Can't finish the book? Consider Podclub -- like book club, but with podcasts

Lydia Ricci, third from the left, and her friends have begun organizing "podclubs" -- like book clubs, for podcasts. She also has launched a website, thepodclubs.com.

Lydia Ricci kicked things off by telling the story of that time she was so broke she sold her panty hose for $10.

Jill Walters, 41, talked about how she’d spent summers selling the Inquirer and Daily News on the beach with her sister -- then found out her sister was maximizing profits by stealing the papers from an honor box.

And Walters and Sarah Klein, 42, both of Narberth, were shocked to discover they had both been physically assaulted by the very same Penn State fraternity member while in college a few years apart. (Walters’ long-ago revenge: When she happened to come into possession of the perpetrator’s personal information, she used it to drop him from all of his courses and sign him up for 18 credits of women’s studies.)

These are the kinds of stories, long buried and forgotten, that are liable to wriggle their way into the light at podclub. The concept -- conceived and, on a recent evening, hosted by Ricci, 43, of Narberth -- is a new type of social event that combines the emerging medium of podcasts with the old-fashioned art of hanging out with friends.

Ricci, who has been organizing podclubs among her friends for the last few months, recently launched a website, thepodclubs.com, that offers a curated selection of podcasts and instructions for others who wish to host their own meetups.

Melissa McCloy, 42, of Narberth, said it’s like a book club -- but less stressful.

“I’m in a book club and, to be honest, I struggle to read the book sometimes. I’m so busy: I work, and I have three kids,” she said. “But the podcast I can listen to in my car or while I’m cooking dinner. It’s a commitment of less than an hour, so it seems so much easier given my life right now.”

Though only one out of every two Americans is even familiar with the term “podcast,” according to a 2016 Edison Research survey, the audience is growing fast and now totals 57 million U.S. monthly listeners.

The extraordinarily popular true-crime investigation podcast Serial, which debuted in 2014 and reportedly drew nearly 80 million downloads within six months, introduced many to the concept. It also inspired Ricci to contemplate how podcasts could be social.

“The way [host Sarah Koenig] introduced the show was what captured my attention more than the mystery qualities of it,” Ricci said. “She introduces it: Imagine if you were accountable for what you did in high school. Or, how do you remember your histories? It brought me back to so many different anecdotes: high school love, jealousy, boyfriends. There was this whole other sidebar discussion that could happen.”

So, Ricci -- a graphic designer who coproduces a podcast called Roam Schooled -- began developing the podclub idea.

She listens to scores of podcasts, then narrows it down to six options each month, and comes up with discussion questions for each.

At the get-together she hosted recently, participants had listened to a 13-minute story from The Moth, a storytelling podcast, about a man who’d been an impoverished college student when a criminal stole his credit card number -- and who had doggedly sought revenge. So, she asked: What’s the most drastic thing you did when you were broke? What’s the worst part of having your identity stolen? Have you ever exacted revenge?

 “The questions are jumping-off points, maybe to remind you of an old story or an anecdote,” she said. “People forget that they’re interesting and have a lot to talk about, and they’ve lived lives. We talk about politics and sports, what we’re eating or not eating, the kids, and parenting stuff. You worry that your brain is melting. You need something to lift you out of your rut.”

And it worked. The conversations wandered in unexpected directions.

What was the best or worst thing about living alone for the first time? One woman didn’t know how to do laundry; another made cash doing laundry for others in her dorm.

What’s the most embarrassing thing your parents have done? Two compared notes on their mothers, who had asked for help procuring marijuana -- one by commenting, “I’d like to twerk on a beaker just once in my life.”

“We’re empowering people to tell their stories,” Ricci said afterward.

There’s no right way to host a podclub. Ricci said one user introduced it into her jogging group as a way to while away the time on long runs. Another cued up the podcasts during a road trip, and then discussed them with other  travelers. Jamie Perrapato of Bala Cynwyd hosted a Friday lunchtime podclub for friends who, like her, work from home or work part-time. For some of them, it was their first time downloading a podcast.

“Sometimes, people are intimidated by it. A lot of people said, ‘I always wanted to listen to one, but I never did it before.' ”

For these hesitant audiences, a curated list of shows helps. Otherwise, Perrapato said, “How do you know if it’s good or not? The fact that someone has recommended these as entertaining is helpful.”

McCloy recently tried adding a podclub element to her book club and found it took the gathering in a new direction.

“The questions in the podclub led to a much more informal conversation, and much more revealing. At a book club, we tend to stick to the book, but with the podcast, we share personal anecdotes and maybe get to know each other a little better.”

Ricci isn’t sure yet how she might monetize the website. Right now, she’s just trying to get more people to listen -- and then take off their headphones and see where the conversation might lead them.

“People see technology as isolating,” she said. “I want technology to bring people together.”