch’s Paint It Black; Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad; and Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street.

TALK THE TALK: Clockwise from left, “Rock Is Lit” host Christy Alexander Hallberg and “Listen & Be Heard” co-hosts Martha Cinader and Tony Robles enhance the area’s literary podcast scene. Photos courtesy of the artists

Throughout the podcast’s initial run, episodes were published each week and, in addition to an author interview, featured a music expert such as supergroupie Pamela Des Barres (author of the memoir I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie) and Danny Goldberg, former president of Atlantic Records, who also previously managed Nirvana and served as vice president of Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song Records.

But for the second season, Hallberg scaled back to an every-other-week publishing schedule, occasionally with one guest instead of two. Over the past year, she says she’s grown more adept at audio editing and has also enhanced her research as the show’s audience has grown.

“My listeners include other writers, music lovers and bibliophiles, so I try to consider what they want to hear,” Hallberg says. “I ask questions about craft, literary and musical influences. … I’m always interested in hearing a novel’s origin story — where the germ of the idea that would become the novel came from and how it grew.”

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Community conversations

While “Rock Is Lit” and “PBL Pod” were born in WNC, the “Listen & Be Heard” podcast has had more of a nationwide journey on its way to launching in Asheville.

Show co-host Martha Cinader first launched “Listen & Be Heard” in the 1990s in New York City as an open mic reading series for poets and storytellers. She eventually relocated to California, where she and Tony Robles met during a reading event in Vallejo, Calif. In addition to a shared interest in literature, the two both had backgrounds in community radio.

Decades later, the pair reconnected after discovering they lived within an hour of each other. They soon met with Davyne Dial, general manager of Asheville’s WPVM. And in February, the “Listen & Be Heard” podcast launched.

“The goal is to both present writers from the Carolinas to the rest of the country and the world, and also to introduce the Carolinas to writers who we think Carolinians might want to know about, and who might not be being presented in bigger, more commercial media,” Cinader says.

She and Robles publish episodes every Wednesday, and listeners can either tune in to WPVM, 3-5 p.m., or find episodes on the “Listen & Be Heard” website or wherever podcasts are found. The co-hosts strive to cover a range of genres, including nonfiction and children’s literature.

“I love talking to authors because they’re quirky and there’s all kinds of things going on. I like getting into their heads,” Robles says. “Each author is really coming from a unique place, and I try to narrow down what is important to the author, what they’re really trying to say, and then just talk to them about what made them write that book — what’s really important to them.”

In addition to discussing the work at hand, Cinader works in questions on craft, as well as the business of writing, looping in bookstore owners, literary agents and publicists to help inform writers on how to get published. She and Robles are also encouraged by the recent rise in local literary podcasts and see the potential for collaboration and cross-promotion with their peers.

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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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