From Cottage Cheese to Soda Jerks: Old Kentucky Tales Returns for a Seventh Season

Nov 14, 2020

Old Kentucky Tales returns to the airwaves for its seventh season this fall. Hosts Brent Taylor and Jason Donner and producer Todd Birdsong speak to Tracy Ross about the upcoming season and the process of making a podcast highlighting stories and history of the commonwealth.

Old Kentucky Tales is "a podcast for anyone who likes history or just the stories that define our humanity and culture, particularly as Kentuckians. From the serious to hilarious, if people have done it, it is now a part of our history and part of us."

The podcast is co-hosted by history professor Brent Taylor from West Kentucky Community and Technical College. Old Kentucky Tales is his endeavor to bring "that sense of place that may Kentuckians appreciate already and that I see regularly in my Kentucky history classes. This podcast hopes to develop that appreciation, while looking at the good and bad events of the past that have shaped us as people."

Taylor is joined by Jason Donner, WKCTC communication professor, and Todd Birdsong of WKCTC's Paducah School of Art and Design. Birdsong currently works as the podcast's sound engineer but will join Taylor and Donner behind a microphone next season.

Ross: Gentlemen, I guess you don't know when to stop. You're up to season seven now of Old Kentucky Tales. Did you envision the podcast would be this long-lasting when you started?

Taylor: I thought it would be indefinite, actually. We didn't have two seasons in mind or four seasons in mind, so we keep finding things somehow or another --
Birdsong: I thought we would do six seasons and a movie to tie up all the loose ends. 
Taylor: -- and then the movie comes along five years after the podcast.
Donner: Normally, by this point, the show starts to get horrible, boring, parodies of themselves. It was boring and terrible at the beginning, so maybe it's getting better. 
Birdsong: As your producer, I would advise you not to say things like that.
Donner: The producer doesn't get to talk.
Taylor: That might change next season though, we've discussed that.
Donner: I quit. 
Birdsong: Next season, we're going to have a third voice. I'm going to get a microphone and be the third wheel of the new season. 

Ross: So [Todd], you're going to go from sound engineer to third wheel and leave the podcast to form your own as a new star? You said that four of these ten episodes were pre-COVID and the last six were after COVID?

Taylor: Yeah, that explains how we have guests in the first two episodes because they were there in the studio with us and nothing was wrong. Then all of a sudden, the entire world turned upside down. So [for] the rest of them, we just said 'okay, maybe we won't have guests.' We record with masks on. If you hear a bunch of garbled talk in the remainder of the season, then it's completely explained away. COVID is the ultimate excuse for everything. We take no responsibility for how horrible this season is.
Donner: Right, that's true. Everybody gives some grace on everything that way. 

Ross: Do you want to give a hint or preview to some of the stories listeners can expect to hear this season?

Taylor: We've got one on Simon Kenton. Normally we don't dip that far back into Kentucky history because the sources get a little hard to find. We have a little known Abe Lincoln story -- we found yet another one of those. You'd think we'd really run out of the Abe Lincoln stuff, but we never seem to run out of it.
Donner: They write a lot of books on that guy.
Taylor: I guess when you're the number one or number two president, you get a little bit of spotlight. We've got one special thing this season we've never done before. [We discuss] real government driving tests in the mid-2oth century. It's amazing. It's all the same stuff that you get mad at people about today. We talk about soda jerks. We have an episode about how cottage cheese saved the world twice on two different occasions. We've got a little bit of everything. 
Donner: So we're not running out of ideas --
Taylor: -- yeah, cottage cheese kept the wheels turning for us --
Birdsong: -- we're just running out of good ideas.

Ross: Do people stop you walking to work or at the grocery store, back when we were able to go to the grocery store, and say, 'oh, I love the podcast!' Have you found any degree of fame from Old Kentucky Tales?

Donner: That happens to me every day. And I don't allow people to look me in the eye, so that's always a bit of a problem. 
Taylor: I didn't expect to get so famous. Now you can't go anywhere --
Donner: I sneeze, and people are like, 'I know that sneeze. That's the Old Kentucky Tales dude. That's how he sneezes.' No, I don't think I've had anybody mention it to me once.
Taylor: We've got some fan mail from Pennsylvania before. 

Ross: The difference between a good and a bad podcast is your sound engineer, someone who can make it sound professional, put all those elements in. Todd obviously provides a lot of that for you, so do you bribe him with money? How do you keep him around? Is it the offer of the third mic that you've been dangling in front of him that allows you to keep him on the show?

Taylor: For the first six seasons, he kept begging and begging. So finally, we're going to relent next season.
Birdsong: It's the carrot and the stick. What's happened though, is they'll have a guest, or they'll be having a conversation about the main topic of the podcast, and they'll go down a path that I have a thought on. I can share that with them through the headset, but nobody in podcast land is hearing my take on it. When I talk to them, it's like we're in a conversation, so they're pausing while I'm saying something, and I know it doesn't translate well to the podcast listener. If I'm going to comment on it, at least everybody should be on [a mic]. So we thought, well, let's go ahead and add this third mic, and I'll put in my two cents.

Ross: I know this answer might vary wildly from episode to episode, but a lot of people have a lot of interest in podcasts now. I think the lockdown and the pandemic have actually increased listening. I just wonder as a consumer of podcasts, how long does it take to put one of these in the can?

Taylor: It starts with the research phase. Because it's history stuff, it doesn't have to be super current. We don't have to harvest the material and then go in and do it all in one week or anything. I'm normally researching this stuff six months in advance. Then we release it based on the WKMS schedule when it fits with you guys -- typically one in the fall and one in the spring.
Donner: When we actually record it, and you have that material, you've got the audio clips, I would say it takes probably about an hour to add a 25-minute podcast.
Taylor: That's just because we talk for 30 minutes. Then we actually record it. 
Birdsong: What we do is when we have the fake history ads or the little segment IDs for the main event...even the intro and the outro...I get as much of that prepared in advance as possible. Then we'll do a segment, and we'll stop, I'll insert the sound file, then we'll play that through, and we'll just keep going on. It's almost like a live to tape thing. That way, I don't have to stay in the studio and post-produce and cut and paste, so to speak. By the end of it, I'm just tweaking some things, and I can bounce that file out, and I'm done.

Ross: Brent and Jason, you have a really good dynamic together. Was that always there before the podcast? Was it something you developed during the podcast?

Taylor: That's completely accidental.
Donner: It's a work in progress kind of thing. Before that, we were both instructors for fifteen years, so we would see each other in that capacity like once a year on campus, maybe. It's not a deliberate thing. I don't know what it is.
Taylor: It just kind of works out.
Donner: It feels more like animosity.
Taylor: A lot of backstabbing.
Donner: Some evil glares.

Ross: Where do you think Kentucky rates among all the states in terms of the richness and eccentricity and curiosities in its history?

Taylor: Kentucky was supremely important. It's kind of fallen on hard times. When you go back and you look, it's definitely a very unique place. There are some things that make you say, "only in Kentucky." We have the only governor who was assassinated. It's hard to believe that nobody else ever killed a governor, but we did it once.
Donner: I guess that's eccentric!

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