WMRA podcast reveals stories behind band’s fan-inspired songs

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Rob Laughter

The Steel Wheels perform Oct. 2 at IBMA World of Bluegrass in Raleigh, N.C.

The members of the Americana band The Steel Wheels spend many of their long drives on tour listening to podcasts in their van — everything from true crime to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

Thanks to WMRA, the public radio station in the band’s hometown of Harrisonburg, Va., The Steel Wheels now have their own podcast that’s given fans a deeper connection to their music and songwriting. The show also helps the station deliver on its mission of bringing quality storytelling to its audience.

We Made You a Song, a collaboration between WMRA and The Steel Wheels, launched in fall 2020, and its second season began Tuesday. New episodes will be released weekly through Dec. 7.

The podcast is a companion to The Steel Wheels albums Everyone a Song Vol 1 and Vol. 2. Shortly after the pandemic began, the band started crowdsourcing stories from fans that eventually became the albums’ songs. Each podcast episode tells the story behind one of the songs. Listeners hear from the people who inspired the songs and the band members themselves — like StoryCorps meets Song Exploder.

Bingay

“I love the fact that public broadcasting gives the common man a way to be heard, and this was a way to do that,” said Matt Bingay, WMRA’s GM and the podcast’s editor. “It ticked a lot of boxes for me.”

Host Trent Wagler, the band’s lead singer, is an avid podcast listener. He had several false starts at podcasting before the pandemic gave him time to develop one in earnest as the band stopped touring for more than a year.

“A lot of music journalism is about such a quick need to boil things down. You have three words to say what a new album is,” Wagler said. “The podcast gives people a chance to hear where a song came from and why the band wrote it that way.”

Seasons consist of nine episodes, each 25 to 30 minutes long. Wagler begins each installment by reflecting on a song and the story behind it. He then interviews the fan whose story inspired it and talks with his bandmates about how they constructed the song. The episode ends with the song in its entirety.

A particularly moving example is “My Name is Sharon,” the second episode of season one. The song of the same name was written for one of the band’s biggest fans. Sharon had epilepsy, which eventually took her life. Her mother, Donna, requested the song last year to honor her legacy and love of the band.

“We were playing in Tennessee, and there was a young woman watching us during soundcheck when no one else was there,” Wagler said in the episode. “She was mouthing the words to one of our songs, and we couldn’t believe it. … We did not have many fans outside Virginia at the time.”

In the episode, Donna shares Sharon’s story and her reaction to hearing the song The Steel Wheels wrote for her.

“Sharon wanted to live the best life she could, and she encouraged me to live my life without worrying about her all the time,” Donna said. “As I’m reading the lyrics … everything just immediately resonated with me. It hit things that I didn’t even think of.”

Seizing the moment

WMRA’s Bingay said he quickly saw how the show could take shape after Wagler approached him with the idea. He thought he could lend his skills as an editor to shape storylines out of Wagler’s interviews and commentary. 

Though Bingay wasn’t sure how much time he could devote to the project initially, he knew that he had to at least try because the band makes its home in the Shenandoah Valley and has become part of the local community.

“I asked myself how I would feel if Trent shopped it to another NPR station,” Bingay said. “It could have been something we did, but we sat back because we didn’t have time. They’re right here, and it’s in our backyard. We need to recognize that and do something about it.”

The band and WMRA share promotional responsibilities for the podcast, though Wagler said the band is still figuring out how to address it in his on-stage commentary and in other ways of communicating with fans.

“We were just talking about how we should put a sign up at the merch table that says we have a podcast,” Wagler said. “I daydream about being the kind of performer that says, ‘Oh yeah, I want everyone to pull out their phone [to like and subscribe], because you’re going to love the story of this next song.’” 

We Made You a Song is WMRA’s second podcast; the other is a daily news show. Bingay said  the first season’s episodes received about 5,500 downloads, and he hopes the second season will do the same or a little better. 

While not every public radio station has a prolific, nationally recognized Americana band in its backyard, Bingay said the model WMRA created for We Made You a Song can work in other places. 

The key, he said, is finding collaborators who have the capacity to create content that the station can then shape and distribute, rather than the station starting from scratch to develop a show. He was particularly inspired by North Country Public Radio’s North Country at Work project, which curated stories based on community submissions.

Following the success of the collaboration with The Steel Wheels, Bingay said WMRA is working on a podcast based on archival recordings gathered by the Virginia Folklife Program. 

“If you want something you don’t have, you have to be willing to do it. You can’t just wish it to happen,” Bingay said. “I encourage staff to bring ideas they’re passionate about, but they also need to be willing to do it.”

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