By Taylor Kalsey
When you’re telling your friend for the first time about your recent break up, you may think to yourself, why am I doing this? Why do I feel compelled to be vulnerable in this moment and publicly share my devastation. While there are many potential motivations for storytelling, communication scholars Brian Spitzberg and William Cupach determined the most common three in their book, “The Darkside of Communication”.
First is to help make sense of our lives, as stories have unique ability to help us assign meaning to our experiences. Relatedly, the second motivation is known as identity construction, where we tell stories to help solidify our worldview. Spitzberg and Cupach’s final motivation could explain my breakup example; telling stories helps us cope with difficulty by giving us a sense of understanding, control, or catharsis.
Kevin Allison stumbled into understanding these storytelling fundamentals when performing comedy in 2009. After dropping his act and telling his own personal stories on stage, Kevin found his audience laughing less. Instead, they came up to him after the show and said, “Thank you, that really got to me.” This revelation was a major turning point in Kevin’s career. With his new style of performance, Kevin realized that he “was finding the meaning in [his] own experiences and the people listening felt like they’d lived through these things with [him].”
In the months following his eureka moment, Kevin began inviting strangers to tell their personal stories just as he had. He began recording those stage shows and published them online as a podcast called, RISK! When I got the chance to interview him about his show, Kevin made sure to underline the the deceptively simple power of storytelling : “There’s an enormous amount of energy that comes from sharing a story live in front of an audience. You have to make sure that you’re being understood and that the crowd is along for the ride with you. There’s true vulnerability and daring in opening up in front of an audience like that.”
Kevin originally started with, ”pretty much $0 in the bank” and no connections. But years of relying on friends has culminated in him having a sizable staff at his disposal. Now, in addition to intermittent touring, Kevin and his team host monthly live tapings in New York and Los Angeles. These live shows boast an incredible pool of professional talent, but there are over 1,000 episodes or RISK! so I won’t be able to name every celebrity appearance. Instead, I’ll just leave you with my favorite three: Marc Maron, Rachel Dratch, and Andy Borowitz.
Beyond their occasional celebrity speakers, RISK! is constantly asking its listeners to submit their own stories. For every live show, Kevin and his team evaluate the submissions using three guiding questions: “Have we heard this sort of story before? Does it sound like the storyteller was deeply affected by these incidents? Do they remember lots of really cinematic details?” If the story passes first inspection it’ll be added to a list of eight, and then finally down to the four people who are casted for the show. With these final four stories, Kevin says that they are looking for a tonal balance, usually “one really funny story in a show, and one scary or traumatic story, and one or two wondrous or beautiful stories.”
Alongside their live shows, RISK! releases what Kevin describes as “radio-style” stories. These submissions go through the same rigorous evaluation process, but are more produced than their live counterparts. Recorded one-on-one in Kevin’s apartment or on Skype, these episodes have, “a great deal of editing involved, and the inclusion of music and sound design.”
Either live or in studio, Kevin has heard countless stories over the years, but that doesn’t mean that he’s become jaded. Kevin told me that he is still surprised by the stories where:
“someone is willing to admit that they did something deeply wrong. Sometimes, someone will want to talk about having been abusive in a relationship, or having attempted murder, or having stolen something or lied in some deeply consequential way. When someone is really and truly remorseful and putting a lot of work into atoning and healing, that can be hugely helpful to hear. We all want to know that it is possible to get back up after falling down.”
With over one million downloads a month, RISK! has come a long way since its inception. But running an extremely intricate organization has come with a price – constantly worrying about the bottom line. According to Kevin, his team’s never-ending workload still results in an, “extremely slow progress of building an audience.”
Kevin views RISK! as, “a small fish in this huge pond,” and his explanation for his frustration is two-fold: “Most podcasts are either extremely easy to produce (like interview shows where it’s just two people having an off-the-cuff conversation) or they are produced by giant, well established companies with all kinds of staff, connections and resources at their disposal (like Serial or Slow Burn).” RISK! is a complicated podcast produced by a small team, but in the end, Kevin (and I) “think the stories are so surprising, so honest and so resonant, [that] we truly should have more listeners.“
Despite the difficulties, Kevin’s love of storytelling is still what excites him about RISK!’s future. He says, “I’m always curious about what sort of life experiences we haven’t featured yet. There have been so many jaw-dropping, extraordinary life experiences shared on the show, and yet, I know that there are millions of stories in this world. After almost 10 years of doing this, I feel like we’ve only scratched the surface. “
So if you want to hear a surprising story or two, give RISK! a listen and tell us what you think on Podchaser!
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