Al Letson brings his storytelling voice to new podcast Errthang

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Al Letson will channel his talents as a slam poet and performer into a new podcast scheduled to launch Tuesday.

Errthang will feature Letson’s chops as a performer, mixing poetry, political commentary and storytelling and provide a sideline to his hosting role on Reveal, an investigative journalism series on public radio. It also marks a departure from State of the Re:Union, an award-winning public radio series that Letson introduced in 2010 with funding from CPB’s Public Radio Talent Quest initiative.

After struggling to find a business model to keep SOTRU going, Letson and his team will deliver the last four episodes of the show’s fifth and final season in April.

“I had to make a decision: Do we keep limping along, or do I let it go?” Letson said.

Letson joins a local broadcast of WJCT in Jacksonsville, Fla., a production partner in the final episodes of SOTRU.

Letson joins a local broadcast of WJCT in Jacksonsville, Fla., a production partner in the final episodes of SOTRU.

Letson took a unique approach to diversity in developing the series, hiring a diverse team of producers and committing to featuring communities and topics that are under-represented in media. Co-distributed by NPR and Public Radio Exchange, the series couldn’t gain a financial foothold that would sustain it as an ongoing production.

After experimenting with different production models for SOTRU, Letson believes that the Public Radio Talent Quest’s mandate to develop nationally distributed public radio shows undercut the program’s viability. His production team invested a lot of resources into creating a full hour of broadcast-quality programming on each community they chose to spotlight, instead of a more flexible production model of bundling smaller stories and segments.

During his tenure on SOTRU, Letson began taking on new projects, including hosting Reveal. The series from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX is ramping up to weekly production.

Like SOTRU, the investigative series puts Letson in the role of a journalist, but he considers himself more of a storyteller, poet and performer. He developed Errthang to return to those roots.

“In Errthang, you get that other side. I’m a performer, writer, actor,” Letson said in an interview. “You just don’t hear that voice in SOTRU. Errthang will add another dimension of public media. It’s another side of what I get.”

Letson intends to take full advantage of the flexibility of podcasting. Errthang will be released approximately biweekly in episodes of 20 to 30 minutes, and Letson plans to experiment with storytelling and revenue strategies.

The first episode of Errthang features a story about Letson’s adopted older brother and how Letson went from being an only child to a middle child over three years. Letson also explains the podcast’s title to listeners who may be puzzled about how to pronounce it. Errthang is a colloquial spelling of Southern slang for “everything.”

Taking a cue from Alex Blumberg’s StartUp podcast, Letson is giving native advertising a try. In the first episode of Errthang, Letson breaks mid-story to tell listeners that he is visiting a tattoo parlor in Jacksonville, Fla. Letson laughs and talks to the tattoo artist as he promotes the parlor. A music bed clues listeners into the commercial nature of the segment that’s presented as a story about Letson getting a tattoo. In future episodes, Letson will produce native advertising for national brands.

The idea is to convince listeners to stick around and pay attention to the ad. Or at least that’s what Letson is experimenting with.

“This is all new to me,” he concluded.

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