During the 2018 U.S. Senate race between Beto O’Rourke and Ted Cruz, Texas Monthly delivered an unusual type of storytelling: a gritty, on-the-ground podcast from the campaign trail. Most political podcasts emphasize commentary, but senior editor Eric Benson focused on reporting. Amid the most-watched, most expensive race in the country that year, Eric lashed himself to O’Rourke as the insurgent candidate toured our state’s 254 counties.
The effort was exhausting, and rewarding. We were reminded of the power of the best audio storytelling: the way you can recognize from a candidate’s voice when he’s elated or frustrated; the way ranchera music or the lowing of cattle can lend a sense of place. The podcast, Underdog (a collaboration with Pineapple Street Media), attracted an enthusiastic audience and garnered rave reviews from the Guardian and the New Yorker, which wrote that “you can practically hear [O’Rourke’s] sweaty shirt.”
For our next podcast, done in partnership with Imperative Entertainment, we decided to examine the economy and culture of the energy-rich Permian Basin of West Texas. Associate editor Christian Wallace had been working for months on a magazine feature about that topic, which appeared in our June 2019 issue. For the podcast, Boomtown, Christian’s story had to be re-reported virtually from scratch, with high-quality sound equipment. There was a learning curve: to bring the story to life, we had to figure out how to incorporate the ambient sounds of squeaking pumpjacks and how to interview differently, employing open-ended questions that didn’t invite the “yep”s and “nope”s that West Texans are fond of. One great advantage was that we were able to draw on Christian’s West Texas upbringing and his experiences working on an oil rig. “When I’d show up with all my recording gear and get the stink eye,” he said, “I’d just mention that I’m from Andrews, and that would usually put even the roughest guys at ease.”
Four other staffers joined Christian on this project. Our multimedia expert, Brian Standefer, who had partnered with Eric on Underdog, not only produced and engineered Boomtown but composed original music for it. Associate editor Leif Reigstad, an energetic reporter who loves to get his uniform dirty, joined Christian in the Permian to help flesh out the story. Digital managing editor Megan Creydt coached Christian on how to narrate the episodes in a conversational manner. And features director J. K. Nickell, who does most of his work for our print magazine, put his longform skills to work in an entirely new medium, as the podcast’s editor. The goal, he said, was for each episode “to feel like it was covered in a fine layer of West Texas caliche dust.”
All that hard work has paid off. In just the first four weeks, listeners downloaded our early episodes more than 600,000 times. Boomtown rose to number 14 in Apple’s ranking of podcasts, and to number 1 in the documentary category. What means even more to us is feedback from Permian residents, who say we’ve captured the essence of the region. The early episodes of Boomtown, and new ones to be released in the coming weeks, can be heard on our website or wherever you get your podcasts. I hope you’ll give them a listen and let us know what you think.