This story began as a piece about local podcasts, and the people who host them. The Journal reached out to the creators and hosts of five Upstate-based podcasts, namely “Murder, Etc.,” “The Bearded Ones,” “Tech After Five,” “The Grey Zone” and “Podmetto Politics.”
But as the story began to come together, the Journal discovered a larger narrative that connects all of these podcasts. Much has been written about the way Greenville has grown and changed over the years, and each of these podcasts, whether it is fueled by the arts, sports, technology, politics or — in the case of “Murder, Etc.,” the checkered past — reflects a bit of Greenville’s character in its DNA.
Brad Willis’ “Murder, Etc.,” is probably the best-known and most-popular podcast on the list. Willis is an award-winning, dyed-in-the-wool, old-school investigative reporter who, in 2001 while working at WYFF, broke a story about Charles Wakefield Jr., who was about to be released on parole after serving 26 years in prison. Wakefield had been convicted of killing two men, Lt. Rufus Frank Looper III, head of the Greenville County Sheriff’s Office five-man narcotics squad, and Looper’s father.
Soon after Willis’ story aired, Wakefield’s parole was rescinded, and he spent another nine years in prison.
When he first reported the story in 2001, Willis says he was proud of his scoop. But after a visit from Wakefield’s attorney, Willis says he began to question both his own reporting and Wakefield’s guilt.
“I’ve always thought of myself as a very thorough investigative journalist,” Willis says. “But on this particular day, I just turned the story around as fast as I could, and I felt like I’d done a really good job. But after I learned more about this, because Wakefield’s attorney had brought me this massive file that showed everything that happened around his conviction, the more I realized that there’s a really good chance that this guy didn’t do this.”
The story of how Wakefield was convicted for these killings, and why Willis came to believe in his innocence, could fill an entire issue of the Journal. And as Willis dug deeper into that story, he realized it wasn’t just about Wakefield at all.
“I realized that there was this greater story about Greenville and its history that was very important,” he says. “And the more I dug and the more I told this story to my wife and my friends, I realized that it was going to be a historical narrative of Greenville and corruption and the issues that surrounded everything about justice In the 1970s.”
That’s the story that Willis tells with his “Murder, Etc.” podcast, which began in February. On each episode, Willis weaves his own dark, dramatic narration with one-on-one interviews and a film-noir style soundtrack to create a riveting tale. The twists and turns, involving witness coaching, corruption within the city’s power structure, criminal gangs and jailhouse confessions, are often so dramatic that they feel like fiction. But these aren’t characters in a book; they’re real people from Greenville’s own past, people like Billy Wilkins, the prosecutor on Wakefield’s case, and Greenville Police Department captain Jim Christopher.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that “Murder, Etc.” was supposed to be a book. But Willis says he eventually abandoned that idea because “I didn’t have an ending for it. And because I didn’t have an ending for it, I sat here banging my head against the wall over and over again. A good friend of mine who’s a journalist, and my wife were both urging me to turn it into a podcast. I had no idea how to turn it into a podcast, because you need something that’s going to get a wider audience fast, and a podcast is that. You’re not gonna reach them with a book or a magazine article.”
Willis says the podcast’s dramatic tone and mix of first-person accounts and his own narration are designed to keep that wider audience listening, even as he remains ambivalent about the idea of “Murder, Etc.” being part of the wildly popular true-crime podcast genre.
“I had no doubt it was going to be entertaining and interesting,” he says, “but I like to tell people who want to talk about this part of it: I don’t think tragedy should ever be entertainment. I don’t want to be the guy who’s just reproducing tragedies for entertainment. But at the same time, I knew that if I just read the documents that I had, people wouldn’t listen. And I wanted to get as many people listening as I could, especially from around here. I wanted to inform the community about what was actually happening. I don’t think the majority of people living in Greenville realize the kind of place it was 40 years ago. And if it takes me a little bit more telling the story in a way that’s more dramatic in narrative to get people to know what I’ve learned, I think it’s worth toeing that line.”
If “Murder, Etc.” dives into Greenville’s thorny past, then “Podmetto Politics” takes an equally deep dive into the present and future of our city and state. The local-politics-focused podcast was created by self-described “political nerd,” attorney, and former Democratic Congressional candidate Chris Fedalei; Jarrod Wiggins, who works at Slant Media creative agency and who’s also worked as a campaign staffer; and attorney, podcast producer and technical director Jake Erwin.
“We’ve noticed that even local and regional television stations really focus on national politics,” Wiggins says, “and core local issues are not covered to the level that they could be. We feel like those levels of government more directly impact people’s lives on a day-to-day basis, and we wanted to make sure that people know about what’s happening on the state and local level. We wanted people to know about where their tax dollars were going, as opposed to the 24/7 news cycle of ‘What did Trump say?’”
“Podmetto Politics” kicked off with a bang in May of 2018, scoring interviews with Democratic gubernatorial primary candidates James Smith, Marguerite Willis and Phil Noble, and the trio haven’t looked back since.
“We’ve incorporated a lot of different voices,” Wiggins says. “We’ve been able to bring in experts on reproductive rights, domestic violence issues, education and civil-asset forfeiture, but we cover it at a pretty casual, basic level. We make it as entertaining as possible; we want to be entertaining and for folks to feel like they learned stuff about local government.”
Wiggins adds that the focus of “Podmetto Politics” is to get millennials more involved in their local political processes.
“We like to think of ways to engage the Gen Z and millennial audience, who don’t show up in the same numbers to vote as other groups do,” he explained. “That’s one of our big goals, is to engage younger folks who don’t pay attention to the political process as much, because they maybe don’t understand the nuanced ins and out as to how legislation gets through.”
Phil Yanov is concerned with ins and outs as well; the ins and outs of the IT industry. Yanov was in IT himself for years before forming the Greenville-based Tech After Five, an event-planning service that creates after-hours networking events for tech entrepreneurs and professionals. His podcast of the same name is an outgrowth of both those events, plus Yanov’s stint as the co-host of the “Your Day” radio show on South Carolina’s NPR stations.
Yanov, who cheerfully describes himself as a “super-well-functioning introvert,” has a warm, low-key manner both as a person and as a host, and he seems as surprised as anyone else about his career path.
“I was an IT guy, and I knew that it was hard to find people who think like I do,” he says. “I thought that someone needed to link the tech communities because they were very insular. They’re great people doing great things, but there’s a sense of competition.”
As Tech After Five grew more and more popular (organizing events that drew hundreds of people from South Carolina to Bangalore, India), Yanov noticed that the midday NPR radio show he enjoyed was missing a little something.
“After five years of doing Tech After Five, I’d reached out to S.C. public radio,” he says. “I loved the ‘Your Day’ show and all of the voices I heard, but I said, ‘You guys aren’t doing anything on tech; have you ever thought about it?’ And they said, ‘Come out and talk to us.’ I went out and talked to them, and I think they decided I wasn’t a crazy person. I started out doing a half hour, and the audience liked me, so I got a full hour, and then it was twice a month, and then it was every other week until the show ended.”
Yanov’s podcast, which he started in July 2018, has covered everything from parenting in the digital age to raising capital to how to bring more women into the IT field, and Yanov has approached all these topics with warmth and humor.
“I love my audience, and I love those people that I talk to,” he says. “I respect them, I try not to waste their time, and I try to have a good time along the way.”
Having a good time is what “The Bearded Ones” podcast is all about. Veteran Upstate actors Evan Harris and Jason Underwood riff on their favorite movies, talk about weird events in their daily lives, come up with odd NCAA-bracket-style contests like “Which Sitcom Character Would Make the Best Superhero?” and play improv-based games, all in the name of amusing themselves and, hopefully, their listeners.
“My first inspiration was (writer/director/actor) Kevin Smith’s podcast,” says Harris, who also hosts the “The Lucky 10,000” podcast. “I had an office job, and they thankfully let us listen to our smartphones, and I stumbled across this 10-minute clip of Kevin Smith talking about Conan The Barbarian, and I didn’t even know what it was. I didn’t know what podcasts were. And when I figured out what it was, Jason and I were hanging out, free-form chatting, making each other laugh, we sort of kept expanding on it and I thought, ‘This could be a podcast.’”
“When we started it was way more formatted than it is now,” he says. “And then as we went on, we realized that you don’t want to format it too much, but you don’t want to come with nothing, so we made sure we had a story or a game we came up with that we can pull out when we want. And when we record, hopefully it will be entertaining to us and it goes from there.”
There is but one format in Grey Thompson’s “The Grey Zone” podcast (which launched last August), and that format is college football. Most often, Thompson talks about Clemson football, with a dedication, level of knowledge and zeal that makes the listener believe that Thompson bleeds orange.
“I have a passion about it,” he says. “I love talking about it.”
Thompson’s approach can be just as freewheeling as “The Bearded Ones,” though, because he’s not a fan of too much structure in his show. It can be an hour and a half or 30 minutes, depending on how pumped up he’s feeling about a given college football topic.
“With college football, I can kind of jump from one thing to the next, because there’s always something going on. I do a little deep diving on matchups, particularly Clemson and Alabama games, so I’ll look at their opponents each week and figure out who’s going to be going against what.”
Thompson grew up in Cincinnati loving sports radio, and he’s carried that love over to his podcast.
“Radio is sacred to me,” he says. “I’ve always had a passion for it, and a podcast for me was an extension of that.”