Interview with Josh Hallmark of Our Americana
I recently interviewed Josh Hallmark, founder of the Our Americana Podcast Network, home of Our Americana, The Karen and Ellen Letters, and PLAYLIST Podcast. The interview was conducted as a part of the Podcast Brunch Club Podcast, of which I am a new(ish) co-host.
Here is the transcript of our interview, which you can find in audio version here! (Check out Josh’s terrific laugh – although we stayed fairly serious in this interview – and my upper Midwest accent.)
Intro: Hey listeners, it’s Sara here. In this episode of the PBC Podcast, we’re bringing you an interview I did with Josh Hallmark from Our Americana. This month we’re featuring his episode called Greensburg, Kansas on the Podcast Brunch Club playlist on Common Ground. You can find the full playlist at podcastbrunchclub.com/commonground. I hope you enjoy our chat!
Audible Feast: This is Sara DaSilva from Audible Feast and I am here with Josh Hallmark, who is the creator of the Our Americana podcast. I’m so excited to talk to him about this particular episode, the Greensburg, Kansas episode of Our Americana. First, Josh, I want to know: how do you find the cities that you profile for Our Americana, and do you have a certain type or person or a number of people you try to talk to in each of these cities to get a story of the community?
Josh Hallmark: Finding towns is really interesting. I have Google alerts for a myriad of phrases, like “small town stories” or “community comes together” or “small town America.” I also just troll the news every single day looking for stories that take place in small town America that impact community. I also reach out to listeners and different Facebook groups saying, “hey, if you have a story based in small town America that’s really unique that changed the way that the community relate to one another – or the town – or the way they see the world – let me know.” I’d say each season I’ll probably have three to four stories from each of those different outlets. It’s a broad reach, but it’s always successful from every angle of that reach.
I try to interview three to four people; I’ve tried episodes where I’ve only interviewed two and it just doesn’t feel like two people can provide a holistic view of a town or a story, so three is really the goal – sometimes four if the story is really complex or has a lot of different perspectives on it.
AF: So let me give the listeners a quick recap of what this episode was about in case they haven’t had a chance to listen to it yet. This was about the town of Greensburg, Kansas, and how the town rallied together after a tornado basically destroyed everything in the town, and they decided [to answer the questions], “What do we want to be as a community?” and “What will propel us forward into the future?”
And [what] they decided [was] to make their town a “green” town. They researched and brought in a number of vendors that could build more green houses, LEED certified houses, buildings, community complexes, and really try to improve their long-term sustainability. Which, for a middle-America, small town, probably well-known for its conservative values, is just not necessarily something you would expect. In the episode Josh talked to a number of people about how that actually happened and how they came together as a community to decide that.
I feel like this is a theme I see over and over again in Our Americana. I’m a long time listener and I feel like I can tell that you purposely try to find communities that demonstrate this ideal of non-partisanship, breaking down barriers, finding common ground among the community to make the community better. Thinking as a whole, rather than as an individual.
The last year in the U.S. has been a really polarizing time. I want to get your thoughts about how that’s impacted making this show and if you’ve been hearing different things as you’ve been interviewing people in these small towns?
JH: Going back to the creation of this podcast, it was really borne of my partner and I quitting our lives, moving into a van, and traveling the country for 6 months. I grew up on the West Coast, I grew up in very liberal cities and suburbs, I could have been classified as one of those terrible ‘liberal elites’ prior to this trip. I had a very binary view of what America was. It was liberal big cities and conservative small towns, and my greatest takeaway from this trip, which actually took place during the primaries of the last presidential election, was [that] small town America is more than just conservative, red, Fox News-watching [people].
I’m embarrassed to say this, but that is how I viewed any small town between California and Pennsylvania, so when I set out to do this podcast, it was very much about celebrating small town America but making sure that I was able to hopefully teach that lesson that I learned: this invaluable lesson about what it means to be American and what it means to look at the world around us in every single episode. I think Greensburg is a really great example of that.
When I set out to do this season in particular, I started production on it in October 2017 after a year that was, I think, rough for most of Americans, and I kind of lost my faith and passion for America. I really struggled getting back into the mindset of “celebrating” small town America. I had those great life lessons that I learned on the road slowly, just, sucked out of me through the 24 hr news cycle, and the election and its results, and the ensuing year.
I sat down and I was like “I don’t know how to do this, I don’t know how to celebrate America because I don’t feel like celebrating America. I don’t feel like there’s anything to celebrate.” What really happened was [this…] I had enough interviews for 3 episodes and I sat down to do the first one, which we actually opened the Greensburg episode with a quote from that first episode – it’s about a small rural town in Wisconsin where the only elementary school planned a reading for the school about a little girl who is transgender … [clip of Our Americana, Mount Horeb]
… and they’re doing it quietly in support of a 6-year-old girl who was about to begin her transition. Long story short, an outside hate group comes in, shuts the reading down. A parent who does not know this family decides to host a reading at the library and this small act of kindness changes the entire town forever.
That to me was really what made doing this season possible, because I sat there really thinking about partisanship and what is binary – why is everything looked at through a binary lens? There [in Mount Horeb] obviously it’s very up front and in your face because we’re talking about a gender binary, but that really informed how I approached doing this episode, which is: we can have ideas that are politicized, but it doesn’t make the ideas themselves political. Green is not just a liberal or democratic idea, community is not just a conservative or republican ideal. That’s actually what made doing this season possible. How can we break down this binary myopia that we all suffer from? That’s what really became the underlying theme to this entire season that I’m producing. Greensburg is another wonderful example of that.
AF: I noticed so many times in this episode where people were finding a common ground about something that wasn’t political at all. That’s why this is a perfect pick for this month’s theme. A couple of things that stood out to me – they were talking about educating people about sustainability – not saying “this is big government and they’re going to tell you these are the requirements you have to have on your house” but educating people [via a message of] “this is how it could be better for you personally if you build your house with sustainability in mind.”
It sounds like they had a whole lot of town meetings, and really involved everyone also – another great “common ground” thing that I’ve heard in a lot of Our Americana episodes. Communicating, talking about the things – not politicizing them – but just saying what’s good for our community, what’s good for us to grow, what’s good for us financially. I just thought there were a lot of those common ground things that popped up in this episode. Did you hear of anyone in Greensburg opt out of this sustainability push?
JH: They didn’t talk about it on that specific of a level, because I can’t say there is documentation anywhere on a house per house basis what was done and what was not done, but Mayor Bob Dixson spoke about people being apprehensive. He said, after a tragedy like this a lot of people’s inclination is, “let’s go back to the way it was.” It took a lot of conversations on his part to really change people’s minds and hearts about what rebuilding Greensburg was going to be.
This was something that I was most fascinated by – it’s funny because I think from an outside perspective, it’s really easy to say tell me about this moment, but when you’re in it, it’s hard to narrow down an entire movement to a single moment. You’re in Kansas, which is one of the reddest states, and you’re in a tiny, tiny rural, deep red town in this deep red state. You are standing there after a tornado has flattened 85% of the town. You have to act now, you have to act quickly, and this decision in that moment – standing amid all the rubble – to say okay, we are going to rebuild as green — it’s just so counterintuitive to conservative ideas or republican ideas.
I say that knowing full well that later in the episode we really have a conversation about “is that the case or is that how it’s represented?” But the idea of there they are and they make this decision and move forward with it … [Dixson] said, in order to change people’s hearts, you have to have conversations with them based on what their needs and philosophies are. You can’t mandate change. You have to have a conversation about change.
I think he did that very effectively in saying, “Here’s what you want and here’s how I can give it to you on your terms but in a way that’s going to be beneficial to everyone involved.” This isn’t just about the environment but how can we save you money on your utilities and your bills and on rebuilding your home. How can we save you money on insurance? How can we make living in this town better?
It’s wonderful to think we can all say [that] providing our children and grandchildren a better earth should be the motivation for everything we do, but when you are paycheck to paycheck and barely scraping by, that’s a great idea but it’s not a viable one. You’re trying to just get to tomorrow. So sometimes motivating people by money is the most effective way to reach that bigger goal that’s better for everybody.
I just have so much respect for this man [Mayor Bob Dixson] because he knew despite party platform that this was going to be what was best for everyone, and then he knew how to change people’s hearts and minds by making it a local idea. You can’t say this is what people are doing in Boston so this is what we have to do in rural Kansas, you have to say this is how we can do what people are doing in Boston in a way that serves the most people in rural Kansas.
AF: I agree, this is a great example.
I’ve said it already in this interview: I listen to Our Americana a lot. Can you recommend any other episodes in particular that you think would resonate to people especially thinking about this common ground theme?
JH: I mentioned previously, the first episode of season 4, which is Mount Horeb, WI, about the school reading of the transgender book. That’s another shining example of looking past stereotypes .. there’s this thing we talk about in almost every episode: when you live in a small town and you love that small town, your love for that small town will supersede a lot of your differences, be it political, cultural, societal. And I think that Mount Horeb episode is a shining example of that. The outcome being that when a town comes together bc of their love for the town, it will change a lot of their hearts and minds about some of their long-standing views and opinions.
Another really great example is Morgantown, West Virginia, which has a lot of downloads. You think West Virginia and you think uneducated, deeply conservative – a lot of negative words that come to mind when you think of West Virginia. Here in this town in the mountains though, the largest bar in town where a lot of community events are centered on is a gay bar. there’s a huge Muslim population there. in this town that should be white, Catholic, anti-gay, anti-Islam, all of these people really come together, live together, support each other in a way that really breaks down stereotypes and breaks down that binary view of us versus them, and this or that, and instead it’s “both/and.” I think those are great representations of common ground. Again, our love of this place supersedes all these other things. I think that’s really beautiful thing that makes community what it is and really creates a power that community has.
AF: I haven’t listened to that Morgantown episode yet so I definitely will. The Mount Horeb one is absolutely one of my favorite things I’ve heard this year, it was really, really well done.
Anything you want to tell us about coming up soon from Our Americana? Do you know how many episodes you’re going to have this season or where you’re at in this season?
JH: The goal is 13 episodes. I have learned that it doesn’t matter how early I start working on the season and how far I can get through a bunch of episodes. I’m currently at a place where I have two interviews for about 8 different towns and i cannot land that third interview or cannot land that third story that is going to represent a different perspective in each of these towns. I’m on a break right now for a bit of a podcast tour, so the show is on hiatus until the end of may, but after that we’re going to keep going with this theme of breaking down binary myopia.
We’re exploring an American town that’s actually a Canadian enclave – it’s a peninsula that juts out off of suburban Vancouver and does not touch any other part of American land, in fact to get out of the town and into any other part of America you have to drive an hour through Canada. We’ll talk about the impact geography has on a community and the impact an enclave has on local politics.
Also, [we’re profiling] a ghost town where the state is actually paying people to live there – again it’s in a deep red corner of America but most people moving there are young liberal outdoorsy people. What happens when young democrats move into a generally older, republican area and become primary residents of a town?
And, I like to do a few light episodes so I’m also working on the STD capital of America, which is a senior citizen village in Florida.
[Again, it’s about] breaking down molds and stereotypes and showing that everybody is both/and vs. either/or. I have 10 more episodes in production. Geographically this is the most diverse season I’ve had where we’re going to every corner of America.
I’m really excited to tell these stories. Last season it was about getting people as pumped up about America as I was and this season it’s about getting me and everybody as pumped up about America as I used to be, so I’m excited to, rather than be facilitating the journey, be on the journey with everyone else.
Our Americana is on a brief hiatus until the end of May 2018, so in the meantime, check out its back catalog! Thanks to Josh for taking the time to share about his show and being such a positive force in the independent podcaster community.