Podcasting Star Ben Kissel Is Running For Brooklyn Borough President!
The co-host of Last Podcast on the Left talks about Millennial libertarians, gun rights in New York City, and our fascination with serial killers.
As the co-host of the immensely popular true-crime podcast Last Podcast on the Left, Ben Kissel regularly delves into the minds of serial killers and other moral monsters. And as the co-host of the political podcast Abe Lincoln's Top Hat, he susses out all sorts of issues about ideology, policy, and the status quo.
But it's his latest gig that just might be the most difficult: The 35-year-old Wisconsin native is running to be Brooklyn Borough President.
In a wide-ranging conversation with Nick Gillespie, Kissel talks about getting endorsements from both the Libertarian Party and the Reform Party (!), his "pragmatic" libertarianism and support for gun rights and rent stabilization (!), his presidential vote for Gary Johnson, and why new media has made it easier than ever for both producers and consumers of culture to get what they want when they want it.
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Audio production by Ian Keyser.
This is a rush transcript—check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.
Nick Gillespie: Hi I'm Nick Gillespie and this is the Reason Podcast. Please subscribe to us at iTunes and rate and review us while you're there.
Today we're talking to Ben Kissel, he is a podcast entrepreneur who's got one of the biggest podcasts about serial killers on iTunes.
Ben Kissel: Yep.
Nick Gillespie: He's also got a political podcast called Abe Lincoln's Tophat. That does quite well as well. And he's also running for Brooklyn Borough President. Ben Kissel, thanks for talking to the Reason Podcast.
Ben Kissel: Well, thanks so much for having me, Nick, I really appreciate it.
Nick Gillespie: So, let's start with the Borough President. What … why are you running for that position and what do you hope to accomplish by doing so?
Ben Kissel: Well, the reason that I'm running, as you mentioned, the true crime podcast I do is Last Podcast on the Left, if anyone is interested in listening to the world of macabre.
But the political podcast that I do, Abe Lincoln's Tophat, I've been encouraging people to get involved in their local politics for a very, very, long time. As Tip O'Neil coined the phrase, "All politics are local." I believe that local politics are where you see real change. And they are relatively easy to be involved with in many ways. You just have to take the time to do it.
So finally this year, because I was able to quit all previous jobs, I was producing at Fox News in 2016 and before that I had the amazing job of being a dog nanny, which was thrilling, but I was able to have a little bit of time this year and it just seemed right, especially given 2016 and what a strange election year that was. I think people felt really disenfranchised, whether you were a Bernie Sanders supporter, or somebody who maybe supported Hillary Clinton, or Jill Stein or Gary Johnson, or the 19 Republicans that were on the field.
I think there was a lot of anger towards the process after the 2016 election and people were looking for change and how they can actually effect change in their own personal lives. And I sort of personally rolled with that notion and that's why I decided to run for Brooklyn Borough President this year.
Nick Gillespie: Okay, so what does the Borough President get to do? My understanding of it is, that in Brooklyn in particular, it's kind of an honorary position. Or that you don't really have your finger on the pulse of power, but it is a kind of bully pulpit.
What do you hope to get if you actually get elected Borough President? What are the things that you want to get done?
Ben Kissel: Well, of course, the Borough Presidency is an advocate position. However there is a vote when it comes to land use, which is a significant issue without a doubt.
Specifically, in Brooklyn where you know, there are so many new businesses coming up, rents are going through the roof because of our horrible taxation process on both tenants and landlords. So, other than land use, yes, it's an advocate position.
So, what I would like to do is, promote Brooklyn. Do a weekly television show, perhaps on a local public access program or being covered by local news, highlighting small businesses all around the great borough of Brooklyn. And really just become an active voice for the people that live here, and really make it … I'm basically a spokesperson for the borough.
Nick Gillespie: Isn't that just gonna make Brooklyn even more expensive? It already has basically the highest median rents in the City of New York? It's been going like gangbusters.
I was born there, jeez, almost 50 years ago when people were leaving in droves throughout the, basically 1950 until about 2000, it was losing population. It's booming now. So what are the key … besides promoting Brooklyn, what are the other issues that are first … uppermost in your mind?
Ben Kissel: Well, when you mention rents going through the roof, which is absolutely accurate, we would put in a plan for a 30% low income individuals when it comes to all of these new apartment complexes that are being popped up all over Brooklyn.
And also, we have a sort of a two-pronged problem when it comes to the rent. A lot of landlords are old time individuals. Family landlords, things like that. They're not necessarily all owned by large corporations and they want to be able to provide tenants with reasonable rent.
But what happens is the area goes up so much in price, and they're paying the exact same tax level as the Duane Reed's that just opened up on the corner, or as the Apple Store that just opened up on Bedford Avenue, for example.
And they can no longer allow for their tenants to pay a reasonable rent because they have to pay the taxes in their own right.
Nick Gillespie: Oh, come on. Yeah, but they pass it on to the tenant, right?
Ben Kissel: Exactly.
Nick Gillespie: So, here, I guess, here's a question for you, because I know you …
Ben Kissel: I also believe in rent stabilization, rent control, I think that those are absolutely important. But that's what I'm saying, it's a two-pronged problem, and we can't just have this divisive rhetoric.
It's not landlords versus tenants, or this kind of nonsense. It's supposed to be a situation of mutual compensation, and I do believe that we can find a much more fair rent … we can get much fairer rent in Brooklyn if we just look at the problem for what it is, and stop with the hyperbolic hatred of the classes … landlords versus tenants and all this kind of stuff.
Nick Gillespie: You mention that the Brooklyn Borough President has some control over land use policies. How much of this is the easiest way to drop prices on something is to, all things being equal is to increase the supply of something. If the demand stays the same, the price will come down.
Is that part of what you're talking about? Building more apartment units. One of the things that's fascinating about New York, generally, and it's also true in Brooklyn, the number of units has not actually increased very much, even as the number of people wanting to live or living in New York has gone up a lot, which helps explain why rents are going up.
Ben Kissel: Well, they are, personally I feel as if they are doing over building right now in Brooklyn. In my area of Williamsburg alone, you see these massive structures that are going up. And to that point, will there be a surplus, and then will rents drop? Perhaps the marketplace will work it out in that way.
I think we also have a real crisis going on in Brooklyn right now with transportation, specifically for individuals who are living off the L-Line. Because what happened during Hurricane Sandy, Williamsburg, Brooklyn and many other parts of Brooklyn, actually had it fairly good, because we're the highest point in Brooklyn here. And we didn't feel the effects of Hurricane Sandy nearly as much as the people who are more on the coastline.
And God knows, they were devastated. But now, residents off the L-Train are sort of having their comeuppance because, I believe it's the Gowanus Canal, what the L-Train goes under to get into the city, it's completely corroded and completely destroyed.
So the L-Train will be shut down now for two years. So we have to focus on transportation.
Nick Gillespie: Well, that's what they say, it'll be two years, so you can count on three, four, five or six really. But here, and it's not simply, Hurricane Sandy exacerbated everything a couple of years ago. And, as you were saying, just pouring salt water on to all sorts of metal stuff, all sorts of electrical equipment. But it's also true that most of the river, Hudson River crossings and East River crossings in New York, New Jersey, the Metro area, Long Island are all, you know a hundred or more years old. And there really haven't been any new crossings built that could sustain newer forms of technology.
But, I guess my question for you though is, I understood you to be … you worked at Fox News, you were a writer on Red Eye, I don't know if the dog nanny job had politics to it. I always saw you as more of a kind of libertarian leaning person, and you're talking about rent control, you're talking about carving out, putting aside a certain amount of housing for low income or middle income people.
Does that fly in the face of a kind of standard issue libertarian dogmatism, and how do you define your politics and your kind of ideology?
Ben Kissel: Well, I believe I am a socially liberal person and there's no denying that. I do believe in free markets. I believe that the markets do tend to work themselves out.
I am also extremely pragmatic and I realize that Brooklyn is a very unique borough. It's an urban setting, that is not like anything else on earth. It's one of the most diverse boroughs in the entire world. We have the largest Hasidic community other than Israel in the entire world right here in Williamsburg, and multiple other ethnicities.
So it's a very unique place, so you have to be more pragmatic with your policies, and unfortunately, if you stay too strict with ideology, much like a bridge or the wings of a plane, if they don't blend, they break. So I think it's important to be pragmatic, understand the issues of the borough, but then also embrace the core tenets of something like libertarianism.
For example, I also just really quickly went back to the transportation line, I want to get the G-Train from five cars back to the previous nine cars, because that's going to be completely busy. The G-Train is currently slammed, and you can imagine how busy it will be when the L-Train gets shut down.
But going back to the libertarianism, when it comes to the 2nd Amendment, it was 1911, it was called the Sullivan Act. That was passed here in New York City. It's very similar to the 1967 act that was passed in California, under Gov. Ronald Reagan, basically disarming poor communities.
Because in '67 in Los Angeles there was the Black Panther Party that was really getting a strong foothold in the area. And they disarmed them, so theoretically they could maintain control. Basically the same thing happened, of course not with the Black Panther Party, but the 1911 Sullivan Act here in New York City, stripped individuals of their 2nd Amendment rights, so that then, police officers could prey on those districts, prey on those communities, fill up their quotas and maintain a monopoly on power.
So, when it comes to the three and a half mandatory minimum on guns, which I believe is simply put in place to again prey on mostly communities of color, people of color. I think that that is completely unconstitutional and I don't believe the 2nd Amendment should end just because you're in an urban area.
Nick Gillespie: Wow, so you are, I mean, you're carving out a kind of different set of issues from a libertarian perspective. So, you're okay with rent stabilization, but you want stronger protections for 2nd Amendment.
I would tend to think that a lot of libertarian types in New York City would be the opposite. That they'd be like "Nah, let's deregulate the housing market, but let's keep guns out of the hands of everyday people." Which is interesting.
You're originally from Wisconsin, from the Milwaukee Area. Is that correct?
Ben Kissel: I'm from a town called Stevens Point, which is about three and a half hours north of Milwaukee.
Nick Gillespie: Oh, OK, so quite a hike.
Ben Kissel: And then I went to Milwaukee where I got my degree in political science.
Nick Gillespie: Okay, and so, how do you, do you trace a kind of consistent theme in your politics or your thinking about kind of politics and ideology? And were you raised in a particularly kind of centrist or libertarian or conservative or liberal household? How does that play out today?
Ben Kissel: Well, that's a great question. My father is actually an immigrant. He's a German immigrant, still not a full citizen of the United States, but thankfully my mother has stayed married to him, so he's allowed to be here.
So being a first generation American, it was always instilled in us at a very young age that politics matter, be involved. We consistently voted as a family.
Now my parents and I differ greatly. They're Evangelical Christian, ironically enough, both my older brothers are gay, so I do believe there is a God.
And the end…
Nick Gillespie: But it's a God with a sense of irony or humor it sounds like.
Ben Kissel: I think so.
Nick Gillespie: Do your, do your brothers, if you don't mind my asking, do they get along with your parents, or is it kind of tough?
Ben Kissel: That is a…we are a microcosm…my family's a microcosm of issues that are facing this country. We also started doing foster care when I was 12 years old, and I still have a younger foster brother who is now 23 years old. We got him when he was 2, I can't even believe it.
So we had a very interesting home life, with evangelical Christian parents, extremely conservative. Gay older brothers, and then we were taking in many undocumented children, many people in need. Many kids who were abused in really horrendous ways.
All of those things have sort of helped me be pragmatic but really kind of form an open minded political perspective.
So to that question, do my brothers get along, it's quite sad, my older … my middle brother Chris, who actually lives over here in Brooklyn as well, he got married to his long-time partner, Don, and my parents didn't go to the wedding. It was a beautiful wedding, much more conservative of a wedding than I will have. But that will be deemed okay because I'll be marrying a woman.
So that was really hard. That's something that our family works on, and we're trying to work on as we all kind of get older and try to move past the partisan politics that are sort of hindering certain relationships.
But that's what this country is going through, a very similar thing. So of course, that will also manifest itself in families.
Nick Gillespie: Yeah. How old are you?
Ben Kissel: I'm 35 years-old.
Nick Gillespie: Okay, so you're a millennial. You're in …
Ben Kissel: Barely. Actually I don't think I'm technically a millennial. But I can
Nick Gillespie: Well, what year were you born? You were born in '82 then? Something like that?
Ben Kissel: I was '81.
Nick Gillespie: '81. Yeah, I'm trying to think. You're right on the cusp there. But let's talk a little bit about millennials, the millennials. I'm a late baby-boomer, I was born in 1963, the second to last year of the baby boom.
The Baby Boom's run is over. There are now more millennials than there are baby boomers, and that will only change, because older Boomers born in 46 and after are dropping like flies. Hopefully, anyway, that will keep Social Security and Medicare solvent for a little bit longer the quicker they die.
Ben Kissel: Well, we want everyone to stay alive for as long as possible.
Nick Gillespie: Yeah, that's true, but if it's a life well lived, you know. But what do you see as kind of the main issues for millennials? I mean, you're getting involved in the political process, you've sketched out a kind of libertarian temperament, and leaning towards certain things. But it's also not a kind of rigid dogmatic kind of catechism.
What are the issues that matter most to millennials? Baby Boomers came of age, I suspect it would be somewhat fair to say that certainly in the late sixties, the first wave of the Baby Boom, the first half, it was things like the military draft and abortion rights were huge.
Those … neither of those … abortion rights is still an issue, but it's been settled, pretty much, since 1973.
What are the issues that are front and center for your peers?
Ben Kissel: Well, I think criminal justice reform is really on the forefront of young people's minds. Criminal justice reform and privacy regarding net neutrality and things like that, data being stolen without consent.
I think we live in this heavily monitored world, and you're not filmed in utero to the grave. And I think privacy has sort of taken on a new role in being a high priority for younger people, because, being on camera, being filmed, this is no longer a luxury, this is no longer some fun experience that's out of the norm, it is the norm. I think that people are sort of hearkening back, they kind of want to go back to a time where their retinas weren't scanned, where their faces weren't being recognized by facial recognition cameras. And all of that ties into criminal justice reform if you look at how many people are in prison, at any average time, 2.5 billion.
We have 5% of the world's population, 25% of the individuals incarcerated, if you look at what's happening with undocumented workers right now, going into the private prison system. I definitely equate it to, at the very least indentured servitude if not straight slavery with what happens in our prison system.
I think those issues really matter, and that's why going back again to that 3 1/2 year mandatory minimum on guns, is that I'm a 6 foot 7 man, I don't want a gun. I don't need a gun. But I did two weeks on grand jury duty here in King's County, Brooklyn, and of course that is a sample size of the borough and it was enlightening, to say the least.
Every single time an officer came on with a snub nose gun that they had supposedly found on an individual, no one on that jury believed that that officer was telling the truth. That was really an enlightening moment for me. So I see that stance from a criminal justice perspective as a more liberal stance, because I do think, once again, people are aware, that as we saw in Ferguson, as we talked about previously, as we saw in Ferguson with the police becoming an extension of the taxman, with revenue streams coming through our law enforcement, this was never the intent of law enforcement.
And I think younger generations are seeing what happens now with the militarization of police, of course, that goes back to the 1033 Program that was passed under Bill Clinton, and strongly loved by Hillary Clinton as well, which I think greatly hurt her in the 2016 campaign, when she was running against a much more organic, much more dogmatic Bernie Sanders. So I think, people, the younger generations are like "Why am I being spied on constantly?" Why is the police …
In my hometown of Stevens Point, Wisconsin, for example, they have a tank because of the surplus of goods that the military constantly gets especially now under Donald Trumps bloated, insane budget, a 10% increase in the military. These tanks are right off the shelf! I mean they're brand new when they go to these local municipalities.
I think the younger generation is seeing this militarization occur on the streets on a regular basis and it has them extremely unnerved, ticked off and they are ready to take charge. It was never supposed to be the intent that a local police precinct would have a tank.
Nick Gillespie: Well let me ask you. You slipped in there a couple things, and I believe we have some disagreement on this, which is good to air, but you talked about private prisons. I know that you're not a fan of ISPs being able to trade in data or in internet search the same way that websites can.
But most of what you're describing there has really nothing to do with the private sector, although it often gets lumped in. So there's maybe 10, maybe 12% of overall prison population are in private prisons, and most of those at the federal level.
It's immigration centers, and because they are low security or minimum security threats. But the real problem, isn't it the police? Isn't the Congress? Isn't it agents of the state, including the people, municipalities that come up with these insane systems by which you ticket as many people as you can for as many violations as you can, so you make more money which then goes to the police, etc.
I guess two questions here.
First is do you think millennials have a keen understanding, or are millennials anti-capitalism, are they anti-free enterprise? Or are they being sold a bill of goods that, the real problem is private prisons, even though 90% of criminals are in state prisons, which have far worse violation records and things like that, of peoples civil rights.
Ben Kissel: Yeah, I think there is a massive misnomer, going back, well, let's talk about the private prisons first. If it's 12% of the U.S. prison system, 19% of undocumented people are held in those private prisons. They make up 19% of the private prisons, rather.
You have that lawsuit that's been filed, going back to 2004. Multiple undocumented workers, talking about the amount of work they were forced to do. We have 40,000 arrests from ICE this year. At this time this year. Last year it was around 31,000, with 4000 of those, a little bit more than 4000 of those arrests being of people who committed no crime whatsoever.
Nick Gillespie: Other than being … Other than being illegal here. And this drives me nuts, that when …
Ben Kissel: Many people believe that they are by definition committing a crime just by being here, okay. So I understand that. But now we have 40,000 arrests and 11,000 of those individuals have committed no crime. Again, other than being here illegally. So if that is your, if you are a firmly a believer that they are then by definition felonious characters, then well, that's well within your right to believe. I have a bit more of a humane perspective on it.
But then, they're deporting less now. And so you wonder, why are we filling our private prisons with more undocumented people? More people who didn't commit any crimes? And then deporting less? You do wonder if CoreCivic, the GEO Group, both institutions that Jeff Sessions has investments in. You wonder if they are just making a massive profit off of the backs of undocumented workers, and isn't that the definition of slavery?
Nick Gillespie: What is the solution to that though?
Ben Kissel: Do away with … mandatory minimums must be done away with. We need to … we are over sentencing so hard in this country. We have to get rid of this blood lust mentality that we have. I understand. People are always like "They're murderers!" You know, "sexual deviants!"
Nick Gillespie: "They're drug dealers, they're rapists, they're this, we're not getting their best."
Ben Kissel: Yeah, if it's a murderer, those are totally different. I am talking about people who got arrested … there's a story about a man who got arrested in Texas because of outstanding parking tickets. And he was there for three weeks in a jail. He was able to bail out, of course our whole bail bond system is another thing that preys on the poor.
We have an average time at Rikers Island here in New York City of 16 months. That's a total violation of the 6th Amendment, the right to a speedy trial. So we need to redo our bail bond system. Get cash out of our prisons. Do away with mandatory minimums and stop this ridiculous over sentencing.
We should also get back to more, again pragmatic, solutions. Let's say you're arrested. Instead of going to jail to waste away and learn how to be a better criminal, why don't we have a work program? So you can come out, if you are in school, okay, you can do this work program on the side and pay your dues to society in a much more … in a way that is much more beneficial to us as a total people.
Also, then, you know, if you make a mistake, then we can put the ankle bracelet on, and we can ratchet up steps from there. We need to have a prison system that has the best in mind for the individuals that are going into it.
I mean, we saw, it's a very interesting situation we were covering on Last Podcast on the Left. A man called Carl Panzram. He's out in Minnesota. He's a … probably one of the more notorious criminals of all time. He murdered 21 people. But what's really interesting in his case was hearing about the U.S. Penal System in the 1920's and 30's, specifically in Washington where he was held quite a bit.
He went to one of the more extreme prisons. I mean, it was straight up torture what they would do. Guantanamo Bay style tactics. And of course, the whole prison was in arms, they would tour acting out. And you had a note warden who was much more experimental in his sort of prison philosophy, and how to run an institution like that. And sure enough, he gave them more freedom. He allowed work programs to happen, or steel vocational programs.
Which there is a large difference between educating people in a vocation and what I was talking about earlier regarding the private prisons and the amount of work that they are doing. These are two completely different things. I want to make that clear.
And then the prisoners of course, became better behaved. And the institution ran smoother. I just think we need massive prison reform. We need to rethink our notion of what prisoners are, that these are human beings.
Also, it's just such a perfect storm of events for the government to then disenfranchise them, from not allowing them to vote. The fact that felons can't vote after they've don their time is totally insane to me.
And the amount of people that are being charged with felonies is constantly on the rise. Because law enforcement has changed the whole definition. For example, there was a law that was proposed recently, and I believed passed in certain states, making resisting arrest a felony.
So what does that look like? You're pulled over, stopped on the street for doing nothing wrong. And the cop says you're under arrest. And you foil your arms, as most individuals would when they're being a human being whose attacked by another human being. And then, you're charged with resisting arrest, which is a felony. And you were pulled over for nothing.
So the whole institution is in shambles right now. And I do think the young people care about that.
Nick Gillespie: Talk to … you had mentioned some of this stuff as proceeding apace under Donald Trump, and certainly Jeff Sessions is a real … Donald Trump ran as a law and order candidate. Jeff Sessions very much informing that.
But you also mention that Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton started the 1033 Program, Hillary Clinton was in favor of militarizing the police. She's a drug warrior, etc. Where … who did you vote for in 2016? And what party, or what is your affiliation as you're running for Brooklyn Borough President?
Ben Kissel: Well, currently endorsed by the Libertarian Party and soon to be the Reform Party, which I think would be absolutely wonderful. The Reform Party began under Russ Perot in 1995. They are, speaking of pragmatism, they endorsed Gary Johnson for President and Chuck Schumer for Senate. So they have a wide net.
When it comes to 2016, I did choose to vote for Bernie Sanders in the primary. Of course I had to do an affidavit ballot, which means my vote wasn't counted, in other words, because I am a registered independent.
And then, as the election cycle went on, as you just mentioned, Hillary Clinton and her administration, or Bill Clinton's administration were just so complicit in this whole War on Drugs, obviously began under Ronald Reagan. When Reagan took over there was 300,000 in prison. By the time Bill got there, there was 800,000. And by the time Bill left, there was roughly 1.5 million. And I'm not thinking that human beings got so much worse throughout the nineties.
So they were just, the whole Clinton Regime and Donald Trump, his rhetoric towards immigrants, the whole election cycle turned me off so much to this two-party system.
And I had a chance to meet Gary Johnson, sit down and speak with him. We talk about private prisons, he built two in New Mexico when he was the governor there, and I disagree with him on that. I don't mind disagreeing with people on policy. I separate people from policy and party from people.
I thought he was a wonderful man. He's a very sweet man. So I ended up pulling the lever for him in the presidential election in 2016. And he did come out with 3%, and I was proud of what he did.
Nick Gillespie: Yep. Well, you know, in terms of trying to turn you into a Millennial Spokesperson here, and an exemplary millennial, let's talk a little bit about your professional life, apart from your political ambitions.
So you have two podcasts. You are making enough money off of them so that you were able to quit your day jobs as a dog nanny, which I'm not sure I want to hear about. Is that like being a dog gigolo or something? Do you have to sleep with the dogs?
Ben Kissel: No, it was an extremely unique experience. I had a chance to meet John and Carmen Grossman was their names. They were so sweet to me. They had five dogs. Well, six dogs total, living in New York.
And I literally just, I just took care of a Pomeranian, a Russell Terrier, chihuahua … two Pomeranians, a Russell Terrier, two chihuahuas and a Maltese.
Nick Gillespie: Wow, that's like a Mini-U.N. of dogs.
Ben Kissel: It was. But that was an amazing job. But then, from there I went to Fox News and then yes, we make … we're doing great now with the shows, doing a lot of travel and things like that.
Nick Gillespie: Yeah, so let's talk a little bit about the podcasts and give them some airing. This is kind of fantastic. One of the defining characteristics for millennials for me, and I have a son who is 23, who's a millennial and another one who is 15, whose Generation Y or whatever it's being called now.
But, and I say this to somebody who I guess is a second generation or third generation American, I'm not sure. My grandparents were all immigrants, but my grandparents came here for work opportunities and they were willing to do anything in order to put food on the table for their kids.
My parents grew up during The Depression and fought in World War II. Then participated in the vast increasing kind of overall general wealth in post-war America. But they did jobs that they didn't particularly care for, weren't fulfilling in any particular way.
My sister and brother and I were all Boomers. We were raised to believe that work should be interesting. It shouldn't be a perfect expression of what you're about.
But this is what I feel like, what millennials have moved into a space … I actually find it quite inspiring, and I think it's great, even as it's frustrating sometimes. But that millennials believe that jobs should be an expression of what they believe and who they are, what their values are. And it seems to me that's partly enabled by wealth. It's by certain mindsets. More education, you feel more secure about demanding things. But it's also technology.
Now, you're doing these podcasts, I mean, this is pretty great, right? Because your job would not even have been possible really, in a mediascape. To be 35 and basically to be running your own shop.
Talk a bit about that and whether or not you thank God or Beelzebub, or Xenu or whoever every day for that.
Ben Kissel: I thank all three of them. It takes all idols, I suppose.
But, what happened basically when it comes to podcasts, technology found a way. Capitalism found a way, and that's why you see capitalism can … Capitalism is not a government philosophy. It's an economic philosophy that can live under any government.
If you look at China, for example, they're a capitalist/communist nation. These things don't necessarily go together in peoples minds. But capitalism finds a way, and that's why I'm very pro-capitalism, and I think young people are pro-capitalism as well, despite what a lot of, some of a bit more vocal characters of the generation might be espousing.
If you look at Silicon Valley, again, if you look at what we're doing with podcasts and things like that, capitalism finds a way. So basically, the Telecommunications Act wiped out radio. The government allowed Clear Channel, which is, I believe now iHeartRadio, well, I'll tell you, they don't heart radio because they ruined radio. That was, it wiped out radio. It was gone. Then you had Sirius pop up.
Nick Gillespie: Radio had a fantastic run, I mean, that's like saying the steam engine …
Ben Kissel: It could have had a better run.
Nick Gillespie: But the steam engine wiped out epic poetry and it gave us the novel, because it allowed businesses, for large urban centers to develop.
Ben Kissel: And that gave us tweets, and that's what's so important.
Nick Gillespie: Well, you know it's clear that the FCC, and I highly recommend reading Tom Hazlett's new book The Political Spectrum, but the FCC, which is a government agency which came into being under funny situations. It was always an enemy of innovation and change and kind of open markets and new ways of doing things.
But to talk about podcasts now, there's no question we're in a flowering of cultural innovation and production and consumption that is even better. I read about this twenty years ago, people were writing about, since, I guess, since Gutenberg, things have been getting out of hand. And it's kind of been getting better and better. There are always better and worse moments.
Talk about your specific podcasts, though. What is the interest in Last Podcast on the Left, which is about true crime and particularly kind of serial killers. What's the audience for that? And what do you like talking about them?
Ben Kissel: Yeah, well, that's a great question. Just going back briefly, yes, as we were talking about, capitalism finds a way. And it's found a way with technology and we were able to create these things called podcasts.
So we started doing this about seven years ago. It was still a relatively new medium, not a lot of people, certainly not as many as there are now. And we started with zero listeners. We're not a celebrity based podcast, our celebrities have risen slightly since. But we never relied on a big name or anything like that.
We just, as my father was an immigrant truck driver, that's exactly how I viewed the work. We worked for free until two years ago, when we started a Patreon page, which allowed us to get shirts, which allowed us to start traveling, sort of get the ball rolling on that.
So it's just been a long, long, work in progress, emphasis on work. Last Podcast on the Left, it's a true crime show that is funny. We have extremely dark subject matter. Obviously it will be a bit of a darker humor, Marcus Parks does a huge amount of research for each show, writes out an entire ten page script for each show, for himself as sort of the backbone.
And then Henry Zebrowski, you can watch him on Adult Swim, on the show "Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell". He was in "Wolf of Wall Street". He's a very successful actor, does incredible characters. I mean, they're just absolutely hilarious.
And I obviously fill the role of one-liners, questions, sort of a straight man role for that. But when we started, we had nothing. We had no listeners. Everything was completely organic. We saw the numbers go up 20 people per week. Until now, of course, we're well over a million listeners a week.
Nick Gillespie: Wow. That's incredible.
Ben Kissel: And it's just been word-of-mouth. And it's really what the younger generation likes. The younger generation is fed so much. We have so much isolated targeted marketing. Everyone is told what they should like. They're told that Vice is supposed to be a cool network. They're told that, you know, you want to do what MTV is doing regarding culture and things like that.
But what they really want is to find something that they love, that speaks to them. So that they have a sense of ownership over the product as well.
So, the great thing about podcasts is it's direct to consumer. The industry gave us no love. I have gotten zero respect from the industry. And it doesn't matter, because I didn't fit the mold of somebody that they were looking for. They thought maybe I was a local yokel from Wisconsin. I'm not quite sure.
But we were able to circumvent all of that because of this great technology, go direct to consumer. And that's why we have such a close relationship with our fans.
When we go on the road, I love meeting with the fans after the show, because everyone has a very personal story. They're extremely kind. We have a real intimate discussion because they found us, they were going through their life tragedies, their life struggles, and we were able to help them out through that.
So that's why the medium, radio, podcasts, I think it's just so powerful, as you can see with a lot of the individuals who became iconic voices. Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, those kinds of people.
You really get a solidified core that you can't get in other art forms. Because you do share your soul, 'cause there's nothing else. There's no physical thing for them to see. So they can only listen and I think that's why the podcast medium is so powerful.
Nick Gillespie: Tell me, what do you think it is specifically about kind of true crime, serial killers, spree killers, you know much of the material you do. I mean, that is something that people, I guess since The Bible, people love these types of stories.
What is it that fascinates people about that kind of criminal behavior?
Ben Kissel: Well, the psychology behind it is always so fascinating. And then, of course, these people are very culturally significant. I think, and you hear about the boogieman, you hear about coming from Wisconsin, you hear about Jeffrey Dahmer growing up.
And the way that the media had sort of put these people on pedestals to some degree. Putting Charles Manson on the cover of Rolling Stone, and the Boston Bomber, Tsarnaev on the cover of Rolling Stone. Glorifying these people, in a way. Or proclaiming that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were somehow bullied, which is total BS. They were the bullies.
Our show provides a much more rational narrative of who these people actually were. Which is a bunch of losers. A bunch of socially inept morons who did not have the emotional or mental ability to succeed in doing anything in life, so they were forced to go down this path that they did.
So we laugh at the boogieman in Last Podcast on the Left. And really try to show them for the imps that they are. And so I think that was sort of a different approach to true crime. And then of course, bringing up such heavy life and death subject matter, which of course is always going to be something that's enticing for humans to hear about, because obviously, death is inevitable, even if you do end up downloading yourself into a mainframe, biological death is inevitable.
I think that makes it extremely entertaining and then to bring some characters and some lightness into the darkness, it turned into a perfect storm. And one of the great ironies about the whole thing, our listenership, we have a heavy female listenership. Our live shows are basically 50/50.
And it's really nice because there's so much male podcast content that is so reliant on testosterone, just sort of going down that Howard Stern model. He's a pioneer, I'm certainly not dissing him. But the mimics of that certainly have sort of diluted the significance of that sort of genre.
So I think for us it's really been interesting to see that men can listen, tell girls that they like the podcast or vice versa and no one is turned off by that.
Nick Gillespie: Well, this is also, is it Ramirez? Who was … was he the Night Stalker in Southern California?
Ben Kissel: Ramirez is the Night Stalker.
Nick Gillespie: Richard Ramirez? Robert? So you know, women like the serial killer sometimes.
Ben Kissel: Well, that's the whole thing. We did an episode on women who marry serial killers. Or date serial killers in prison. I forgot the name of it. There's an actual term for it. And this is a psychological, I would call it a disorder, basically it tends to be women.
For example, in the case of John Wayne Gacy, he had a girlfriend in prison whose previous life, or current life when she wasn't with John Wayne Gacy wasn't so great either, she was previously violently abused and these kinds of things.
So a lot of women will look at a serial killer and see the fact that they have the ability to murder as a masculine trait that they would then use to defend them in situations where they might be in peril.
And then of course, you also have the other part of it. They're incarcerated, so the women are safe. So they sort of have this kind of double thing going on.
And of course, a lot of women will end up leaving serial killers in prison for a different serial killer, who is the new hot guy on the scene. For example, Richard Ramirez had that exact thing happen, to I want to say, it might have been the Hillside Stranglers. I think she might have gone and started dating one of the Hillside Stranglers. But it's very bizarre.
Nick Gillespie: If the Zodiac Killer ever actually gets put in jail, he'll probably be able to get any woman that he wants in that circle.
Ben Kissel: Oh yeah. And he'll write really confusing love letters and it will be exciting.
But I would assume that the Zodiac is far gone at this point.
Nick Gillespie: Yeah. What about Abe Lincoln's Tophat? Speaking of psychopaths. You know that's devoted more to political topics. What's the audience like there and what do they like out of that show?
Ben Kissel: We have a great, diverse audience, which is what we've tried to cultivate. For the purposes of entertainment and education I will sometimes talk about more of the conservative side of some issues, which some people might misconstrue as me actually being a bit more of a conservative myself, but that's okay.
Because I think we live in a world now, as I was talking about with targeted marketing and things like that, there's so much confirmation bias, and there are just so many people who refuse to acknowledge the other world exists.
Which is why when Donald Trump won in 2016, I wasn't nearly as surprised, 'cause of course I had that year at Fox News, as the people that I watched that event with. I thought that this was completely plausible. I didn't believe, I did not think he was going to win, but I did not think it was nearly the landslide that everyone promised it to be. I just knew it was not going to be that.
So we try to really express both sides, get diverse guests on, with different opinions. And we also, I don't want to be preachy, I'm not going to sit here and tell you my ideology is the best. I have this all figured out, everyone's a work in progress.
I can have a thought today and I can change it tomorrow if I get a new piece of information that I say "Oh wow, this actually now, has formed a different opinion in my mind."
Because what happens, we are so entrenched with this two-party system, which is on purpose, the duopoly of power, they absolutely love what they've done.
It's very similar if you look at what Hunter S. Thompson when he was running for sheriff in Colorado. The Democratic Party and Republican Party both said that they would vote for each others candidate in order to make sure that the Freak Party doesn't win. They work together, and make no mind about that.
The Democratic Party and the Republican Party are one party and the same. It's an illusion of choice. So we try to bring in a different perspective. It isn't so hyper partisan because at the end of the day, both of these parties are madly complicit with the horrendous situation that's happening in our nation right now.
So I think that's what draws people to the show. We're also funny. Marcus and I are very good friends. And again, not being preachy, this is just my point-of-view right now. Let me hear your point-of-view. And let's have a fun discussion about it, because people are sick of, we've got these stupid groups on the left, these stupid groups on the right fighting with each other.
I mean, physically trying to get violent with one another. For no reason other than to go home, have a beer and ask about what they did today.
They're not doing anything constructive. I think constructive conversation leads to constructive reality. And it leads to, hopefully people being involved in local politics, getting constructive policy.
Nick Gillespie: All right. We have been talking to Ben Kissel, he is the proprietor or one of the hosts of Last Podcast on the Left, a great true crime podcast that's available at iTunes. And look up that name as well as Abe Lincoln's Tophat.
He's also running for Brooklyn Borough President. Has managed to somehow secure the endorsement of the Libertarian Party and the Reform Party, so Ben you're mixing things up in a pretty fun way.
And, I want to thank you for talking to Reason today.
Ben Kissel: Oh, well thank you so much for having me it was a real honor. I love Reason. Everyone should read it!
Nick Gillespie: Well thank you for that.
Ben Kissel: It is, and you guys have done a great job of cutting through the partisan, for lack of a better term, crap, and you guys do a great job of actually getting, obviously the name of the publication is accurate. You guys have very reasonable opinions, well thought out and I highly recommend Reason to everybody.
But I don't have to tell them that, they're already listening.
Nick Gillespie: Well, you know, unfortunately, yeah, we're not reaching the new people, but thank you so much for those kind words.
I am Nick Gillespie. This has been the Reason Podcast. Please subscribe to us at iTunes and rate and review us while you're there. Thanks so much for listening.