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Jeff Kempler and Ben Bowlin

Jeff Kempler and Ben Bowlin

· Time to read: ~6 min

This interview was first in the Podcast Business Journal newsletter, with the latest podcast news and data. Subscribe free today.

Jeff is COO and co-founder of Lava For Good; Ben is the host of iHeart's Stuff They Don't Want You To Know — this interview has been lightly edited for style and readability

Jeff Kempler: Lava For Good is a podcast platform, which is part of a larger media company called Lava Media - that includes Lava Music, a record company that’s existed since the mid nineties, led by Jason Flom, my long time partner and myself.

Lava Music has been behind acts ranging from Katy Perry and Kid Rock, to Thirty Seconds to Mars and Paramore, and Tori Amos and Stone Temple Pilots - and many more.

That background in audio and fandom led to really embracing the podcast platform and using that as a vehicle for Jason’s long time leadership in criminal justice reform in the U.S., focusing on innocence advocacy in particular cases, as well as larger policy concerns around mass incarceration, overcriminalization, overpolicing and drug policy.

JC: We’ve seen some podcast companies who make shows about “subjects that matter” have closed. What makes Lava for Good different? Why have you been successful in this area?

JK: Talking is great, but walking outside of the the booth with the microphone is key - it’s what the great civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson calls “getting proximate”. Being out in the world is a real differentiation for us. So much of our content starts with a prison visit, time spent with the Innocence Project (where Jason is a founding board member), or with Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Drug Policy Alliance, and other organizations that are long standing leaders in this sort of reform space. We’re very active out in the world, so the stories that our audience hears are derived from a life that’s lived out in the world.

JC: Ben - you host Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know. What’s that?

Ben Bowlin: Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know, applies critical thought to allegations of everything from everything you could imagine - from the ideas of the paranormal or crypto zoology, all that Twilight Zone stuff. More importantly for this conversation, we apply critical thought to real policy issues. We interrogate questions regarding things like wrongful conviction, or the war on drugs. Perhaps in some small way, we are representative of the American public who are asking themselves the same questions. For instance - why does a drug charge carry such punitive damage?

JC: You mentioned the war on drugs. You did a live episode of that podcast, The War On Drugs, last year - but it’s got a nomination in The Webby Awards for this year, which you can vote for in the People’s Voice Award. That was really interesting to me because it leveraged a network of shows. Jeff, when you produced that special episode, it was people from Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know, but also from Bone Valley, from Wrongful Conviction, from lots of different shows. How did that work for you?

JK: I was having a coffee with the Head of Podcast Marketing at iHeart, Nathan Otoski, who is a fantastic partner for us and has a long relationship with the “Stuff” guys. We were talking about being active and out there, and said that we want to try to do more live podcasts - we want to have an audience, we want to be responsive to the energy in the room and the questions in the room. And I wondered who we should work with. He might have paused for a millisecond and said it really should connect with Ben and the “Stuff” guys, because their their essence is about curiosity and about peeling back the surface and asking hard questions. We thought that was a perfect fit for Lava For Good.

The conversation went super smoothly. We put it together between hosts across several shows; the event was live in the iHeart studios in Atlanta. All those shows made sense together, with that shared spirit of giving an audience a peek and a critical look into what’s underneath the surface and really about the relationship between mass incarceration and drug policy.

JC: So, you put this live show into all four of those shows’ feeds. How did that go down with the with the audience of those shows?

BB: We found a tremendous Venn diagram in the listener base. We cannot say enough good things about the hosts of the other shows that were part of it. You may be someone who is listening to one show for one purpose, and then you hear this great collaboration - it’s a super group really. We are encouraging dialogue and discourse. I believe that was our mission, and I like to think we accomplished that in some regard.

JC: What was it like having four different podcasts together? Did anybody get a word in?!

BB: Oh, geez! We had an embarrassment of riches in terms of expertise, and people speaking from clear policy bases and firsthand experience. It sounds tricky to have so many shows, so many people speaking at once. But when you have many people speaking toward the same problems that Jeff outlined so well, the discourse becomes much less like a cacophony and much more like a chorus.

JC: Jeff, one one other question for you. This week, we’ve also seen news about Bone Valley, which is now being worked up for television. There’s a book coming out for Bone Valley as well. Is the secret for success in podcasting to take a multi-platform approach?

JK: Sometimes stories benefit from in-person amplification. Sometimes they benefit from visual treatment. And sometimes, as in the case of Bone Valley, they may even benefit from amplification. The amplification that a bit of inspired fictionalization or dramatization can can bring can evoke tremendous empathy, which alongside more fact based and documentary styles - whether that’s audio or video - helps draw audiences in to hopefully caring about a subject. And, if we’ve done our jobs really well, inspiring action around it.

So with Bone Valley, obviously the first mission is justice for for Leo and for Michelle and her family. And the other mission is to have people pay attention to what a prosecutorial system gone wrong can cost people on a human level - and society on a larger level. So the story of the one particular instance of Leo Schofield is heart wrenching as it is, is a is a thin slice of a of a much bigger picture.

JC: And the same question to you, Ben - you have released a book version of Stuff They Don’t Want You To Know. You’re also on the iHeart app, you’re available in YouTube and all kinds of other stuff as well. Do you see the future very much being a multi-platform future being audio?

BB: Yeah, absolutely. And I really appreciate the point about exploring, exploring and introducing experiences through different mediums. You know, we see we see a story, right? And we see a ton of statistics and perhaps the eyes or the ears glaze over. It is experiential, right? You don’t have to move people to the mountain. You can take the mountain to the people and everyone again, has experienced on some level the facts that people are talking about.

If there is any way to reach the public, then the we must find that way, whether it is audio, whether it is video, whether it is a documentary, whether it is adaptation, the cause is great, the cause is important. And it is, as Jeff said, a mission.

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