Sometimes it helps to go back to the beginning.
Remembering where we came from can help illuminate where we’re going. So this month I decided it would be fun to take a little stroll down Burner Podcast memory lane. This show, this thing that’s taken me on this amazing journey and connected me so deeply to some of the most fascinating people in the world, who come from wildly different origins and backgrounds but who share with me a deep passion for this ridiculous and uniquely American export called Burning Man.
I go by (mr)Arash even though nobody calls me mister… And I am the founder and host of the longest running audio program covering the international Burning Man community and movement.
Burning Man 2022 WAS A DOOZY. I’ve had multiple friends opine that this may have been their last one. To those friends, I’ve been replying, “give it a couple months.” For me, this was the year that I felt the most recognition and appreciation for doing this show and that has been lovely. But I’ve been wondering… What’s the next step? Do I keep doing this show on “burner time” as I have been? I’ve been releasing new episodes as often as I can and I’ve prioritized quality over scheduling.
Before we hit the 100th episode, I treated this show as a job and had a biweekly deadline. Come hell or high water, a new episode would be live on the first and third Wednesdays of the month. The positive of this approach was that it built up momentum for the show and it forced our team to stay on top of it. I got to more deeply embed in this community I’d just discovered and demonstrate that I am a reliable and trustworthy contributor.
The downside to this approach was that, in all honesty, we released some episodes I wasn’t wild about. Will I reveal which ones those were? Absolutely not. Because another thing I discovered with this approach was that while there certainly were episodes I didn’t super care for, there were absolutely listeners out there who legitimately loved those particular interviews.
Well ok, I can give you one example, but it’s kind of a copout because I loved all the people featured on that episode and the idea to do it was mine because I thought it would be a good service for the community. Episode 95, inadvertently unfortunately named Burning in an RV, was all about RV life and etiquette at Burning Man. This episode was recorded at a time that (this was not that long ago!) being in an RV at Burning Man was considered some truly next level plug and play luxury. The Burnier than thou judgement on the topic was much more prevalent. I legit have had multiple emails from international virgin burners sharing that they’ve rented an RV and were apologetic about it, thinking they were cheating. Anyway, we did this episode and I asked all these questions about what it has been like to have an RV at Burning Man from a group a veterans. I, myself, have never been in an RV. I thought of this episode as one of those “deadline” shows; something I did not care about but that listeners might. I proceeded to be amazed, over and over, at how often listeners I’d run into (at Burning Man, at regionals and at parties) who would express gratitude specifically for that episode.
The AfrikaBurn Effect
Episode 100, all about AfrikaBurn, was recorded in Cape Town, South Africa. It was a milestone. Apple’s iTunes is a graveyard of really interesting podcasts that didn’t make it past episode seven. Because, as shocking as this may seem, this shit’s work! I’ve probably spent an average of 10-15 hours a week of unpaid labor on this thing. So I’ve always said, no one cares about episode three of your new podcast. They care about episode 100. And so, here I was, on the other side of the planet and at the southernmost edge of the continent westerners know the absolute least about, staying with people I’ve never met before (who are now absolutely unquestionably family) recording this silly little thing I started in my studio apartment in San Diego. Paul and Tamryn were listeners of the show. I’d just recently started announcing at the end of every interview that I’d be interested in traveling more to regionals and crashing on listener couches and Paul took me up on it. We had one brief chat on the phone, as I recall. Not a ton of planning. It was immediate trust.
Where Black Rock City’s streets are organized by letters and hours of the clock, the streets of AfrikaBurn’s Tankwa Town are uniquely South African in their flavor. Instead of one a clock and two a clock, they are one-ish, and two-ish. In the two or three years leading up to my South Africa trip, I was on a rigid schedule of up at 4:30am and in bed by 8pm (which, by the way, kinda pretty much ended my dating life). After my Africa Burn trip, my body just refused to abide by that schedule. I believe this was around the time I just started rebelling in general about scheduled so it is not a coincidence that I stopped enjoying the rigidity of the Burner Podcast biweekly deadline. I was just over it. I didn’t want to do interviews I wasn’t absolutely ecstatic about anymore. It’s not like I’m getting paid for this. Burner Podcast has actually done nothing but cost me a ton of money. The podcast and my whole career, honestly, has been pretty much just the stupidest business model anyone’s ever heard of. I’ve been operating at a loss for pretty much ever. I’ve never had sponsors. There has been some very minimal “fundraising” which, honestly, is more a couple of friends (mostly Super Suz, host of Into the Fire) throwing some change in a hat.
At Burning Man 2022 I had multiple people inquire why I’m not organizing some kind of income from this. I’d always seen what we do as our gift to the community. I wanted to be beyond reproach when it came to the subject of decomodification. This may sound melodramatic, but I also wanted to ensure I’d never be compromised in my “journalistic integrity.” (That’s, of course, in quotes because it’s a podcast and we totally make dad jokes and giggle at phallic humor.) But the whole conversation about decomodification has evolved quite a bit in the past decade. There are now many for-profit ventures which were seeded on playa and grew their roots through the community before establishing a full on capitalist business presence in the default world.
I’ve proven my street cred in this community and I am now, for the first time, truly open to what we might be able to do to generate some income from this show. I’d certainly not be paying my rent with Burner Podcast, but some income to offset my life and various expenses associated with the production of this show would enable me to potentially get back to that biweekly schedule and provide for all listeners a more consistent high quality experience. If I had some money to throw at the problem, perhaps I could be happy with every release AND meet that deadline, rather than the trade-off approach we had going on before.
Additionally, I’ve had some powerful experiences in the past year which inspired me to think deeper about the importance of continuing to foster an independent voice focused on the international burner community, rather than that thing in the desert and entity which organizes it. The Burning Man org does an absolutely spectacular job managing and fostering what could and can be, quite frankly, one of the world’s greatest shit shows. And they keep pulling it off (to much of the world’s disbelief) and to all the staff and leadership, I am eternally grateful. And Burning Man keeps growing. The influence of our culture is seen everywhere now. For these and many other reasons, I think that more than ever there is a need for more layers of conversation and organization to be explored throughout our community. This vibrant and amazing community which exists year round and (very often in many parts of the world) independently of the Gerlach Regional. Texas, for example, birthed the world’s first Burning Man regional and my time there introduced me to the massive subculture of burners who burn year round and have no desire to attend Burning Man. And that’s just a hop and a skip away! Imagine what’s going on in, say, Israel and Japan.
Starting With the Why
My inspiration, when I began this show, was to provide voices of comfort and inclusion to that lonely burner couple I imagined living in South Dakota who didn’t have access to the wildly active and vibrant community I so easily has at my finger tips in Southern California. This was a viewpoint I’ve had affirmed many times. Listeners have confirmed for me, in person and via messages, that the show serves exactly this purpose for them. I met a man at my second burn, the interaction with whom is burned in my memory. As happenstance would have it, I was locking my bike up next to this handsome Eastern European college professor. We were walking into a bar after temple burn. I was reflecting on how at my first temple burn, I’d cried for 45 minutes and at this one, nothing came out at all. I wondered if I’d emotionally broken something. The college professor and I were chit chatting. He expressed, very much assuming that I was in the same boat as he, that this is the one time a year we get to connect with this community. The rest of the year, he felt fairly isolated, the sole weirdo in his city, family and social circles. And here I was, knowing full well that next week I’d be at another party with fire spinners and deep, intimate and elevating conversations. I’m surrounded by this community and he has to wait a whole year. I didn’t tell him I’d been hosting this podcast and I can’t figure out why. Because I thought it would be lame? Or advertisy? We went our separate ways and I think of him often. At this most recent Burning Man, emboldened by all the positive responses and kudos, I did not hesitate sharing the existence of Burner Podcast with anyone.
Remembering where we came from can help illuminate where we’re going. My friends, my listeners and my community… I want to hear from you. I don’t want to make decisions on what’s next for this project in a vacuum. I’m hosting this but this is OUR thing. If I was doing it only for you or only for myself, I couldn’t keep going. But it’s a co-creation and our collective investment is important to me. Seth Godin says that if you’re putting out content and you stop doing it tomorrow and nobody misses you, you’re a spammer. I’ve had enough people give me crap for not getting more shows out more often to conclude that what I’m doing is invited and welcome. So now I’m just wondering… What next?
Episode one was recorded before I attended my first Burning Man.
My first burn was YOUtopia, which may explain why I have a bias towards the community and the regionals. Feeling like I’d finally found my tribe, the Sunday of that weekend I kept silently screaming, “where have all of you people been hiding my whole life?!” And I did what many of us do when we discover this community: obsess day and night with what gift I could bring.
I’ve contributed to many art builds but creation in the physical space is not my strength. I’m great at following orders and lifting things but spacial reasoning is just not my thing, due to possible dyslexia or general social anxiety. But storytelling I can do. I’d just met Meg King, who would go on to become my producer. Meg knew all the players in the San Diego scene and I was hungry to collect everyone’s stories so it was a match made in heaven. The first incarnation of this thing, in fact, was not the podcast. Filmmaking was my first passion and I actually recorded and edited two or three mini-docs before realizing that it wasn’t the right format. The stories were too interesting to condense to fifteen minutes. On a long drive one day and aided by a joint I’d had earlier, I had a lightbulb moment. Is anyone doing a podcast about community? I figured there’s gotta be a ton of crap about Burning Man but what about the people active the rest of the year? When I got home, I got to Googling and was shocked to discover there was a lot of nothing! There was Burners.me and there were a couple of false starts. You know the thing I mentioned earlier – five or six episodes of Burning Man themed podcasts which were then abandoned. I looked up the URL BurnerPodcast.com and it was available. I pitched the idea of starting a podcast about the community to Meg and she loved it. At a burner meet and greet I met Alpy, who wanted to start a blog and was exploring what her handle on it would be. I suggested we join forces and she be the Burner Podcast blogger. Then I snagged the URL and that’s pretty much how all this started. Having come off of co-hosting Crappy Awesome, an indie Hip-hop podcast, for the past few years, I’d learned to let go of perfectionism. I figured even if the show blows, I have it in me to keep my head down and stick with it because, as I’d said earlier, no one cares about episode three of your podcast, they care about episode 100.
I knew I wanted Brady Mahany for the first episode and Meg agreed. Brady is exactly the archetype that interests me. When I was co-hosting Crappy Awesome Podcast, our theme was that we were more interested in the managers, the producers and song-writers; the behind-scenes leaders and creators who didn’t get the front page photo shoots but who were instrumental to the world even knowing who the big star is. In this interview, Brady shares his story of moving to San Diego from Austin, the birthplace of the Burning Man regional, where he started poking around about getting a regional going in San Diego. If memory serves correctly, San Diego had a decompression at that time but not a full on regional. Brady shares his experience being interviewed to become a regional contact on playa.
And here now, as I write this, I’m having my first experience of having new insight about where I want to go by returning to where I started. The other day, I had lunch with Scott Froschauer, host of Build to Burn podcast. We got pretty deep into how we are showing up for our community and what our role is in smashing the patriarchy. With the current controversy of the Burning Man 2022 temple on everyone’s minds, he wondered if we are inadvertently contributing to the myth of the one male lead hero in the way we choose to interview the lead artists, which got us really thinking what we could do to maybe shift this approach to storytelling. This retrospective on our early episodes reminded me that my interest had always been more in the weeds. I believe that the lead artists who pour their hearts and souls into these projects should absolutely have their story told and this reflection is inspiring me to narrow my focus. I’ve always enjoyed introducing the world the the hero no one knew about.
My storytelling philosophy is that everyone is indeed the main character of the movie of their life. People only get on pedestals because we put them up there. As a photographer, for example, I love shooting portraits of anyone and everyone the same way a photographer for Vanity Fair might capture a movie start for a magazine profile piece. Many listeners have shared with me that the interview with Ken Feldman, the big imagination behind Big Imagination’s 747 project, is one of their favorites. And that episode really works because Ken’s was such a fascinating biography which most of the world most definitely did not know about. Recently I had the exact opposite experience with a lead artist I won’t name. This was a person who was receiving tons of media attention. After more effort than I probably should have put into it, I made the gut and heart focused decision to simply walk away. I appreciate the hell out of this person’s talent and contribution to the community but I really don’t need to add to the hero worship. It does nothing for me or the community. I’m certainly very interested in interviewing the bigger names of our community but only if I’m able to introduce something new about them to the world. On that note, if anyone knows Paris Hilton, I’d absolutely love to interview her and let her legit share the less glamorous parts of her story, burner to burner.
The First Few
Episode two was an interview with New York transplant Thanasi who was, at that time, coordinating Ted talk style talks at center camp. Thanasi would later join our team for a while as Alpy’s replacement. The Burner Podcast blog has historically been an independent thing meaning it’s not meant to promote the show. It’s another source of storytelling. The Burner Podcast Blog and Burner Podcast the audio show, along with all the other content at burnerpodcast.com, are like fellow camps villaging together.
For episode three, I interviewed life coach and then documentarian, Aliss Wang. I talked to Aliss recently and she continues to remember being a lot more wine drunk for our interview than I remember her being. The show back then had these “commercial breaks” where we’d announce events and stuff happening around the community. It was my attempt at radical inclusion and keeping the listeners mind’s aware of the vastness of our community. We stopped doing these after a while for one thing because listening to them years later is kind of useless. The music in the background of these breaks was produced by the amazing and hilarious Duckman.
Episode four was an interview with regional contact Nichole Hickman, another behind-the-scenes community leader. One many would argue without whom a great deal of the momentum behind our San Diego community would not have happened. Episodes like this fed my insatiable curiosity while also serving as a physical manifestation of my appreciation for the all the work folks like Nichole have done to create this safe and efficient container for the rest of us to play in.
Episode five, simply entitled “Taz,” was an interview with SDCAP board member… Taz. I don’t think I’ve seen Taz before or since. What I most remember about this interview was that I kept feeling like I was asking stupid questions. Either I was nervous or Taz just has a way about him where he brings that out of people. He shares the story of a UCSD project where they crashed a satellite into the moon. I was recently reminded of him when I stumbled across this article.
Episode six was an interview with Marc Leglise who is the only person I personally know who has skydived into Black Rock City. I remember being jealous of his radio voice. We recorded pretty much all these earlier episodes on a standalone mic plugged into my laptop in the granny flat I lived in at the time in San Diego. This tiny living space had a toilet which the landlord had installed where a closet used to be and the door of this “restroom” was still the old accordion folding closet door which, as you might imagine, provided zero privacy. When my interview guests would arrive, I’d offer they use the restroom and immediately begin apologizing for the lack of privacy and the tininess of my space. What I immediately experienced was that burners are really low maintenance and don’t give a damn about a who lot of stuff I’d been raised to think everyone gives a lot of damns about. I wouldn’t even have a chance to finish my apologetic rant before my interview guests were already gleefully peeing.
Episode six and a half was so extremely specific to the San Diego community at such a specific time that it felt weird calling it an official episode. The “half-a-sode” is a thing we utilize from time to time when we have a recording and it’s fun content but I’m not fully sold on it being an episode of Burner Podcast. This one was a roundtable of candidates running for open seats on the San Diego Collaborative Arts Project’s board of directors.
As a person who has worked for government and served in similar roles in multiple non-burner communities, I’ve been on many occasions quietly frustrated with how many people in the San Diego burner community take the work the board does for granted. People so quickly forget how spoiled we are to have the infrastructure to get away with the crap we get away with. I’ve watched this play out multiple times in my life. When I was the VP of my college fraternity, for example, the newer generations took for granted that they even had a house on campus to party in as a minority populated fraternity, where their predecessors were so much more focused on community services activities and made do with so much less. There are so many burners in the world who are still in the closet and have no local community. Here in SoCal, we are privileged enough to bitch about our local governing board who are doing their best to manage. Seeing a lot of these social media comments has been a zen practice in patience for me. The in-fighting, the relaying of gossip as truth and the straw man arguments…
Passion is important. It means people care. But some of what I’ve seen build momentum has been kinda gross. The critical mass and legal infrastructure our community has built is not nothing and I think a lot of folks don’t truly grasp that. But I keep quiet (on social media) because I don’t see value in chiming in on Facebook. I do this podcast with the intention to put more elevating conversations into the zeitgeist rather than pushing back against comment thread bitchfests. Back in my day, I say as I shake my fist in the air.
Episode seven. Sharing a hometown with Bill Clinton, Jake Anderson is a writer, filmmaker, investigative journalist, activist, and web publisher. I just went ahead and copied that from his Amazon bio. If he still lived in SoCal I imagine we’d be hanging out often.
Episode eight with artist Hill Young. Hill’s interview stands out to me because I remember hearing her story of coming from a family of artists, which to me seemed like the dream life I wish I’d had. She shared that despite that – or exactly because of it – she at first tried the more professional route in university before coming back around to art. To me this was a mind loop because I’d always imagined that if I came from a family that supported my path I’d be so much further in my craft and career and I may have just skipped university altogether. Especially then in my life where I was still fairly early on this path.
Episode nine with Lisa Dewey. Lisa introduced me to the concept of a death doula. This was one of my earliest experiences exploring the idea that death need not be this sad tragic thing my upbringing had demanded it be.
Episode 10 was an interview with Natural, another important trailblazer in the San Diego community who we can thank for where the community is today. The episode description says, “Arash also attempts to get some dating advice from Natural, who is a married man.” Reading some of these old blurbs really makes me dread listening to them as I wonder what ridiculous things I may have said.
Episode 11 was a really fascinating interview with Mikey Lion, co-founder of Desert Hearts. I reference Mikey very often as an example when in conversations about Hip-hop’s place in electronic dance music history because Mikey shares on this one that he started out as a Hip-hop head and imagined one day creating the Wu Tang of techno.
The First Milestone
Initially, I was so geeked to be getting to know all these infinitely fascinating people that the how didn’t really have a running structure other than me interviewing an interesting burner and adding colorful commentary. Producer Meg would simply put a person on my calendar and say “you have to meet and interview this person and be sure to ask them about this one topic.” It was a lot of fun going into every interview virtually in the dark and it gave me the opportunity to really flex my interviewer skills. But episode 25 was when it really shifted.
A Sober Burn featured an anonymous guest sharing her experiences with her year of sobriety. The guest, herself, was not concerned about privacy but we concluded it might be best to keep her name out of it in order to protect the privacy of other folks who might be mentioned. Where as the first 24 episodes were more like audio portraits, this was the first episode that was focused on a specific theme. I continue to approach each interview as a portrait, but ever since this milestone episode, they’ve been thought out more in terms of “how would this be interesting to me if I don’t know the person being interviewed?”
I’m going to leave it here for now. It has come up in conversation many times that there may be a book to write on my journey so far with this show. In a future writing, I’ll share the story of who the British woman in the intro is, why I admired burners with chips on their shoulders and when/how the DJ sets were added to the show bringing us to the modern day incarnation of Burner Podcast.
Below you’ll see the covers for the first 30 episodes of Burner Podcast.
The design template was… adequate.
Many of the podcast platforms we broadcast out to seem to start the show somewhere past episode 30, meaning the only way to listen to these old ones would be to either visit BurnerPodcast.com directly or via iTunes.