Not everyone follows the linear path of going to college right out of high school. Tony Russo talked with Hanna and Cari about going to college in his 30’s while also being a parent, how he helps his daughters now that they are attending college, and his unique career path to being a journalist, podcast host, producer, and writer. He encouraged his daughters to go to college the way he had, which was to try different subjects to see what they liked. When they graduated, they weren’t stuck in a career they didn’t enjoy or want to be in.
Tony, please tell us a little more about your educational and college background?
I didn’t go to college after high school. I didn’t go to college, actually, until I was 30. For me, one of the difficulties I had when I decided not to go to college was I a bad impression of it. It seemed like permission to get a job. That’s how it was pitched around in my house growing up, and I didn’t need permission to get a job. So I just got a job and started reading. Then as I got older, I had been reading a lot of philosophy, and then I just became obsessed with getting a degree. I went back to school to get a degree in philosophy to become a philosophy teacher, but that didn’t quite happen. I also got a degree in history along the way.
The whole process was really interesting, because I also had four daughters at the time. I mean, I still have four daughters, I’m just not in college anymore. So going while I was being a parent was a challenge, but it wasn’t that hard. I almost feel bad for my children, because they went to college at normal times, and I said, “Yeah, it’s not hard. I don’t want any complaints about how hard it is, because I know you’re lying. I literally just finished.” I would say it in a fun way. I encouraged my kids to go to school in the way that I had, which was to go and figure out when you get there. I think I was worried that, for example, not that there’s anything wrong with becoming a teacher, but a lot of kids will go to college, and they’re like, “I’m going to be a teacher.” They do it for four years, and then they have to be a teacher, because that’s what they were trained to do. I encourage them to spend a couple years just picking stuff that they think might be interesting, and then letting their career path dribble down to them that way.
How was it going to college in your thirties? I wouldn’t say in your thirties, you’re old, but how was it going to college a little later in life than most people?
It was fantastically simple. I think it’s because I had a job, and that was the difference that I pointed out to my daughters. I’ve had a full time job since I started high school. I was working 40 hours after high school and on weekends. Once you’ve had the kind of responsibility that is parenting, earning a living, paying bills, and making sure you get something to pass for nutrition, adding a couple of hours of reading a day isn’t too much. It was exciting. I could really throw myself at it in a way that a lot of a younger students didn’t have the same opportunity to, because they were still figuring out how to feed themselves and how to make sure they organize their day. All of the things that I had learned as a young person by not going in college, they were learning at the same time. They were also trying to tackle large picture subjects and the immense amount of responsibility that comes with trying to do well in college. I didn’t have that learning curve, so that helped me to go faster, farther, and deeper.
Do you see a lot of differences with your daughter’s college schedule, classes, and experience compared to yours?
Well, the one that’s in college now, it’s obviously a very special kind of situation, because she went for her fall semester and that was fine. She found her feet, and she did well in her classes. Then, of course, the spring semester was truncated, and we spent a of time here together. I treat my children in college as if they are colleagues. We talk about what they’re learning, and I help them where I can. There’s no reason to stop doing that just because your kids are smarter. My daughter is working on her PhD in Math Education. Last night, she sent me her abstract for a paper that she’s submitting, and she said, “Read this and see if it makes sense.” I mean, I don’t know if it’s true, because she’s more educated than I am. But I do know that a premise for a conclusion follows from a premise, that’s my job. I can still help them without teaching them. That’s something that I think parents would do well to remember when they have a kid in school, is they might know more stuff than you, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help. The willingness to help creates a willingness to ask for help. It also creates a self-sufficiency. That’s like, “I don’t want to keep asking my dad for help all the time. I should figure some stuff out for myself.” But it helps knowing that you’re never going to get backed into a corner, where you’re not going to get at least some sort of support.
After completing a Philosophy and History major at college, how did you get into podcasting and become a podcaster?
Shortest version is I got divorced. I actually added the history degree so that my ex wife and I could graduate at about the same time, and we could afford to go to graduate school someplace. But as I said, we ended up getting divorced. I had a degree in history and a degree in philosophy, and I lived in rural America, and they don’t hire those kinds of people. So I got a job at a newspaper. You know, the one thing that I’ve always been able to do, I’ve always been able to take a lot of complex information and turn it into little, simple information. That was the one of the really useful things about my philosophy degree. I started working at a newspaper, and probably sometime between 2005 and 2007, I saw there was such a thing as podcasting. I believed in my heart that it was the future of journalism.
I learned how to use WordPress so that I could start a podcast. I did the local news podcast for the paper. That was the beginning of it. I got good at editing, and I got good at oral storytelling over the course of the years. I think the most critical part for me was the editing, because we would talk for about 45 minutes. The newspaper editor and I would go to a local bar, have a drink, and go over the newspaper. By listening to the podcasts back over and over, I started to get better at being on tape, because I knew anything stupid I said I would have to cut out later, and I didn’t want to have to listen to myself say the same stupid thing three times. The editing was huge. That was the most critical part of me ever getting a job as a professional in podcasting. I just wanted to find a podcast that people would listen to.
In 2017, I’d been at it for ten years, I auditioned for a job, and they said, “Okay, make a spec show.” I had to do the writing. I had to do the interviewing. I had to do the editing, and I had to put it all together in a way that would make someone say, “Wow, we should pay you to do this.” It was something that I was prepared for. I was fortunate, because it was 2017, and podcasting was on the verge of blowing up. It was blowing up as I was doing this, but there weren’t a lot of people who were trained journalists doing podcasts, and doing the production part was critical, because it made me a little bit more valuable than someone who, for example, could do the interviews and the storytelling, but couldn’t cut up the audio. You know, the only thing that I can’t do is sound design. I do do it. I’m just not good at it.
You mentioned that you have a podcast called Beer With Strangers. Why did you start that podcast? And because so many colleges and universities are known for their parties, did you learn of your love for beer while in college?
No, unfortunately that’s not true. I backed into it as a reporter. A brewery was opening, and I was assigned to cover it. I started to cover the beer industry, and I covered the beer industry during the most recent craft beer boom. In 2008 or 2009, the craft beer industry really started to get hot. By the time it exploded in 2011 or so, I’d been covering it for a couple of years, and I knew people. The idea of craft beer was still new. The original intent of the show was I was going to walk into a craft brewery. I knew people who own the breweries, I’d been covering them for such a long time. The idea was I would go in, and I would talk to one of the customers about their craft beer experience. That’s where I learned you can’t just interview people, people aren’t good at being interviewed. Right now I’m doing audio histories of different places. I’ve written two books about beer. They’re local beer books. In doing that, I realized that there were a thousand of these books. So I’m calling all the authors who were doing local histories of their cities.
How has COVID affected you and your podcasts?
I also write for a true crime company, and it’s almost impossible to get court records at this time. The city of Washington, DC is like, “Well, we are not responding to Freedom of Information Act requests anymore.” And so you have to find new ways to do things. You have to interview more people than maybe you would normally, or you have to find a different way to attack the story. I can’t just sit around and wait for things to get better, and then start doing the podcasts that I want to do. The stories are there. Just finding a way to tell them is the question. Not whether or not you should tell them.
What is exactly is the true crime story about?
A friend of mine is a publisher. She’s an independent publisher, and she does a lot of self published books as well. Her name is Stephanie Fowler, and she has just put out her first nonfiction novel length book. It’s a true crime book. It’s about a teacher who was murdered. Her teacher was murdered. Her mentor was murdered, and she spent the last 10 years tying everything up. The book is called Chasing Alice. I have already read it. I was with her during the process, and I can highly recommend it. It is a gripping, gripping, fascinating story.
Stephanie started a podcast called So What’s Your Story. She talks to all of these people, and she wants to know why they write their books. She reached out to me, and she said, “I know you do podcasts. I think it would be fun if we did this.” I was absolutely down. I started producing the show with her. We interview authors about why they write their books and about the things they discovered in the process. It’s always interesting to get someone to tell you their story, because again, they’re invested, they want to tell it pretty well. With So What’s Your Story, 90% of the guests are like that. Occasionally, there’s someone who’s like, “I want to tell you what my story is about and prevent people from having to bother reading the book.” Generally, we talk about writing, we talk about how to get over humps, and how to make the process work for you. And then, of course, we discuss how to publish and market.
How did you get involved with the This Is War podcast?
I literally just auditioned. They said, “Find a veteran, interview that veteran, send us a story.” Those were my only requirements. I could have made it an interview show. I could have done whatever I wanted to. I went, and I spoke with a friend of mine who was in Vietnam, and he said he had an easy tour in Vietnam. Then he told me a story. We sat down, we talked for like an hour and a half, two hours, and then I cut it up into the story of his life. There were two things that I really liked about the idea to tell this story. Number one is I wanted to have a cold opening where you took a nice chunk that represented the heart of the story, and you put it right up first. The first thing you hear is a veteran talking about their experience.
The second thing is I got to tell people that I have never had a gun shot at me, like ever. I don’t know what that’s like. I don’t know what your heart does when you hear people firing at you in anger. The gentleman I did this interview with, he’s like, “Well, I was just a courier. I would drive from place to place. I would go to Seoul.” He was in Seoul just after that monk had burned himself, setting himself on fire in protest of the war. He was there right after that. He saw the burn marks on the street, and that’s got to hit you in a very particular way. What I wanted to do with the stories was talk about the things that these men and women had seen, that we will never see. These experience that we’ll never experience, if we’re lucky. I talked to a couple of truck drivers who were like, “Well, you know, we were just sitting in a truck and they were shooting at us. It wasn’t a big deal.” I’m like, “Really? Because if I was sitting in a truck, and they were shooting at me, it would be a big freaking deal. If I had to sit in the dark for 12 hours waiting for a bomb to go off. I’d lose my mind. Yes, there is a bomb coming.”
You worked for a newspaper, you worked as a Journalist, you did writing for various podcasts. What made you want to write a book?
It was simply the next thing to do. There are very few journalists, working journalists, who aren’t also working on bigger books about what they were covering. With me, I was writing a long, nonfiction work on the brewery that had opened across the street from my office. It was the one I’d been covering since the very beginning, and when I started kind of shopping that around, everybody was like, “No, no one cares about that dumb little brewery, but what if you wrote a history of brewing?” What I learned about too late in life is there’s a very interesting kind of catch 22, where if they know you’ve been paid to write, they will pay you to write. If you haven’t been paid to write before, it’s very hard to get paid to write.
What advice can you give students that want a career in writing or journalism?
The advice that I will give today, and I will give it in the presence of a journalism professor, is don’t take journalism: take English, take philosophy, take history. Do a lot of research and learning the rules, as with so many other jobs. You get to your first job, and they’ll say, ‘Okay, this is our style book.” Then you’ll get it wrong for six months. In philosophy, you’ll get the ethics. In history, you’ll get the research. In English, you’ll get the construction. That will make you a much better journalist, than just knowing what makes a good story. What makes a good story is something happened. That’s all that makes a good story. Something happened, and now you have to find out why it matters.
Throw yourself into understanding how history works and how to communicate subtleties quickly, which is something they’ll make you do in English. The rest of it just comes. I’ve spoken with very few journalism majors in my career. They’re all history people, English people, they wrote for the school paper. Get a job at the college paper, and take it very, very, very, very seriously. Broaden yourself more intellectually than journalism will encourage you to. Read a lot of books that you normally wouldn’t get used to reading. I tell my children this, reading is like a marathon. You cannot get up tomorrow and run a marathon if you’ve only been jogging for a week. It’s really hard to read, and enjoy reading, dry, boring text, and absorbing the necessary information of it. Then it gets easier and easier and easier. You want to get good at reading a lot, whether you want to read it or not. Once you learn that, the question is not whether you want to read it, but whether it has something you need to know. That’s what you learn in history. You’ll never read so many boring things, but you’ll get good at it, and you’ll get good at making them interesting. I think I did.
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