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Sphere of Influence

WJCT’s Lindsey Kilbride leads a digital revolution with Odd Ball

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Late, late nights and early mornings—it all blends together for Lindsey Kilbride. This particular Wednesday finds her in the office by 9 a.m., having only left at 3:30 a.m. the night before. She’s taking a break from frantically finalizing the details of her latest podcast project, Odd Ball, pressing pause on her hectic schedule just long enough to pose for the photos that accompany this article, and then it’s back to the editing console. She’s spent more time there lately than anywhere else, but that is the job.

And it’s a job that she does very well. Kilbride, 29, is in her fifth year at WJCT, which the UNF grad joined just a year out of college (and after finishing the immersive Salt Institute for Documentary Studies program at the Maine College of Art).

Most of her time at WJCT has been spent cranking out hard news for a station that’s known for just that. Two subjects in particular—city government and education—provide no shortage of material. Kilbride’s efforts earned her the 2018 award for Best Radio Reporter (Large Market) by the Florida Associated Press Association. She’s also been named to the board for Florida’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and was named one of the “35 Under 35” by Void Magazine (in a profile also written by me) earlier this year.

Now a known quantity in the news world, Kilbride is branching out. Podcasting was on her agenda from the start, but it took some time for the right project to present itself. That took the form of What It’s Like, which debuted earlier this year, opening up a whole new broadcast frontier for a station that’s been producing original radio content since April of 1972. Her latest podcast series, Odd Ball, dropped its first of five weekly episodes on Oct. 7.

“I first got into podcasts in my early 20s through listening to NPR,” Kilbride tells Folio Weekly. “I gravitated toward shows like This American Life and Radiolab. I liked the unique stories, creative sound design and the connection I felt with the hosts.”

“Time is a slippery thing,” says WJCT news director Jessica Palombo. “But we made a decision that Lindsey would not be doing daily news, but would be doing these special long-form projects. [Odd Ball] is, by far, the most ambitious of those. Lindsey has been kind of a one-person department. She is working on all aspects of the podcast, from hosting it to producing it, which means going out and gathering all of the sound, editing it, mixing it down, scoring it, finding the right music for it. This is someone who’s really good in this medium.”

This particular production was a vastly more intensive process that Kilbride’s previous efforts, and the finished product displays a rigorous attention to detail. Odd Ball pairs the malleability of regular podcasting with the kind of high-end auditory aesthetic you’d expect from an outfit like WJCT. “Weaving one story through multiple episodes is pretty difficult,” she says, “especially because I pretty much did it all myself with the help of my editor, Jessica Palombo, and one amazing intern, Al Pete [who is also one of the city’s leading hip hop artists]. Other podcasts told in this style have teams of 5 to 10 people.”

Still, it was a tale that needed to be told. “Odd Ball is just a really good story,” says Kilbride. The narrative revolves around one Gerri Betz, who happened upon a strange metal sphere on her Fort George Island property in 1974. The discovery set in motion a series of events that changed her life forever. It was clearly a mixed blessing, as evidenced by Betz’s general reluctance to embrace the regional fame that followed all that media attention.

“Through that investigation there are so many twists and weird little rabbit holes,” Kilbride says. “But you’re constantly reminded this affected a real family who didn’t seem to have anything to gain from the frenzy. It’s a story that will probably make you feel conflicted. I love those kinds of stories.”

It’s a story that’s been on Kilbride’s radar for while. “I originally started reporting it in 2017 outside of work because I was personally drawn to the story,” she explains, “but I wasn’t able to devote enough time to it. Earlier this year I was given the green light to work on it full-time.”

The series runs in five episodes, but it’s best considered as a unified whole, like a mini-series or, perhaps, a triathlon. “A project like this requires a lot of pre-planning,” she says. “I tried to get the majority of the reporting done before building the episodes.”

The show’s debut has been cause for excitement around the newsroom, which has found new life through the efforts of folks like Kilbride, Palombo, Brendan Rivers and Bill Boortzfield, along with producer Heather Schatz and music director David Luckin. “We’re really excited about Lindsey’s new podcast,” says Melissa Ross, host of WJCT’s popular morning show, First Coast Connect. “She’s reaching out to a whole new audience. I’m also proud to say I sort of gave her the idea for Odd Ball after seeing a story about the Betz Sphere on the absolute best show on TV, Ancient Aliens.

WJCT just wrapped its fall pledge drive a couple weeks ago, so thoughts of branding and cross-promotion are seemingly on the forefront of everyone’s consciousness right now. Kilbride has helped on this front by partnering with Bold Bean Coffee Roasters, which has created a special Odd Ball blend, available for sale online and at all retail locations. (If there’s one thing the WJCT staff—and their counterparts here at Folio Weekly—can truly appreciate, it’s a good cup of coffee.)

“This is all part of WJCT’s strategy to try to bring in new supporters through a relatively new medium,” Kilbride says, “rather than rely on radio and TV pledge drives completely. Individual support makes up about a third of our operating budget, so it’s crucial for us to meet audiences where they are and provide them with something worth supporting.”

The new assignment has led to a change in Kilbride’s routine, which can be a challenge because journalists are generally creatures of habit. “In some ways, my schedule is more flexible because I don’t have daily deadlines,” she says. “But it’s really up to me to make sure I’m managing my time in the most productive way. Instead of skipping lunch to make sure I have an interview that can run by 4 p.m. on All Things Considered, I’m now working all weekend close to the podcast release.”

Opening up the podcast front has brought the WJCT brand to a new generation of listener, which has helped supplement their existing audience (read: lifelong fans). The radio station, however, remains firmly rooted in traditional media. “Comparing radio listeners to podcast listeners is kind of like comparing apples to wrenches,” says WJCT digital director Ray Hollister. “They’re not even in the same sport, let alone the same league. Radio listeners tend to be passive listeners that tune in whenever they are in the car. Podcast listeners actively subscribe to the shows they want to listen to, and they tend to plan out when they are going to listen to them.”

Odd Ball airs weekly through November. The show is also available at wjct.org and oddballpodcast.com, as well as all the usual streaming services. Hardcore fans have the option of paying a nominal fee to access all five episodes at once. This works to the benefit of bingers, who are largely driving the podcast market these days; it’s probably the best way to absorb this content.

Odd Ball took me a lot of long nights and weekends,” says Kilbride, who has already begun planning her next project, “and a handful of breakdowns.” Of course, the stress was totally worth it, but maybe wait a few days before telling her that, because anyone who gets in her way this week is probably getting run over. It’s just business. Don’t take it personally!

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