Why This Durham Podcaster Is Secretly Incredibly Fascinating

Why This Durham Podcaster Is Secretly Incredibly Fascinating

Have you ever stopped to consider why some people spell it “ketchup” and others spell it “catsup?” Or pondered what toy wooden blocks have to do with sexism?

For Durham podcaster Alex Schmidt, these types of questions are more than interesting factoids–they are opportunities to find joy and inspiration in everyday life. They are also the subject of a popular podcast.

A Long and Winding Road

Referring to Alex Schmidt as a “podcaster” does him a disservice. The Chicago native has had a career that has seen him work as an actor, writer, comedian, zoo tour guide, and even a Jeopardy! champion.

Schmidt explains that it was comedy that brought him to podcasting.

“I was curious if anything I was writing or performing would translate to podcasting,” he said. “I explored that by guesting on local podcasts in New York City, then by contributing to Cracked.com’s early podcasting efforts. That led to working at Cracked full-time and doing more podcasting from there.”

The original Cracked podcast drew from the website’s list-based infotainment content to give examples of, in Schmidt’s own words, “why being alive is more interesting than you think it is.”

Schmidt lists television shows like The Daily Show, The Jack Benny Show, the graphic novel series The Cartoon History of the Universe, and podcasts 99% Invisible and Bullseye with Jesse Thorn as his key influences.

“I make podcasts combining information with comedy,” he said. “Here’s a [Nobel prize-winning physicist] Richard Feynman quote a fan of the podcast sent me: “Everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.”

Relocating to the Triangle

After spending time in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles, Schmidt relocated to Durham, where he continued to make The Cracked Podcast.

Schmidt says it was “a lot of good things” that brought him to Durham.

“My partner became a PhD candidate at Duke University,” he said. “Also she and I both think Durham is fantastic.”

However, Schmidt’s connection to the Triangle goes back even deeper.

“I’m from Chicagoland, but my grandparents have lived in Raleigh my whole life,” he said. “We did family road trips here at least once a year. The Triangle already meant a lot to me and it means even more now.”

Enjoying Life in The Bull City

While it might lack the fame of some of the country’s preeminant cities, Schmidt says he is still excited to call Durham home.

“I’m thrilled to live here full-time,” he said. “I’m also glad I got to know Durham before things locked down. In any situation it’s an exciting, progressive place with a lot of positives. The food scene is incredible. The Eno River is beautiful.”

The Eno River is a secretly incredibly fascinating part of Durham.
Image courtesy of bobistraveling / CC on Wikimedia Commons.

As one might expect, Schmidt apparently wasted no time taking a deep dive into the Triangle’s local culture.

“Also the music scene is excellent and community-focused. You’ve got H.C. McEntire playing virtual shows in the Gardens, Hiss Golden Messenger fundraising for Durham schools, the extended Sylvan Esso family putting on a spacey grown-up version of prom at The Fruit. It’s all really special.”

Changes at Cracked

In late 2019, Cracked was bought by Literally Media–owner of internet brands such as KnowYourMeme, Cheezburger, and eBaum’s World. Then, this summer the company parted ways with Schmidt, despite the popularity of the Cracked podcast.

It was then that Schmidt found himself in a similar position to many North Carolinians–suddenly without a job during a global pandemic.

The firing was a shock, both to fans of the show and to Schmidt himself.

“I’d planned to remain at my longtime job for a long time,” he said. “I’ve been rolling with it as best I can.”

Becoming Secretly Incredibly Fascinating

“Becoming an independent podcaster was the obvious best next step, so that’s what I did,” said Schmidt.

After a brief hiatus, Schmidt launched his new podcast, “Secretly Incredibly Fascinating.” This time, he produced the show independently, researching, recording, editing, mixing, and publishing from his Durham home.

The host of Secretly Incredibly Fascinating Alex Schmidt
Image courtesy of Alex Schmidt.

“I’m finding independent work feels less stable, especially in the middle of a pandemic,” he said. “It’s also really rewarding. I’m re-appreciating the skills I’ve built over the years. I’m enjoying making stuff to the highest possible standard.”

While the show is available through mainstream channels like Apple Podcasts and Sticher, Schmidt launched a listener support campaign through the crowdfunding site Patreon. Donors to the show get access to uncensored episodes and additional bonus episodes each week.

“My favorite part is that my new podcast is donor-supported,” he says. “That’s put me closer in touch with listeners than ever before. It turns out my listeners are saints and geniuses. They send me encouragement, jokes, and cool Richard Feynman quotes. It makes my day every day.

Making Secretly Incredibly Fascinating

When it comes to choosing a topic for the show, Schmidt says that he has certain criteria.

“It needs to be something everyone knows about, and it needs to be something nobody spends much time thinking about,” he said. “All the episodes are accessible to everybody, because everybody’s familiar with topics like ketchup and the color gray and the post office. They’re the stuff that fills the background of our lives.”

Schmidt begins each episode with a “Native Acknlowedgement.” During this segment, he makes it a point to recognize that he records his episodes “on the traditional land of the Catawba, Eno, and Shakori people.” He also does the same for his guests, adjusted to where they are recording.

A map of North Carolina’s native lands, from Native-Land.ca.

“It seems worth doing,” he says. “We’re doing what we do on land with a history worth acknowledging. The podcast I’m making seeks out wonder in the past, and history, and in the roots of where things come from. So it’s important to foreground that viewpoint in as comprehensive of a view of the past as possible.”

A Vision For Secretly Incredibly Fascinating

Secretly Incredibly Fascinating covers topics ranging from the color grey to Franklin Pierce, 14th President of the United States. It might not, on the surface, seem like there is an obvious relationship between those subjects. However, what they have in common is that there is more to them than meets the eye, and the excitement that learning about them can produce.

“I love feeling fresh new wonder about the world. It’s always discoverable,” he said. “That’s a substantial reason to be optimistic about life. My goal with Secretly Incredibly Fascinating is to give everybody a fun, accessible, affordable way to get that feeling.”

Ultimately, the show is still about “why being alive is more interesting than people think it is.” At a time when the world is seeing spikes in anxiety, depression, and suicide, that’s not insignificant. While a deep dive into the history of microwave ovens might seem like an odd place to find a spark of joy, Schmidt is hopeful that his show can make a difference.

“My goal is for you to spend 50 minutes discovering all the history and science and lore hidden within a common thing,” he said. “And then the next time you come across that thing, you get a little charge of excitement. Wouldn’t that be nice? I think so.”

Want to learn more about creators in Durham and other parts of North Carolina? Stay tuned to our Lifestyle section for more stories.

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