On a recent Saturday afternoon, Johnny Riley explained Houston’s POV Podcast — the upstart venture he and longtime friends Andrew Alpough and Marcus Wilson are heading — by summoning the memory of a long-departed friend. Namely, the late, great AstroWorld.
“Our generation, people that were born in the late ’80s, early ’90s, we had computers, but we didn’t depend on them to communicate with the outside world. We had a balance,” he says. “We went to AstroWorld where, if you got a girl’s phone number, you had to write it down…”
“And hope that it didn’t get wet,” Alpough chimes in. “On the Bamboo Shoot.”
“That was a rite of passage at AstroWorld,” Wilson adds.
“It’s what made us men,” Riley notes, bringing everything full circle. “Think about this – I only saw you one time. I have your phone number. I have no social media, there is no Facebook or Twitter. I have to show you the type of person I am just through conversation. I have to win you over just through words.”
And that is what the trio hopes to do through the program, which began in May 2016 and now appears weekly on iTunes, SoundCloud, Stitcher and other major podcast platforms. The program bills itself as a “podcast for young men and women that are active in urban culture and appreciate exploring truth, society, new ideas, and ever-changing states of humanity,” through a primary focus on the dying art of conversation.
These guys are good, Houston. How good? We recently met at Raven Tower in the early afternoon to talk. It was an elegant day out and the venue was holding a crawfish boil. The festive strains of zydeco music hovered about us. We talked for three hours without ever cracking a mudbug or breaking into a shoe-shuffling dance.
The genesis of the podcast began before many even knew what a podcast was. Riley and Wilson started having extended conversations as ninth-graders growing up in the Hiram Clarke area of southwest Houston. They formed a polished model of dialogue by “sitting on the backs of cars in the neighborhood, talking about life since we were 15 years old,” according to Riley. For their higher-education pursuits, they went to the University of Texas at San Antonio, where Riley befriended Alpough, a Houstonian from the Pleasantville community on the city's northeast side. Riley and Wilson recorded some of their dialogues for YouTube but when the time was right, they teamed with their friend James Hamilton and began the podcast in earnest.
They did it themselves, too, building what you hear sonically from Internet and pawnshop searches for recording equipment, and what you hear thematically from “Texas-sized hearts and Texas-sized work ethics,” Wilson says.
The endeavor is exciting and is gaining an audience, but it’s very “in-addition-to” for the group. Riley is an accountant who lives in San Antonio, recently got engaged and records by commuting or via phone or Skype. Wilson is a former group-home supervisor for CPS who took a step back from that enriching work to focus on his own growing family and the podcast. Alpough is an eighth-grade teacher who recently went into full-time substituting to give the show more attention.
The show itself is evolving. Episode one was titled “What Does It Mean to Be a Black Male?” It was a high-minded discourse on the subject. With that established, the men of Houston’s POV Podcast set that perspective on everything from finance to politics to the recent Super Bowl in Houston. And, because Riley is recently engaged, Wilson is married with two children and Alpough is single, they’re the perfect group to discuss relationships, an oft-visited subject that sometimes skews towards the risqué. They laugh when we suggest the podcast went “from Ralph Wiley to wildin’ out” over time. Wilson reminds that “we’re going to invite you in with all the craziness and debauchery, but you’re not going to fully understand the breakdown of the topic until it gets to the end of the episode.”
“Here’s the great thing about what it is that we’re doing — we can go from social and economic topics, based on the urban culture," Wilson says. "We can talk about comedy, sports; we can go into politics, and we plan to evolve into all of that. The conversations that need to be had are the ones of substance. I could care less about the newest dance; I could care less about the newest craze or fad. That’s unimportant when it comes to bettering yourself as a human being.”
At some point over three hours, they each say in different ways that the podcast is from black male perspectives, but not necessarily about or strictly for black men.
“A lot of us experience the same things; it’s the same struggle. I guarantee you can find one person of every ethnic background that shares the same struggle as you in some kind of way. It’s not even a color boundary, for us, it’s more of a humanity thing,” says Alpough, who is affectionately called “Pop” by his fellow podcasters and friends.
Riley usually selects the topics of conversation. Today we get to do it. We ask them to riff on a few subjects. The first: Beyoncé.
“I think she’s masterminded the ability of cultivating this niche audience and expanding on it,” Riley says, sort of agreeing with Carlos Santana’s recent remarks on her musicianship by calling her "overrated" talent-wise. “The Beyhive encompasses so many women. I get it. I think it’s warranted. I mean, women, they go through a lot of shit with us.”
Alpough says, “Every woman in my family loves Beyoncé. It’s God, then Beyoncé.”
Next subject: the Oscar contender Moonlight, which portrays the hardships of growing up black, gay, male and impoverished.
“It’s definitely taboo in our community — or it was," says Riley. "As time progresses, we start to see more and more black men are coming out." With that, he notes, are problems that need to be addressed. He cites the HIV rate in Atlanta, which has recently been considered as high as in some third-world African countries. A few minutes in, somehow, the gears switch and Riley shares that Wilson’s favorite movie is Major Payne, the 1995 Damon Wayans comedy.
“Marcus told me he had a dream that he was pitching Major Payne 2 to Damon Wayans,” Riley shares.
“I actually sold the idea to Damon Wayans in my dream,” Wilson boasts. “It was so real to me. That’s how much I love that movie. In fact, my life kinda modeled itself after it, you know, caring for at-risk kids. It’s an amazing movie and it’s hilarious."
We ask about their dream interviews, dead or alive. Riley picks Lee Harvey Oswald (“He’s the only person that knows the truth!”) and Scarface.
“To me, out of all the local Houston-area rappers or artists, I think Scarface has been the most open about his struggles in life…I listened to "Hand of The Dead Body" so many times and I didn’t even understand what he was talking about until I got to college…he showed not only that black men could go through depression and suicidal thoughts and not be this tough rock, but actually go through human emotions.”
Wilson chooses the comic genius Richard Pryor and local rap legend K-Rino.
“In my opinion, one of the godfathers of rap in Houston...if your objective was to listen to a rapper that would teach you how to go from a boy to a man, you should listen to K-Rino.”
Alpough goes with Andre 3000 “because he believes in helping humans and that humans are capable of being these loving beings,” and Slim Thug.
“I love what he’s doing right now," Alpough says. "He’s rebuilding homes and neighborhoods. He’s in a partnership with a local black-owned bank, Unity Bank, where they’re helping these people who don’t have top-tiered credit; they’re helping to make it affordable to get their own homes.”
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The group has far-reaching goals for the podcast. As educators, Alpough and Wilson would like to take some version of what they do to youths who need empowering messages and positive role models. They have a live show planned. They’re hoping to grow listenership. Currently, they have a strong female following because of the eavesdropping women are able to do on their forthright chats.
They’re also master storytellers. They have an episode about how a career opportunity fell into their laps as fresh high-school grads and how they excitedly told their families of this lucrative venture. With no shame, they relate how their families scoffed at them for falling victim to a pyramid scheme. The discussions are funny, but also overwhelmingly candid at times.
“We’re just sharing ourselves with whoever wants to listen,” says Wilson. “You’re getting the truth from us; you’re not getting some fabricated story for us to sound cool. It’s very organic.”
“It’s very intimate. You have to be vulnerable to get into a conversation. That’s the art of it, to be vulnerable so people can see that I’m human,” Riley adds. “That really is the foundation of the podcast. What are the conversations that people aren’t having? Not just black guys, but anybody.”