Popular new media series hits 50th episode, charts course for sustainability
February 2019 | By Joe Snell | Photos contributed
TURLOCK — Right before the February 2018 launch of The Assyrian Podcast, co-founder Steve Netniss was ready to limit the amount of episodes produced if he couldn’t find another co-host.
For months leading up to the launch, Netniss had been working on the podcast by himself, running through different iterations and conducting multiple trial interviews. Realizing that he needed a team around him to meet the weekly episode output and keep the project sustainable, he sent a Facebook message to Adessa Kiryakos, whom he had met at the Assyrian National Convention years earlier. He now credits Adessa with keeping the project alive.
“She helped take the podcast to a whole new level,” Netniss admits. “That’s why she’s really considered a co-founder. I started the podcast but it was a 50/50 partnership in terms of efforts and the interviews for the first two months. If Adessa didn’t get involved, the podcast wasn’t going to go forward.”
FROM BOOK TO PODCAST
In 2014, Netniss published a book titled, “The Assyrian Quest for Identity” about encouraging Assyrians to think about their ethnicity in a new way.
“After writing the book, I thought that rather than talking to Assyrians about why we’re so great or what value we carry, why don’t we create something that speaks for itself?” he said.
Three years later, a number of his close friends had begun creating podcasts. Interested in using this new medium to showcase Assyrians, Steve asked their advice on how to create his own podcast.
His original idea was simple: he would ask Assyrian leaders across the globe 10 general questions, including where they see Assyrians in the next 100 years, what is their favorite Assyrian food, and what they each think we need to do to preserve the culture.
He recorded his first three interviews around Nov. 2017. After listening to them, however, Steve realized that something needed to change.
“I listened to the interviews and thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is boring,’” he said. “It’s dry. It’s dull… The interviews didn’t flow because I was so tied to my questions that we didn’t get to know each other.”
Around this time, one of his friends was conducting interviews at a retirement home. Capturing videos of the elderly patients, the style of these interviews was simple, intimate, and unscripted. The format was more fluid and encouraged natural follow-up questions. Steve learned this new style and recorded six new episodes.
CREATING AN ICONIC LOGO
On Dec. 31, 2017, the first announcement about the podcast was published on Instagram. The post featured a picture of a bearded Assyrian man wearing headphones and large sunglasses reflecting the Assyrian flag. Below the picture read, “Get ready to party and get ready for the Assyrian podcast in 2018!”
The post generated a moderate response of a few hundred likes and a handful of comments. “I’m sure people were skeptical that this was going to be another media platform that was repetitive,” Netniss recalled.
The post was also, more importantly, the unveiling of the podcast’s now iconic logo.
Designer Eva Toma created the logo. Toma had worked with Netniss on his book cover in 2014, so when it came time to design a podcast logo, Steve wanted to collaborate again.
Netniss told her that the logo should capture who the listeners were: he was imagining the audience would be young Assyrians who were proud of their heritage. Eva came back with a logo that Netniss says “nailed it on the first try.”
“She did so well, I might get that tattooed at one point,” Netniss joked.
THE PODCAST TAKES OFF
Finally, on Feb. 20, 2018, the first podcast episode was launched with Assyrian singer Linda George.
“It made a lot of sense to start with Linda George, not only because she’s well known throughout the Assyrian world but also because we don’t know much about her besides that she is a singer,” Steve said.
Around a few hundred listeners tuned into the first episode and initial reactions were immediately positive.
“When people listened to the episode, they realized this was something interesting and taking off in a different direction… It felt that there was something special happening.”
Wanting to capitalize on the momentum, Steve decided to look more actively for a co-host who could help him publish an episode every week.
Several years before the podcast launched, Netniss had met Adessa Kiryakos at the Assyrian National Convention. He noticed she had been liking and commenting on the Assyrian Podcast posts on Facebook, so he messaged her to ask if she knew anyone interested in co-hosting.
“At that point, I was obsessed with the podcast,” Kiryakos said. “I was listening to it right when it came out. I was interested in starting my own podcast, so when he had asked me, I thought I would blend what I was envisioning for my podcast into his podcast.”
After the first few episodes were recorded, Steve and Adessa sat down to brainstorm what made The Assyrian Podcast distinctive from other Assyrian media projects.
“One of the things that is really important for us is to be able to have redemptive conversations as opposed to feeling like a victim and saying poor us, poor Assyrians,” Kiryakos said. “It was really about setting a tone of being able to inspire our listeners. There are sad times in our history, but we want to be able to highlight how we are able to move past that and how each particular person has done so.”
Adessa admits there was a sharp learning curve. She pointed to the mistakes she made in her first interview, conducted in March 2018 with Set Scouter Co-founder and COO Lidia Bit-Yunan.
“I was so concentrated on wanting to ask the right questions that there were things I wasn’t paying attention to,” she recalls, including not testing the microphones in the room beforehand. “It was only something I noticed when I started editing and I said, ‘You can hear the A/C in the background the entire time.’”
Later in episode 30, Adessa interviewed Assyrian artist Paul Batou. During the interview, Batou began getting emotional while talking about growing up and having his village burned down.
“When you’re on the spot, you think to yourself, ‘What do I do?’ You can’t prepare for it, so in that moment, I just let him have his moment,” she said. “It was a pause, a long pause. And I think the long pause spoke for itself.”
Also this year, Steve and Adessa want to concentrate on advancing something they’ve struggled with in the past, consistent audio quality.
“Everyone is in a different setting and depending on the room they are in and external sounds that may show up, some of those things are hard to control,” Netniss said. “If we have the best equipment, it can help.”
Each new host is sent a microphone and trained on how to use the equipment as well as how to conduct an interview. The podcast follows a strict rule about not recording on cell phones and that all interviews must be done in person. In total including equipment and software and logo creation, Netniss estimates the podcast has cost around $3,000.
Two sponsors have supported the podcast: John Oushana from HomeSmart and Tony Kalogerakos from the Injury Lawyers of New York and Illinois.
THE PODCAST OF THE FUTURE
Adessa and Steve, who both hold full time jobs, emphasize that sustainability is their biggest goal for the future. Sustainability, they agree, relies on having support from well-trained co-hosts from around the globe.
Today, the podcast has seven hosts from around the world including the US, Germany, Canada, and Australia, as well as a social media and marketing arm.
The global audience has also grown steadily, from a few hundred in Feb. 2018 to now over 1,700 followers on Facebook and over 2,100 on Instagram.
“We had seen within our Assyrian community many people who have ventured out on their own to write a book like I had done or start their own TV program or become musicians and it’s just not sustainable when you’re on your own,” Netniss said. “We needed a way to say that this isn’t about us, it is about giving back to the Assyrian community.”
“Through these stories, we are able to resonate with one another,” Kiryakos said. “It helps make us feel like a smaller community.”
WHAT ARE PODCAST LISTENERS SAYING?
“Whether your interests lay in Assyrian politics, activist, business, or something else – the diverse Assyrian podcast will likely have something that interests and inspires you!”Nahron Karimo, New Zealand
“I’m a big fan of podcasts as I have an hour journey each way for work and also love anything to do with Assyrians so this was a win win for me already. I wasn’t left disappointed! I love hearing about all the amazing things Assyrians do from all over the world and it gives me hope for the future of Assyria!”Shamiran Khoshaba, London
“A friend told me about the podcast. What I like about it is listening to some successful stories from known and unknown Assyrians. I get inspiration and laughter from it. It’s also just a joy of having our own Assyrian podcast.”Laurina Joel, Arizona
“I commute on the train to work on a daily basis, so I am always on the lookout for podcasts. I typed Assyrian in the search box in hopes of finding some historical podcasts that covered the Assyrians. The next day when I logged into Instagram, I saw an advertisement for the Assyrian podcast. Not sure if it was a coincidence or the advanced targeted advertising, but since then I listen to the podcast when I can. I most enjoy learning about the different Assyrians across the globe and some of their accomplishments.”Sinan Khamo, Chicago
Listeners can submit individuals they think would be a good fit for the series. So far, the podcast has received 50 submissions. The most important criteria evaluated with each submission is if the individual has a story worth sharing. To suggest an individual for The Assyrian Podcast, check out the Nomination Form.
Be sure to check out The Assyrian Podcast’s 50th episode on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, or by visiting www.assyrianpodcast.com.
The Assyrian Podcast Team
Steve Netniss (Bay Area)
Adessa Kiryakos (Canada)
Roda Dankha (Detroit)
John Jenzeh (Chicago)
Sintiya Khananishoo (Australia)
Ninorta Kasso (Phoenix)
Robina Lajin (Germany)