The digital recorder came out of my pocket and the prison tour guide gasped, as if I’d fished a rattlesnake out of my jeans.
She seemed frightened, which was odd, given that for the last 90 minutes she’d been telling our little group one horror story after another about the good ol’ days at the former West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville.
The history of the place was alarming. From 1899 until sometime in the 1960s, 94 men were put to death by electricity or by hanging. Another 800 and some prisoners died by murder, suicide, accident, illness or old age.
Our guide had told us the number was probably much higher than that. The state penitentiary, which closed in 1995, had opened in 1867 — but they didn’t keep a lot of records about who died inside the prison walls and why for the first 50 or 60 years.
Old age and illness might have won out in the carnage, but it sounded like murder and suicide had put in a fair showing.
The tour had been fascinating and I thought, maybe, I could record just a sample of it for the podcast I was developing.
“What is that?” she asked.
“Oh, I’m recording for a podcast,” I said. “It’s part of this thing I do now. Well, it’s part of what I’m trying to do. I haven’t made an actual podcast yet. This might be part of the first one.”
Everyone in the tour group stepped back as if I was preparing to hurl the imagined snake at them.
“Is it OK?” I asked, suddenly very sure that it really wasn’t OK, and that I should have asked before I fished a digital wand out of my pocket.
“I really ...” the guide said, flustered.
Her eyes narrowed. She looked at the other guests in the tour group. She’d been put on the spot.
“I really don’t know. I hate my voice,” the woman said.
“Everybody does,” I told her, automatically, which is an absolute lie, but it’s something you get used to telling guests if you work at a radio station.
The truth is, there are plenty of people who absolutely love the sound of their own voices — politicians, the lead singers for environmentally conscious cover bands and drunks who confuse my office phone extension for the Vent Line.
“It’s OK,” I told her. “You don’t have to. I really kind of sprung it on you. I just liked your stories.”
The other guests glared at me. They’d brought their little girls with them, both hovering around the age of eight. I was screwing up their family vacation and we were getting to the best part — the story about the notorious “Sugar Shack.”
The guide sighed. It was fine. She let me record about a minute.
Feeling like a heel, I thanked her, and we finished our tour.
On the way out, figuring that I didn’t have a lot to lose, I tried talking to the father of the family who’d visited the prison with me, but they said they couldn’t talk to the press. They worked as prison guards in another state. They were specifically barred from speaking to reporters about anything, really.
“We have to refer you to the liaison officer,” the father told me coolly and walked on.
I could cram my digital recorder for all he cared.
I gave them a wide berth after that, ducked into the penitentiary gift shop and bought a couple of postcards. I will probably send the one of “ol’ Sparky” at Christmas.
Up until that little fiasco, gathering material for this month’s project — starting a podcast — had been going relatively well.
I had a working title, a format and a loose theme. I had a projected length that the podcast would run (I’m shooting for 30 minutes an episode) and I had a theme song.
That was the easy part. I used the same song from my radio show, “Lost Highways.”
The podcast has next to nothing in common with that program, but I thought the theme song worked well for both, and what were the odds that someone was going to listen to me twice?
I had totally free audio editing software on my old laptop, and I was practically all the way through the McElroy brothers’ podcast guide, “Everybody Has a Podcast (except you).”
I was on page 195, though I skipped around a little toward the middle part.
After spending a week thinking about whether I needed a co-host or openly wondering how long people would just listen to me ramble on like a battle-hardened veteran of Woodstock at a Thanksgiving dinner, I’d just decided to ask people questions wherever I was.
This put the hard work of being entertaining, informative or in any way useful, on someone else and it seemed to be going OK — minus the prison tour.
But I was stuck. Writing a script, editing and putting the thing together filled me with dread. I didn’t want to hand off the job. I wanted the podcast to exist, but I was afraid of what would happen when it did.
In all likelihood, I expected that it wasn’t going to be very good. There was a good chance that it was going to be plain awful and getting started felt like trying pull off an old band aid.
It reminded me of when I launched my radio show on West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
When I launched “Lost Highways,” it felt like the shot I’d been waiting on for most of my life. I got into radio my very first week in college and have worked at radio stations through much of my career.
It has been an unobtrusive sort of radio career.
When I got the chance to do my own show, I had no idea what I was doing. I thought I had tons of experience and natural ability, but really, I had neither. I’d spent years reading the weather or writing radio commercials for car dealers.
The first few episodes of the show were so bad I destroyed the only copies of them.
I did get better once I stopped taking things so seriously and quit hoping the show would be the next “Mountain Stage.”
Those guys had the right idea at the right time, caught some breaks — plus Larry Groce.
It used to bother me that Joni Deutsch — the host and producer of “A Change of Tune,” who started her show about the same time I did — was so much better. But she worked harder, had a clearer idea of what she wanted to do, both with her show and beyond, and there’s really no faking talent.
She was just better at this kind of thing because she was better at this kind of thing.
Before I could get started, I had to get over my expectations that this podcast would ever amount to anything. This was yet another one-month plan. Most of them don’t amount to a lot. I still can’t knit, shouldn’t be trusted to forage for food in the wilderness and haven’t even practiced the ukulele since Easter.
What did I want out of this, besides something to write about?
I thought about it — just a few laughs. If I can make myself laugh doing this, that should be enough. If somebody else laughs or if it makes someone else’s day a little better, that’s good, but it would be OK if it didn’t.
I still get paid either way.