The Great Discontent

The Great Discontent

Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant

Josh Clark & Chuck Bryant

  • broadcaster
  • writer

Josh Clark and Charles W. “Chuck” Bryant are cohosts of Stuff You Should Know (SYSK), an award-winning biweekly podcast that educates listeners on a broad range of topics. Both pursued writing in various industries before meeting as staff writers at HowStuffWorks in Atlanta. Stuff You Should Know continuously ranks in the top 10 list on iTunes, with over 5 million downloads per month. Since its inception in 2008, the show has been expanded to include a popular YouTube channel, Science Channel series, live events, and two audio books.

Describe your paths to what you’re doing now.

Josh: Chuck and I were both brought on as writers within the same month at HowStuffWorks, a website that explains how the world works through easy-to-understand articles. At the time, Chuck was writing a lot of adventure articles because he looks like an adventurous guy, and I was writing a section for questions of the day.

Chuck: I was an English major in college, which led to my interest in writing professionally. Before I worked at HowStuffWorks, I did marketing for a company that made software for chicken farms. I was pretty good at it, but it wasn’t a good match overall. Losing my job there was how I got this job, so it all worked out.

(laughing) I had no idea chicken farms used software.

Chuck: Yeah, it’s a real thing. (laughing) I kind of stumbled into this job, which I’ve been very thankful for, but we never planned on doing a podcast until it presented itself to us.

Josh: Our initial boss, Conal Byrne—good guy—came along one day and said, “We have all this really interesting content on HowStuffWorks, but not everybody reads articles. How can we get this information out to more people?” He decided podcasts were the way to go, and Stuff You Should Know was born.

At the time, I had heard of podcasts, but I had never actually listened to one. We kind of started from a place where there was no possible way to fail because initially there were so few resources put into it. We thought, “Hey, let’s try this. If it works, awesome; if it doesn’t, we’ll try something else.” The podcast worked just enough that we started giving it a little more time, effort, and input, and it just kind of blew up. Within the first year, Stuff You Should Know hit number one on iTunes, and it stayed there for a couple months. The show was a success right out of the gate, which was very encouraging. When that happens, you just want to keep doing it for as long as you can.

Chuck: Eventually the show grew and evolved to the point where Josh and I stopped writing articles.

Josh: In the beginning, we were tracking about five minutes for the episode lengths because iTunes said that five minutes was all people wanted for a podcast. The length kept expanding until we hit a sweet spot where an episode now runs for as long as it needs to in order to cover a particular topic.

Chuck: Now our introductions alone are longer than five minutes. (laughing)

Were the two of you picked to host the show from the beginning?

Chuck: The show did a rotation of staff writers for a while until they settled on me and Josh. I’ve always wondered why they didn’t try us out as a pair to begin with, because we were friends in the office. When they rotated me in, we already had a good rapport and felt comfortable having a conversation with each other, and that sort of became the basis of the whole show. I guess everyone sort of phased out after that, and we became the gruesome twosome. (laughing)

The Stuff You Should Know Wikipedia page said there were jean jackets involved?

Chuck: (laughing) That’s not true.

Josh: I said that in an interview once—(laughing)

Chuck: But the interviewer took it seriously.

Josh: The joke was that both of us happened to wear jean jackets with the Van Halen logo drawn on in marker into the office on the same day, and that’s how we knew we would click.

Chuck: I wish that were true!

We’re debunking that myth for the Internet right now, because I’ve read that in multiple places.

Josh: I’ve learned that I have to watch what I say.

Was creativity part of your childhoods?

Josh: Creativity has been a driving force throughout my lifetime. In my family, there was always a belief in and awareness of psychology, which fostered the idea that creativity should be allowed and supported. My third grade teacher encouraged me to write, and that helped kick it all off.

Chuck: Both of my parents were teachers. My mom painted, and my brother and sister could both draw well. I was the only one in my family who couldn’t draw, but I had a talent for writing, and I remember having teachers encourage me to pursue it in school. I grew up in a creative household, but it wasn’t like I had a couple of hippie-artist parents.

Josh: My parents weren’t hippies either, for the record.

No bohemian upbringing?

Josh: No, my parents were pretty square. My dad had Jackie Gleason 45s. I didn’t even know Jackie Gleason recorded music, but it turns out he did.

Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant
Josh Clark and Charles W. “Chuck” Bryant, cohosts of Stuff You Should Know, an award-winning biweekly podcast that educates listeners on a broad range of topics

Have you had any mentors along the way?

Chuck: Boy, I feel like we were always kind of out in the wilderness by ourselves. But when the show started receiving a little notoriety, John Hodgman became a big mentor to us. He started out as a listener of the show, and we ended up becoming buddies with him. He’s given us good career advice, and I’m happy to call him a mentor.

Josh: Yeah, I’m going with Hodgman, too.

Chuck: Conal Byrne, the guy who suggested we start the podcast in the first place, has been really key. He fought for us behind the scenes and gave us room to work out the show on our own.

Josh: Yeah. In 2008 or 2009, there weren’t many advertisers who knew what a podcast was, and the ones who did weren’t confident in investing money into them. Conal was definitely there fighting the good fight to keep the program alive, and not just for Stuff You Should Know—he expanded HowStuffWorks to include 10 different shows. I have the impression that he had to do a lot to make all of that happen.

It shows incredible foresight on his part.

Chuck: Yeah, he’s definitely a forward thinker.

Was there an “Aha!” moment when you realized that the podcast was something you wanted to focus on?

Josh: The moment it hit number one on iTunes was the moment Chuck and I knew it was something serious. Some of the higher-ups who were still unconvinced or thought it was a fluke saw that we stayed at number one the following week, and the week after that. That solidified it not just in our minds, but in everybody’s minds, which meant we could keep doing it.

Something that’s important to note is that Chuck and I are still interested in doing the show. We do it just about every week—lately, because of our schedules, we’ve been recording four episodes per week. When we’re recording and making the podcast, it is still interesting and fun. There is no sense of dread, even after doing this for almost seven years. That’s really significant to me, because the average person gets bored doing just about anything. This is definitely more than just a job for us.

Chuck: We were able to hang in there long enough for podcasting to catch up as a legit platform. As far as the “Aha!” moment goes, I think part of it was just the industry itself proving that people can do this for a living.

Josh: I remember doing interviews back in 2009 or 2010, and almost every interviewer asked us, “So, podcasting is a dying art. How do you guys feel about that?” (laughing) I don’t know if we were just ensconced in our own little world or just weren’t paying attention, but—

Chuck: —I never felt that way.

Josh: Me, either. Not only did I not feel that way, I hadn’t even heard that until the first interviewer asked us about it. Like Chuck said, we were able to hang on and just do our thing. Luckily for us, podcasting had its own “Aha!” moment and gained enough traction to become legitimate.

It looks like you guys have grown Stuff You Should Know out to a lot of different mediums outside of the podcast, including a TV show and live events.

Chuck: Yeah, we put out a Stuff You Should Know TV show on the Science Channel that ran for one season, which was a lot of fun. It came from a company-wide decision to start putting faces to some of the voices people heard on all the different HowStuffWorks podcasts. It seemed like a natural fit.

We’ve started going out on the road to do live shows now, which has been a lot of fun.

Josh: We initially did two shows in Toronto and two more in Vancouver, and it just kind of got under our skin. We’re doing a West Coast tour right now, and we’re planning another one in the Northeast this summer.

Chuck: Each season, we’re going to try and hit four different cities—

Josh: In a different region—

Chuck: For however long people will come and see us. (laughing)

John Hodgman and Chuck and Josh
Actor, comedian, and writer, John Hodgman, with Chuck and Josh at a live show at the Bell House in Brooklyn, NY

“We’ve received letters about how we’ve helped people through some real tough situations in their lives…it sort of knocks me in the head a little bit. There are real people out there, and for some reason our voices lend some comfort to them.” / Chuck

Have you taken a big risk to move forward?

Josh: I don’t think we’ve taken a single risk. (laughing) Actually, the television show was a big risk. I mean, we were doing a scripted comedy show on the Science Channel.

Chuck: Oh, yeah. The concept itself was totally a big risk.

Josh: It’s not on the air anymore, but it’s still something we did. Not everyone walking around can say, “I’ve got a season of television under my belt.” It was pretty cool just to have that experience.

(to Chuck) What else have we done that was risky?

Chuck: Going on stage at Comic-Con to talk about super heroes was pretty risky. (laughing) We’ve braved some live performances where we were a little bit over our heads, but came out unscathed.

No tomatoes thrown at the stage?

Josh: No, fortunately not. We’ve never ever put ourselves out there as experts on anything. By avoiding that, we’ve been able to be approachable and be ourselves. People feel comfortable around us, and those who listen to the shows and come to our live events feel connected to us in a way that you wouldn’t feel with an expert. Being an expert kind of means you have a target on your back: people want to take you down and prove you wrong—it’s almost like a recreational sport these days. But we just put ourselves out there as a couple of interested guys who are willing to explain things as we understand them. For that reason, even when we get something wrong, there’s still a propensity for people to forgive us because we’re just average guys.

Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger?

Josh: The answer is yes when I stop and think about it. That being said, before we press record, it’s not like we look at each other and say, “Okay, we need to the change the world starting—now!” We were both raised by good parents and had good upbringings, and that comes through when we use the show for a good purpose. But it’s not necessarily thought through like that.

Chuck: I agree. Not thinking about the podcast in that way has actually helped us take that pressure off. We don’t go into the recording booth and say, “We need to get the message out about homelessness.” We just go in there and do our thing, and the result of that is getting the word out about homelessness.

Josh: Right. We care about ending homelessness, but it’s not a venture, so it’s not contrived or labored. And that makes it appeal to more people.

In 2010, you guys traveled to Guatemala and did a special two-part episode with a non-profit organization. Will you tell us a little about that?

Chuck: One of the ladies from a non-profit called the Cooperative for Education was a listener of the show and got in touch with us. The organization has tours every summer, and they were looking for different ways to get the word out about the work they do. They invited us down to Guatemala, no strings attached. It was early going for us, so were just game to try it out. I had never been to Central America before, and Josh hadn’t, either.

Chuck: It was a great time, and it really opened our eyes. Since then, we’ve been working with them in some capacity or another, and I’ll occasionally do voiceover work for them. It’s important to both of us that we’re able to use the podcast for good causes, whether it’s through listener emails or genuine partnerships with people.

Are your friends and family supportive of what you do? And do they understand what you do?

Chuck: Yeah, sort of. (laughing) There are still some family members of mine who don’t really get it. But that’s okay. They love me just the same.

Do they listen to the podcast?

Chuck: Some of them do. Josh and I do have a lot of familial support, but grandparents and aunts and uncles don’t fully get the whole podcasting thing sometimes. Sometimes I hear from some of my old high school friends, and they think it’s the coolest thing ever. My close friends don’t really listen, but I don’t blame them—they don’t want to hear from me.

Josh: It’s the exact same for me. My wife, Umi, is very supportive, but she doesn’t necessarily listen because she has to hang out with me the rest of the time. However, we have developed some friendships with listeners through the podcast. We haven’t necessarily met in person, but we’ll chat via email or something.

What are some of the most memorable emails or letters you’ve received from fans?

Chuck: We’ve received letters about how we’ve helped people through tough situations in their lives, and those are the ones that impact me the most. It’s just the two of us and our producer, Jeri Rowland, in the booth, so we don’t really think about that kind of stuff when we record. But when I hear from people about how much we’ve helped them through the loss of a loved one, or a miscarriage, or another awful experience, it sort of knocks me in the head a little bit. There are real people out there, and for some reason our voices lend some comfort to them.

That’s pretty incredible. Are you creatively satisfied?

Josh: I don’t know if I will ever be creatively satisfied. It’s not like I think, “Ah, I’m doing exactly enough.” I’ve always been a writer, so it feels kind of weird to not actually be writing anymore because of the podcast. Chuck and I still look for those creative outlets wherever we can, though—it’s not like that desire went off and died somewhere. But I definitely did lament the loss of writing as a regular gig. It is harder to find time to do something when you don’t have a deadline or aren’t being paid for it, especially if you just don’t have that much time for yourself to begin with. To not write for HowStuffWorks anymore was kind of a big deal, but I’ve made a concerted effort to write more for myself. That’s helping quite a bit. All of the other stuff is pretty cool, though. We do have a bunch of different outlets available to us, like the podcast, YouTube videos, and live shows. It’s just that I’ve always been a writer, so to not write as frequently has been tough.

Chuck: Right. After 700 and some episodes, it can be quite a grind—but there are enough little creative things peppered throughout the job that consistently make it new and interesting.

Is there anything you’re interested in doing or exploring in the next couple of years?

Josh: I’m big-time into the live shows right now. I want to see what we can do to make those as interesting and fun as possible.

Chuck: The small recording booth we sit in is a one-way street, so it’s nice to actually get on a stage and have immediate feedback from listeners.

When you do live shows, does the audience just observe you recording the show, or is there interaction?

Josh: We’ve found that there is interaction even when there’s not supposed to be. Sometimes people will laugh, or yell and point at the stage. (laughing) We’re learning to roll with it. Like Chuck said, it’s just us and Jeri, and Jeri doesn’t really talk during the podcast. But we do a Q&A with the audience afterwards, so there’s definitely interaction. We love it.

Josh and Chuck producing a live 4th of July show for Sirius Radio
Josh and Chuck producing a live 4th of July show for Sirius Radio in SiriusXM’s Fishbowl Studio

If you were to give advice to a young person just starting out, what would you say?

Chuck: We get a lot of emails about podcasting, and I usually say the same few things. The first is to make it sound good, quality-wise. That’s sort of a nuts-and-bolts answer, but you will not get a second listen if your podcast does not sound professional. Secondly, you need to establish a regular release schedule. Don’t release one episode on a Monday and then wait a few weeks to release the next one on a Thursday. We have prided ourselves on hitting every Tuesday and Thursday since we’ve been around. It helps to think about it like a TV show, where people can count on you being there at a certain time.

The last piece of advice is to just try and talk about something that interests you. We can’t fake enthusiasm for the stuff we talk about; all of it is genuinely interesting to us. As corny as it sounds, you should do what you love and follow your interests, otherwise you’re just going to be beating your head against a wall.

Is there anything you would say to your 18-year-old selves, when you were just starting out?

Josh: Man, that’s a good question.

Chuck: It’s hard to second-guess everything when it’s working out so well now. I could have taken many other paths.

I lived in Los Angeles for a while because I was trying to write for TV and movies, but it didn’t work out. I still don’t feel like I really gave it my best shot. It’s not a regret, but I would tell my 18-year-old self that if you go to do something like that, you need to try really hard at it or just don’t bother.

Josh: I would tell myself to remember to be good. I think that’s just good advice all around.

How does living in Atlanta influence you?

Josh: Podcasting almost forms its own geography. We’re kind of sequestered in a weird way: not just to our recording booth, but also city-wise. Atlanta isn’t known as a podcast capital, but if you stop to think about it, there really isn’t a podcast capital. One of the neat things about what we do is that we could conceivably do it anywhere. As long as we get in the same room together with mics, we’re fine.

How long have you lived in Atlanta?

Chuck: I was raised here and moved away when I was 18. I lived in New Jersey and LA for a while, then came back to Atlanta for a few years in my 20s. I came back for good about 10 years ago. Josh was raised in Toledo, Ohio, before he moved to Atlanta.

Is it important for you to be part of a creative community?

Chuck: Yeah, for sure. We have a lot of creative and active listeners, and Facebook and Twitter are great places to interact with everyone. Whenever we have meet-ups in different cities, it seems like the listeners really enjoy hanging out with each other because they have a common bond. They’re a big source of creative inspiration because we wouldn’t still be doing the show if nobody was listening. We don’t want to let anyone down.

Josh: If we didn’t interact with listeners and get feedback from them, we’d just be a couple of weirdos in a soundproof room with Jeri. (laughing)

What does a typical day look like for you?

Chuck: Most days involve a lot of researching, reading, and ingesting information—more than you could ever imagine. The management of the brand is a big part of the job, too, so we handle social media, emails, and doing interviews like this. It’s sort of like we’re running our own little radio program—actually, I guess that’s exactly what we’re doing. (laughing)

Josh: Chuck mentioned ingesting a lot of information. One of the weird things I’ve learned from this job is that your brain basically holds a finite amount of information, and mine filled up sometime last year. We’ll record and release an episode, then six months later somebody will mention something about it and I will have no recollection whatsoever of what they’re talking about. All of my knowledge has been forced out by other information. It’s kind of an issue. It makes me a little bit sad—

Chuck: That you can’t remember anything? (laughing)

Josh: There’s a lot I used to know and can’t remember any longer because there are just so many interesting aspects to everything. There is something fascinating about everything in the world, which is why Chuck and I remain so interested in what we do.

Do you accept submissions from listeners?

Josh: Oh, yeah. A while back, we were SXSW in Austin, and a woman came up to us. She had her 12- or 13-year-old son, Sam, in tow, and she said, “We’re from Atlanta and we came to see you guys.” We asked her what else she was going to see, and she told us, “Nothing—we’re going back right now. We only came to see you guys.” We said, “Woah, woah, woah! We need to get your information.” We ended up staying in touch—Chuck especially—with her son, Sam. Sam was a really neat, smart kid, and we asked him what topics he wanted us to talk about. We let him pick six or eight topics for us to record over the course of the summer, and we called it “The Summer of Sam.” (laughing) It was a unique experience.

(to Chuck) Didn’t you write a letter of recommendation for that kid?

Chuck: Yeah, he’s in college now.

That’s amazing!

Josh: Yeah, that’s another mind-blower: we’ll get an email from somebody who’s graduating college and they’ll say, “I started listening to you when I was in middle school!” It makes you feel old.

What music—or podcasts—have you been listening to lately?

Josh: As far as nonfiction goes, I listen to Fresh Air, especially if it’s about somebody who has recently put out an interesting book. One of my favorites was an interview with author Walter Kirn, who wrote a book about a murderer who posed as a Rockefeller for years. I can listen to stories like that over and over again.

As far as music goes, I recently discovered how great Air Supply is.

Chuck: (laughing)

Josh: We’ve all listened to Air Supply, but it’s mind-boggling to learn how many hits they actually had. I can listen to them on repeat for a long time. It’s no joke; I really like Air Supply.

Chuck: He’s not kidding. (laughing) For me, I listen to the Judge John Hodgman podcast a lot, along with 99% Invisible with Roman Mars and WTF with Mark Maron. And for music, I’ve been listening to a lot of Frank Ocean.

Any favorite movies or TV shows?

Josh: The Simpsons is my favorite show, and Last Man on Earth panned out to be surprisingly great. My wife and I also watch a lot of basketball, which is probably what we watch the most of, TV-wise.

Who are your teams?

Josh: The Hawks and the Heat.

Chuck: I’m a big fan of Broad City, Portlandia, and The Walking Dead. I also like Downton Abbey and the new HBO show, Togetherness.

Do you have any favorite books?

Josh: (to Chuck) Can you guess what I’m going to say?

Chuck: I know what you’re going to say. (laughing)

Josh: My favorite book of all time, hands down, is a book called 1491 by Charles C. Mann. It’s nonfiction, and it’s about the Americas prior to Columbus setting foot over here. It is just an astounding book, and it touches on all the overlooked aspects of how this place was populated, how it was civilized, and what happened after contact. If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it. I recommend it to everybody. It’s a life-changing book. I studied anthropology in college and majored in history, so that book is right in my wheelhouse.

(to Chuck) Has he forced you to read it yet?

Chuck: No, he wouldn’t do that. I still haven’t read it, but I want to.

Josh: I don’t force him to read it. I just silently judge him. (laughing)

Chuck: It’s hard to pick a favorite book, but one I really love is Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. I also like anything by—oh, what’s his name?

Josh: James Michener.

Chuck: No. (laughing) Michael Chabon, the guy who wrote The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. I’ve read a lot of his books.

Any favorite foods?

Josh: I like just about any Indian or Japanese food.

Chuck: Fried chicken and sushi—but not fried chicken sushi. (laughing) That’s weird.

What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

Chuck: When this whole thing wraps up in 20 years, I’m going to be really proud of our body of work, which will hopefully live forever on the Internet as a vast catalog of super interesting stuff that people can learn a lot from. I’ve always thought about being a teacher, so I’m proud that I’ve sort of done that in an offhand way.

Josh: As a kid, I remember being inspired by different astounding facts, even ones that proved to be fake later on. Now as an adult, I look back and realize that all the interesting things that got my brain working ultimately helped form my personality. If that’s the legacy we’re leaving behind for people, then I will be proud of that until my dying day.

Chuck: (to Josh) That’s a good answer.

Josh: (to Chuck) Thanks, buddy.interview close

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“When this whole thing wraps up in 20 years, I’m going to be really proud of our body of work, which will hopefully live forever on the Internet as a vast catalog of super interesting stuff that people can learn a lot from.” / Chuck