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Opening up ‘The Box of Oddities’

January 22, 2019
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Jethro Gilligan Toth and Katrina Walls of "The Box of Oddities" - a twice-weekly podcast containing the world's strangest true stories. The married Mainers surprise each other with a selection of bizarre tales in each episode. Since its debut last February, the program has become one of the web's most listened-to podcasts with more than two million downloads to date. Jethro Gilligan Toth and Katrina Walls of "The Box of Oddities" - a twice-weekly podcast containing the world's strangest true stories. The married Mainers surprise each other with a selection of bizarre tales in each episode. Since its debut last February, the program has become one of the web's most listened-to podcasts with more than two million downloads to date. (photo courtesy of Closer North Photography/Erica Godino)

This story could be subtitled “When two freaks meet,” because that’s as good an explanation as any for why and how a little show recorded in the woods on the outskirts of Bangor has become one of the most listened-to podcasts on the web, and a haven for its expanding army of listeners – routinely referred to by the hosts as “beautiful freaks.”

“The Box of Oddities” podcast is hosted by its creators, Jethro Gilligan Toth and Katrina Walls, a married couple who met years ago while working at the same radio station in Bangor.

Walls and Toth surprise each other in each unscripted but carefully-researched episode by sharing a selection of strange but true stories. Part of the fun is the fact that one of the hosts is hearing these stories for the very first time along with the listener. The stories – and the hosts’ reactions to them – often take the pair on some truly odd and hilarious detours.

Among the recent peculiar stories covered on the show: prancing zombie kittens, a golf cart stolen at a funeral and an episode devoted to near-death experiences.

New episodes of “The Box of Oddities” drop each Monday and Thursday and can be found on all major digital platforms, including iTunes, Spotify, Tune In and iHeartRadio. Current show sponsors include HelloFresh, Audible.com, Warby Parker, Vistaprint and Shudder to name a few.

Toth and Walls are widely known throughout the greater Bangor area, although one of them is known publically by a different name.

Since the late 1970s, Toth has used the radio name Mike Elliott – Elliott being an old family name, and Mike as a tribute to his then-newborn son.

Later, Elliott/Toth was one half of “The Mike and Mike Show” until that program wrapped in 2012 and he began a morning show in the same building with Walls.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I was the other Mike on that show and have worked with Elliott/Toth since 1995. We continue to work together today on BIG 104 FM.)

“I just felt the time was right to finally use my full birth name for ‘The Box of Oddities,’” Toth explains of the name change. “I have kind of a freaky name, but I’m OK with it and so are the freaks.”

By “freaks,” Toth is referring to the vast audience of listeners around the globe who make a twice-weekly appointment to listen to his and Walls’ podcast containing true tales of the strange and bizarre, tales spun with an inimitable chemistry which makes the listener feel that they are an integral part of Walls’ and Toth’s world.

For this story, my wife and I visited Toth and Walls at their home to record an interview about “The Box of Oddities.”

After making our way up a long and winding driveway surrounded by thick trees and a series of motion-activated lights, we parked next to Toth’s latest restoration project: a 1969 Cadillac hearse that he said had just arrived.

“Come on in, Kat’s making onion rings the size of a baby’s head,” Toth exclaimed, amid much happy barking from the couple’s ever-present pugs, William and Banjo.

After eating some deep-fried veggies and watching “The Evil Dead” (at Kat’s insistence) we moved next door to the recording studio where all of “The Box of Oddities” magic happens.

“We’ve had many conversations about things we could create together that would allow us to explore stuff we’re interested in,” Walls explained when I asked about the origins of “The Box of Oddities.”

“We kicked around a lot of ideas and kept coming back to this one because it’s what we do anyway,” Toth added. “We sit around and tell each other weird stuff. When we were trying to come up with a name for the podcast at that early stage, I suggested ‘Can You Believe This S**t?’ and she said ‘no’ (both laugh), so we settled on ‘The Box of Oddities.’”

It didn’t take long for the podcast to find an audience. Since its debut in March of 2018, “The Box of Oddities” has become an internet phenomenon, placing in the top three percentile of most listened-to podcasts available.

“Things took off pretty quickly,” Toth said. “Shortly after we released the first episode, iTunes listed us under their ‘New and Noteworthy’ heading which brought a lot of attention to the podcast. The show then hit number three on the iTunes comedy chart which drew the attention of Castbox.”

Toth and Walls initially signed with digital audio platform Castbox to distribute “The Box of Oddities.” The platform cited the podcast as “one of the 5 hottest new shows of 2018.”

Although the majority of downloads for the show comes from iTunes, that company does not provide subscription numbers. Castbox informed Toth and Walls that more than 25,000 people have subscribed to the show using just the Castbox app.

“We just concluded our deal with Castbox and have signed with Himalaya – the number one app in the world for spoken word content,” Toth said. “They’re also the number one app in China,” added Walls.

To provide perspective on how successful “The Box of Oddities” has been in its first year, consider the fact that more than 630,000 podcasts are currently available according to industry resource Podcast Insights. Each month, that number grows by approximately 2,000.

“The biggest challenge is to separate yourself from all the noise,” Toth said as we talked numbers.

According to Libsyn (Liberated Syndication – the company that pioneered the system to host and publish podcasts in 2004) a podcast that generates 15,000 downloads per episode is considered to be in the top three percent of all podcasts in terms of audience size.

“We’re currently doing between 20,000 and 30,000 downloads per episode,” said Toth. “I think our most downloaded episode was around 65,000.”

When Toth and Walls uploaded the first episode of “The Box of Oddities” nearly a year ago, they didn’t know what to expect.

“When we looked at it the next day, we said ‘Holy crap! We have six downloads!’ We were so excited,” Toth remembered. “By the end of April, we had 30,000. By the end of June, we hit 130,000 downloads. On Halloween night, we hit one million. This week, we hit two million. It’s ramping up.”

Soon after “The Box of Oddities” premiered last year, a hefty percentage of the show’s downloads came from Ireland and Australia, according to Walls.

“We have a map that is more specific now and we can see huge numbers from Austin, Texas and Los Angeles,” she added.

Toth says the two biggest states in terms of downloads currently are Texas and California, adding that people in more than 140 countries have found the show.

Toth and Walls have had some high-profile assistance in getting the word out about “The Box of Oddities.”

Last June, Jimmy Kimmel of ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” tweeted the following message to his 11.5 million Twitter followers: “Should you be the type who has interest in weird stuff, this is a fun thing to allow in your head” along with a link to the show.

“That didn’t hurt,” Toth joked about Kimmel’s tweet.

What may have appeared as an out-of-nowhere endorsement for the show can be explained by the fact that Jethro and Jimmy have been friends since the 1980s, when Kimmel – then a college student – began calling Toth’s (as Mike Elliott) highly-rated afternoon show (with co-host Kent Voss) on a radio station in Phoenix.

“We called him ‘the angry guy’” Toth said of Kimmel’s phone calls. “We always put him on the air when he called because he was so funny. He would threaten us with bodily harm if we said something he disagreed with.”

When Jethro was offered a radio job in Tampa Bay, Florida, he was allowed to bring his own staff and he insisted that Kimmel join him as show producer.

The show then moved to Tucson, Arizona, where Jethro and Jimmy drove their hapless program director to the brink of insanity with a series of intricately-planned practical jokes. Not unexpectedly, they were both fired from the radio station, despite having a show that routinely racked up enormous ratings.

“Another thing that helped ‘The Box of Oddities’ break out of the pack early on was the fact that Sluggo from SiriusXM’s Lithium channel gives us a shout-out every once in a while,” Toth said.

After considering the numbers and the fact that “The Box of Oddities” is already more popular than they had imagined it might be, I asked Jethro and Kat to cite the single most important factor behind the show’s success.

“We have a lot of beautiful freaks who listen to the podcast and talk about it with their friends,” Walls said. “It’s a place where they feel welcome.”

Toth agreed, saying “The people who listen to the show kind of christened themselves as freaks and that started very organically. At the end of one of the episodes, Kat casually threw in a line that went something like…”

“Keep flying that freak flag,” Walls completed his sentence.

“Right,” Toth said, “And I said ‘Fly it proudly, you beautiful freak.’ They took possession of it and really responded in a big way. It’s turned into a community.”

Toth and Walls say they receive several hundred messages each week from listeners around the globe via email and social media.

“We’ve had some pretty dramatic emails,” said Toth. “Our inbox is full of messages from people that find comfort and support within the community that has grown around this show,” adding that that sort of reaction took both hosts by surprise.

“We’ve heard from people who suffer from depression and don’t go outside very often,” he continued.

Walls says she addressed her own anxiety in an episode which she says launched a conversation about people who suffer from various issues and fears.

“We don’t judge people and we don’t allow there to be stigma connected to whatever someone may be dealing with,” she said.

She then shared a message from a listener in Texas who tells the hosts that their show has helped with their anxiety and depression.

“You’ve helped me fall in love with learning and discovering all over again in my own life,” the listener wrote, before adding “stay freaky.”

Walls was visiting New Mexico when a message arrived that stopped her in her tracks.

“It was from a girl who had lost her family in a fire,” she said. “She said our show was the first place she had found that made her feel safe.”

I asked them how it is that so many people that have gone through incredibly difficult circumstances have found comfort in “The Box of Oddities.”

“We try to be accepting as long as they’re kind,” Toth said. “We’ve never seen anything negative develop in the community on social media and we watch it closely. There’s never any bullying or anything resembling it. Also, because of the subject material, people interested in these kinds of things have maybe had experiences in their lives that made them feel that they were on the outside looking in or that they didn’t fit in.”

Walls and Toth are preparing for the first-ever live “The Box of Oddities” stage show coming up on February 27 at Zanie’s comedy nightclub in Nashville. They say they are looking at the show as a test, and that if all goes well, they will begin planning a tour.

VIP “meet and greet” tickets have sold out, but regular show tickets are still available as of this writing at www.Nashville.Zanies.com.

“We’re getting messages from people from all over that are planning on coming,” Walls said. “Here’s one from Texas and another from South Carolina, and we just received one from a woman who is flying from Denver to see the show.”

Like the recorded version of “The Box of Oddities,” Jethro and Kat say they have no idea what the other has planned for the live show.

“All we know is that we’re going to cover unusual stories that took place in Tennessee,” Walls said. “That will be the trend. If this is expanded into a tour, we’ll customize the show for each area that we visit.”

Does the fact that people are rerouting their lives to see the pair in Nashville put pressure on them to deliver the goods?

“We’re going to have to actually start trying pretty soon,” Toth said, tongue in cheek.

“I think there’s a part of our show that is vulnerable and it allows for a certain amount of failure without feeling too bad about it,” said Walls. “We’re goofballs and there’s no getting around that. We’re never going to be polished performers with stage presence, so I think that gives us a little leeway that a different kind of podcast wouldn’t.”

Jethro added, “We’re promoting the live show as…”

“Come see our first failure,” Walls interjected as both hosts break into laughter.

As we wrapped up our interview, I asked Toth and Walls (each with a sleeping pug in their lap) to share their ultimate end-goal desire for “The Box of Oddities.”

“I want it to be so successful that it allows me to eat things only made of real gold,” Kat joked, before adding “No, I’m really enjoying seeing the expanding community around this show. That’s been the most fulfilling thing for me. I’d also like to take the show on the road.”

The couple recently acquire an RV mobile studio they nicknamed “The Grumbleweed” – “Because a pack of pugs is called a grumble,” Toth explained – a topic covered on a previous episode of the show.

“Getting the opportunity to do more live shows would be really exciting,” he added. “We want to get out there and meet the freaks and get to know them one-to-one. They’re so supportive of us and we are eternally grateful.”

“And I could just spend the rest of my life talking about weird stuff with the guy that I like to spend my life with,” Walls said. “I mean, that sounds pretty cool, doesn’t it?”

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