On a summer day that would have found other people discussing vacations or the weather, Stephen Hackett launches into a freewheeling conversation about something called SSD speed, which refers to the function of a type of storage device in laptops. Then he moves on to another matter: software update icons.
If the topics seem a bit “in the weeds,” as Hackett would say, that’s because his devoted audience of podcast-listeners wouldn’t have it any other way. He’s the cofounder of Relay FM, a podcasting network featuring nearly 30 programs covering tech-oriented, niche topics. With 1.5 million downloads monthly, the five-year-old firm has been able to flourish and grow amid the crowded podcast ecosystem by getting in front of what Hackett calls a “critical mass of nerds.”
Occasionally, however, Hackett and his partner at Relay, Myke Hurley, shift their program discussions to a subject much less arcane. Each September — Childhood Cancer Awareness Month — they devote time to talking about St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, an institution that Hackett, as a 33-year-old Memphis native, knew about and treasured even before his eldest son, Josiah, needed treatment there for brain cancer.
For the past few years, Relay FM has rallied its community of listeners to help raise money for the hospital, generating $70,000 in 2018. This year, the effort will expand to include a first-ever, six-hour “Relay FM for St. Jude" podcastathon conducted on the St. Jude campus and streamed live on the video platform Twitch. This year’s goal is $75,000, which the two partners are confident of meeting.
“A lot of our listeners know Stephen’s story. They know everything he’s been through with Josiah,” says Hurley, 31. “Our listeners care about Stephen, so they care about his family, so it’s kind of like a way to show their support, I think, for him and everything that he’s gone through. And to thank the hospital.”
Hackett, for his part, says, “It’s humbling that our audience gives so much.”
A rare disease strikes early
Mother’s Day weekend 2009: Hackett and his wife Merri had taken Josiah, then just 6 months old, to the pediatrician for a checkup. The doctor’s concerns about some missed milestones led eventually to a frightening diagnosis: The baby had a type of brain cancer known as an astrocytoma.
“We went from a well-baby checkup to four days later having a brain tumor resected,” Hackett recalls. “Quite the weekend.”
Too young to undergo radiation therapy, Josiah received 18 rounds of chemotherapy at St. Jude. He had his “No More Chemo” party at age 2 ½.
Now 10, Josiah is in his second year of monitoring in the St. Jude After Completion of Therapy (ACT) clinic. He still needs shunts to drain brain fluid because of the location of the tumor.
“Other than that, though, he’s kind of your normal fourth-grader,” Hackett says. “He’s running around in the backyard playing with his brother and sister. He leads a very joyous life.”
The peculiar strengths of podcasts
Relay FM's flagship show, recorded each Wednesday, is called “Connected,” and features Hackett, Hurley, and a third host, Federico Viticci of Rome. But there are more than two dozen other shows focusing on everything from robots to space exploration to users of specific technology brands and products. There’s even a show devoted to fountain pens.
The two partners say podcasting, because of the way it caters to highly specific interests, helps build a virtual community of like-minded people around each show.
“One of the great things about podcasts is, if you have a thing that you really like – so let’s imagine you love fountain pens – there’s probably nobody in your life that you can talk to about that. But you can listen to a podcast of people having a conversation about it, then you get to benefit from kind of feeling like you’re involved in that conversation,” Hurley says.
“You then end up with the most loyal listeners. They really want the show to exist. They care about the hosts. And that is exactly what translates into being able to raise $70,000 for St. Jude.”
The September "Relay FM for St. Jude" podcastathon promises to be a different experience for Hackett and Hurley. They’ve never been in front of a microphone for six hours, and while they’ve done live shows in front of hundreds of people, the two have yet to live-stream a show on video.
They’ll talk tech, as usual, and probably will bring in some guests to interview. But the two will take breaks in which they talk about St. Jude and possibly show video clips of the hospital. They also plan certain “hijinx” — and perhaps a game of “Tech Jeopardy” — to encourage the audience to give to St. Jude.
“We’re doing it to really drive home and make a unique piece of content for our listeners, but the goal is to really fundraise for St. Jude,” Hackett says.