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Hidden histories, library tales and neighborhood stories among growing number of local podcasts

E.J. Murphy, left, and Glynis Johns, right, record a live version of the Been Lit: The Hidden History of the Electric City podcast from the Black Scranton Project.
Kara Washington
E.J. Murphy, left, and Glynis Johns, right, record a live version of the Been Lit: The Hidden History of the Electric City podcast from the Black Scranton Project.

Glynis Johns set up her cell phone on a tripod before settling in next to E.J. Murphy on green leather chairs.

“This one is a fun one. Been Lit the Hidden History of the Electric City formal podcast that we're trying to revamp, been trying, been lit," she said.

At the Black Scranton Project Center for Arts and Culture, historians Johns, the nonprofit's executive director, and local social studies teacher Murphy, who is the Destination Freedom Program Manager at Waverly Community House, took the audience on a local history journey.

“This is a casual conversation. E.J., the professional here has slides, some great things to show you," Johns said.

Part Black History month event, part live podcast, the nonprofit’s Been Lit is among a growing number of podcasts from nonprofits using the medium to reach more people and tell longer, more unique stories.

The organizations as well as individuals, businesses, colleges and universities and even state offices are among those across the state and the country who are producing podcasts. Around 144 million people in the U.S. listen to a podcast every month, according to a report by Insider Intelligence.

The February 17 event at the Black Scranton Project Center for Arts and Culture in Scranton was a live taping for those in-person and online.

Johns’ portion of the podcast discussed influential Black Scrantonians from the 1800s to the 1920s, including George Jones. He was the first African American mail carrier in Scranton in the 1800s. Johns said people talked about him in the newspaper.

“They were like 'George drives his buggy through the city of Scranton all fast, like, we don't need to get the mail that fast'," she said. "When we think about Amazon Prime you think about like next day delivery. I consider him an innovator."

She detailed the lives of Lincoln Tillman, the first pensioned African American firefighter in Scranton, who had a 50-year career in the city; George and Louise Tanner Brown who owned the G.W. Brown Drain Co., the first successful Black-owned business in the city; and many other influential people from the era as well as racist practices like displacing African Americans from their homes to other parts of the city.

 Black Scranton Project Executive Director Glynis Johns discusses the early history of Black Scrantonians during a live podcast taping on Feb. 17.
Kara Washington
Black Scranton Project Executive Director Glynis Johns discusses the early history of Black Scrantonians during a live podcast taping on Feb. 17.

Murphy’s chat discussed the Destination Freedom Underground Railroad Walking Tour in Waverly. He talked about the people in Northeast PA who helped the escaping slaves or those who settled in the region, like George W. Keyes Jr., whose father was a formerly enslaved man and one of the first to settle in Waverly. Keyes Jr. served in the 22nd United States Colored Infantry during the Civil War with other men from Northeast Pennsylvania.

"These are the communities in Northeastern Pennsylvania that are not typically highlighted when we think about our local history," said Murphy. "And we have some pretty serious connections to some pretty serious people ... these are stories that we're going to continue to try to make available to the public so people know about.”

The over an hour long taping featured lively exchanges between Johns and Murphy and a mutual admiration for each other’s knowledge on often overlooked topics and people in the city’s early history. Two hundred and 15 people tuned in to watch the podcast live.

When the Albright Memorial Library was shut down to visitors during the pandemic, Alyssa Loney was cataloging mugshots from the early 1900s. They’re part of the library’s archives from the then Scranton Department of Safety.

“True Crime podcasts are just massive. So I was looking at them," she said. "I'm like it would be fun to tell these stories.”

Loney began producing the podcast, Tales From the Albright, in July 2021. Eventually it expanded from mug shots and library history into covering all different topics specific to the Lackawanna County Library System.

Loney, a librarian in the Reference Department, does most of the interviewing and narrating but the library’s staff join her for book discussions and other features.

She’s featured her colleagues, so listeners can get to know more about the people who work at the library and what items are available. For Valentine’s Day this year, Loney produced an episode on the history of romance novels. And around Thanksgiving, staff took home some of the library’s historic cookbooks and made a recipe, reviewing what they made for an episode.

Loney said the 20 to 30 minute podcasts have had about 3,000 listens total. Each episode gets about 40 to 50 listens. People tune in from across the country and internationally, she said.

“Which we're very excited about as just a local library, a very niche topic," Loney said.

Like Been Lit, the conversation is free flowing. Loney does edit and adds music to the beginning and end of each podcast.

Going into its second full year, Loney will be getting into the history of Scranton. The podcast comes out on Thursdays each week.

“We just hope to reach more people ... and kind of have some place that we can point them to to be like, this is what we're doing and this is what's going on and here's some history and some fun facts," she said.

Gerard Hetman from NeighborWorks NEPA was on a call with the organization’s counterparts across the country. An office from Maine was discussing their podcast. The NEPA branch had recently hired Parker Dorsey as their community program assistant. He’s a Wilkes University graduate who happened to have podcasting experience.

The first episode of the Be a Neighbor Podcast dropped on Jan. 21, 2022. It’s produced by Dorsey and hosted by Hetman, the community development specialist.

Hetman said the podcast is built around their revitalization work in West Scranton.

NeighborWorks helps residents with home improvements, taking care of blight and trying to boost the businesses in West Side.

The podcast focuses on the neighborhood’s culture by telling the stories of the people who live and work there, said Jesse Ergot, president and CEO.

“Podcasts are, I think, a very unique and intentional way to tell those stories, and to connect people in ways that you ... can't always do in person and in ways that you can't through other kind of more formal approaches to media," he said. "We look at this as kind of an informal forum to capture and tell the stories of the neighborhood.”

They’ve interviewed the West Scranton High School Football Coach, residents and business owners, like Connie Bennett, who owns Vanity on Main Avenue, among other neighbors.

With the podcast, NeighborWorks wants to shine light on the positive things happening in their community. Another aspect of the project is getting people to
invest in West Scranton, said Ergot.

“We're trying to tip the scale ... we're trying to win over and tell the stories of why this is a great place to live," he said.

It also serves as a vehicle to introduce people to what NeighborWorks is and the work that they do.

Dorsey produces a short five-minute video of the podcast taping that goes on YouTube. Each video gets around 250 views. The 30 to 40 minute podcasts have around 50 to 60 listeners per podcast episode. They release an episode every 2 weeks.

"It's really important when you're working in community development and doing different types of work that with the goal and mission of engaging people in improving their lives and strengthening the neighborhoods and communities where they live," said Ergot. "Connecting by telling stories is just a really powerful way to do that.”

The podcasts are available on most major streaming platforms like Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts and SoundCloud.

Kat Bolus is the community reporter for the newly-formed WVIA News Team. She is a former reporter and columnist at The Times-Tribune, a Scrantonian and cat mom.
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