When podcast listeners get together, they always want to know if there’s some riveting show that no one has ever heard of before. The one I always recommend is Risk! by Kevin Allison. On the show people tell stories they never thought they’d dare share. It can be smutty. It can be dangerous. It can be humiliating. It can be controversial or uncomfortable. Whatever it is, the show manages to combine hilarity with emotion. The stories in Allison’s podcast often come from live shows — storytelling shows that Allison hosts in cities around North America and the UK. Last month, Allison brought the show to Montreal and Toronto, and talked to me about the show’s origins and feel.
A caveat. My intention was to share my favorite podcast with the Rampage audience before Risk came to Montreal. Sadly, life intervened — well, a new puppy intervened — and the show came and went through the city without my article. Nonetheless, Risk lives on weekly in the world of podcasts and the Canada shows have made their way into the recordings for all to hear. Everything we discussed is as relevant today as it was a month ago.
First, I’m pleased to find out that Allison sounds exactly like he does on the podcast. He has a particular inflection of drawing out certain words when he speaks, giving all that he says an endearing loopiness.
He explains how he got started with podcasting. He notes that the popular storytelling shows on NPR, such as The Moth and This American Life, are “very family friendly, for obvious reasons.”
“I wanted to create a show where people can really talk with the raw, real, uninhibited honesty that we would talk with to a therapist or their best friend,” he says.
He further explains that this desire grew out of his own life experiences. “I grew up gay and very aware that I was gay in a very conservative, Christian environment,” he says. “The idea of coming out has been obsession my entire life.”
He explains that Risk is a show where “People tell stories they never thought they’d share in public. The most emotional or hilarious or the most kind of embarrassing or outrageous thing that people have lived through. There’s no judgement about ‘Oh My God, you crossed the line, that’s too controversial,’ or ‘Oh My Gosh that’s really graphic.’ Risk is a safe space for people to tell a story with no holds barred.”
Allison started the podcast in 2009 as a way to expand the scope of his career. “After so many years of failing as a comedian in NY, I knew how important it is not just to be doing small room comedy on a regular basis, but to have some means of getting it out there to everyone. Podcasting was so exciting. It made that small room much bigger,” he says.
The podcast has grown and changed over the years and it has many legendary episodes. For those who want a sampler of RISK!’s offerings, Allison recommends a number of different stories. “There’s on the episode called Best of Risk 4, there’s the final story on that one shared by a young woman – Trascendent by Becca. She shared a story about a mental breakdown that she went through. She got into a violent altercation with her mother and had this beautiful forgiveness from her mother who helped her get over the violence. That’s a memorable one. There’s also a story called Slave by Mollena Williams which is one of our radio style stories. Some of our stories are one on one, and not recorded in front of a live audience. This one is about a black woman in the US and her exploration of dominance and submission, while being cognizant of the history of this country and how this created a traumatic experience while exploring that kink.”
The best known one of all, though is, Kevin goes to Kink Camp. “That’s the way a lot of people got interested in RISK!, from that crazy story. It’s really an Alice in Wonderland story, about me going to kink event for about four days one summer. I saw so many things I’d never seen and learned so many things about alternative sexual styles and stuff like that.”
Most stories on RISK! seem to come from the live shows, so attending one is an opportunity to hear the stories before they make it to the pod-waves. The whole night is curated. Allison explains, “The show is bound to have a story that will have you doubled over with laughter, and bound to have a story that will have your jaw drop that will be like ‘I can’t believe a person lived through this thing.’ Some are just plain beautiful. Some are spiritual experiences or a crazy drug trip. So, it really goes all over the map. Nothing is too sexual or too anything or too violent. We say the name of the show is a trigger warning itself. You know this show could take a turn at any a moment.”
I ask Allison how he chooses where to hold the live shows and how he finds people who are willing to perform. The technology that podcasting provides plays a role. “The great thing about podcasting, and we’ve been saying this for years and the industry is only just beginning, is that the difference between radio and podcasting, is that with podcasting, you can see where people are downloading your show and other information about them. We know how many we are getting in an area. If we have a lot of listeners in Toronto and Montreal, we go there.” Risk! gets over 1.3 million downloads a month, so he has quite a bit of data to work with.
Once he has found a city, he uses the podcast to put a call out for storytellers. “I say on the podcast, ‘Hey, Montreal, we’re coming to your town. If you have an amazing story to share or a friend with a story to share, get in contact with us.'” After that, he begins to work with people. He’ll boil down all the pitches he gets to four, usually a few practiced, professional writers or actors, and then “one or two who have never stepped on the stage before. Total virgins. They’re not in the arts, but had something extraordinary happen to them.”
Different cities attract different types of storytelling pitches for the live show. In contrast with LA or NY, where there are much larger storytelling shows with huge marketing budgets, “When we come to a place like Toronto or Montreal, because RISK! is coming from out of town, people take the show seriously. They listen to the show, they get it, and give serious pitches.”
Once he has made his choices, “I work as half editor, half therapy couch,” he says. “I have to hold a person’s hand and let them know ‘I think you should say a little bit more about your mother,’ and poke and prod at them. I help them to unpack some of what might be in the story.”
“My whole thing is this, I’m always telling people that I’m searching for more stories from people of color or people who have been marginalized in society, people who are homeless or suffering from PTSD after war, or have maybe had a bad time by falling into a prostitution ring or anything like that. I always want stories from people you might not hear from in the mass media. And that can be tricky, finding people, having them trust you and helping them understand that I am here to help you shape and share that.”
In the end, though, he says that the authenticity of the story is what matters more than its subject matter or delivery. “The audience doesn’t care about much about the polish or the skill with which someone delivers the story,” he says. “What they care about the authenticity and the extent to which someone cares about what they’re really talking about.”
RISK!’s podcast of the Toronto and Montreal shows can be heard HERE. Morgan Jones Phillips, Dale Corvino, and Sarah Long Hendershot are the three live storytellers.