The Fullerton College Hornet sat down with Davy Rothbart for an exclusive interview Oct. 29 at the inaugural Now Hear This Podcast Festival in Anaheim, California.
Rothbart is a founder of “FOUND” magazine and podcast, an award winning filmmaker, a best selling author and contributor to NPR’s “This American Life”
Now that Rothbart is doing a podcast it opens him to more possibilities outside of just the magazine.
“They’re both a lot of fun. The magazine I’ve been doing since 2001. About one issue a year,” Rothbart said, “but what’s been really fun about the podcast is getting to actually track down the stories behind the notes.”
The podcast takes a new direction with the found items where Rothbart tries to find the source of the item and the story behind it.
“The magazine has always just been like ‘Here’s a crazy note. Isn’t this crazy?’ and that’s fun because the finds that people send us are amazing, heartbreaking and hilarious,” Rothbart explained, “but going the next step, you know the find is the tip of the iceberg. Who’s the real person behind it? What’s their story? What was going on in their life?”
Beyond just the story, Rothbart makes the deeper connections from the item to the world.
“Even just talking about something thematically. If there’s a note about heartbreak, let’s look at this as a bigger thing and talk about it,” Rothbart said, “it’s sort of like ‘Here’s the Luis Munoz’s incident, but let’s talk about the greater issue at hand,’ about police mistreatment of individuals.”
Rothbart is enjoying this new way of going about finds. He continued on to say that tracking down the people behind these finds has been an incredible experience since he’s always wondered about them; even going so far to describe them as celebrities in his own mind.
But the podcast isn’t stopping there; it’s also taking directions that take the “FOUND” magazine founder to places that he’s always been interested in.
“The first episode it’s an Asian guy who dreamed of becoming the Asian Oprah. He was pitching himself to all these TV companies and this was like 15 or 20 years ago,” Rothbart continued, “I was always like ‘who is this guy named Jet?’ and to actually meet Jet and track him down in Chicago. To me sitting down with my little microphone saying ‘Whoa! I’m in the room right now with Jet!’ because he’s taken on this oversized celebrity nature in my mind.”
In Rothbart’s experience, maintaining a podcast is not only easier, but it can reach his audience at a faster pace as opposed to his magazine.
“There’s a lot of brick and mortar physical things to get a magazine in someone’s hands,” Rothbart explained, “podcasts, we record it in Los Angeles and of course traveling around the country, but we press play on a Wednesday and 100,000 people can just tune in and listen from anywhere.”
Rothbart also can explore found audio through his podcast and hopes to begin utilizing the medium.
“I would love to include more found audio. I’m a big tape head. I grew up on tapes. Me and my brothers would make radio shows and we would put tapes in our boom box. We would pretend we were on the radio and make shows,” Rothbart said, “people have sent us great found audio over the years. Sometimes there were soldiers in Vietnam who would record audio letters to their loved ones back home.”
There is a specific found audio tape that Rothbart is already planning on exploring.
“One of our episodes, it might be next season, is a great tape that was found in my hometown of Ypsilanti, Michigan and all the tape said was ‘Booty Tape’,” Rothbart smiled, “there were these kids that made homemade booty rap anthems like ‘Wave Your Booty In The Air’ and ‘Taste That Booty Flavor’. Just songs these kids probably made in their basement but they’re hilarious.”
Rothbart believes he has already found the creators of the tape even though the tape was made over a decade ago.
“We think we found the kids, but now they’re like 30. I want to meet them and interview them,” Rothbart said, “it got around. People started making copies of the tape for their friends and their friends’ friends. This got viral before internet viral. This was like a viral tape.”
“FOUND” Magazine began in 2001 when Rothbart found an interesting note on his car addressed to someone named Mario, but he believes he would’ve eventually started the magazine regardless.
“I had already been collecting found notes [before finding the one], so I would like to think that I would have done something with them at some point,” Rothbart explained, “but it was definitely the straw that broke the camel’s back. I was like ‘This thing is so fascinating.’ It’s just like a little short note, but it’s interesting.”
Outside of Rothbart’s own collection of found items, people he knew were actually finding and collecting things as well which sparked his idea for the magazine.
“My friends would have on their fridge some to-do list or a Polaroid they found in the alley and I’d be like ‘This Polaroid is insane, this shouldn’t just be on your fridge. Everyone should see this stuff’,” Rothbart said, “so the idea for doing the magazine came but that note was definitely the one that put me over the edge.”
When Rothbart started the magazine he was trying to be a writer and just working odd jobs to pay the bills. He continued on to explain that he was living with a bunch of punk musicians while working as a valet at a country bar. He even admits that he was scalping tickets to the Chicago Bulls and Blackhawk games to get by.
“I was trying to become a writer,” Rothbart said, “but I was just sort of figuring out what I was doing.”
But that’s when Rothbart began working on the NPR podcast “This American Life”.
“They were in their early days,” Rothbart said, “but I was a big fan and I got in touch with them.”
Rothbart was asked to do his first story with the show not long after, which was interviewing Mr. Rodgers from “Mr. Rodgers Neighborhood”.
At the same time, Rothbart began working with fellow podcaster Starlee Kine to put together the first issue of “FOUND” Magazine.
“Starlee who was just one of my friends in Chicago at that time and she had also just started working at ‘This American Life’,” Rothbart said, “her, a couple friends and I just started telling everybody we knew that if you have any found notes or letters just give them to us. We literally spent 3 nights putting the first issue together.”
From there they had a release party with about 100 attendees. They would then begin selling their first magazine for $5 each.
“We had printed 800 copies because this dude at Kinkos was like ‘I’ll hook you up’. That left us with 700 copies in boxes in my apartment,” Rothbart joked, “my roommate at the time was Tim Mackarat, the lead singer of Rise Against. Tim was like, ‘Dude, we can’t even move around the apartment. There’s all these damn boxes’.”
Rothbart explained that not long after he left town for a little while but would return home to be greeted with a surprise. All the boxes were gone.
“I thought he threw them out. He was like ‘So many people were coming by the apartment to buy a copy or five for their friends’,” Rothbart said, “the neighbors even eventually called the police because they thought Mackarat was selling drugs out of the apartment because there was a constant stream of people in and out.
This was the beginning of “FOUND” Magazine and the rest is history.
“They were all handmade zine style.” Rothbart said. “What I realized was that this thing that was my own personal hobby and is something that a lot of people share this fascination with other people’s lives. Anyone who’s curious or is a people watcher could be interested in a note or letter that’s written by someone else who never expected anyone else to ever see that.”
Rothbart gave his advice to people who wish to create through the many artistic mediums as he has.
“When you have an idea, like for me “FOUND” is the kind of idea you come up drunk one night with friends, but actually do it,” Rothbart said, “now there’s hundreds of thousands of copies out there and it just started with an idea that we actually executed on. I would just say if you have an idea that you’re excited about just follow through.”
Rothbart continued on by explaining that you have to be the driving force behind your projects.
“You have to be a warrior for your own project because no one will care about it as much as you do,” Rothbart said, “but also surround yourself with like minded people who can help inspire you.”
Rothbart also explained that having passion in your work will influence people to want to support you.
He finished by giving his advice to future journalists.
“Keep being curious, keep looking for the truth beyond what people are saying,” Rothbart said, “I think when you’re genuinely curious, kind and passionate people will want to share their stories with you.”