Back in November of 2009, when high school friends Marco Carulli, Fabio Incollingo and Chris Lonasco recorded their first podcast with rudimentary equipment in a New Jersey bedroom, they could have never imagined less than three years later they would be key players in one of the most sought-after and highly regarded podcast networks in the country.
Their weekly program, The Jersey Jerks Show, and Riotcast (the network that they call home) evolved in a similar fashion — and around the same time — as the larger podcast industry in general. It went something like this: First, awkward and clumsy growing pains in a beginning riddled with fits and starts. Next, a steep, fast, and unforgiving learning curve. Finally, an unfettered explosion of success and mainstream credibility — something that suddenly, everyone wanted to be a part of.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Even before podcasts had networks, the idea of banding together was instinctive as a survival strategy for small shows struggling to gain a following in a world that was becoming more saturated with fledgling podcasts every day.
“Realistically, how many people can make a living off of podcasting?” asked Chris Lonasco, the witty and often cruel realist who doubles as the Jerks’ voice of reason. “There are thousands and thousands of podcasts out there!”
In a struggle to stay afloat, the Jerks — whose brash, aggressive style seems more like a hangout than a broadcast — briefly entered into a difficult and fruitless partnership with a now-defunct show.
They got occasional airplay on FM radio at a local station in Texas. Soon after, they were invited to join Sweet 101 Rocks — a short-lived network started by Philadelphia’s DJ Kid Chris, who dabbled in podcasts himself when he was in between jobs. Although this too didn’t last, it’s where the Jerks removed their training wheels and pivoted toward something larger.
It was there that they had an epiphany: If a group of independent shows link up with each other and broadcast from the same platform, people interested in one program are much more likely to listen to the others. Networks equal listeners.
“We figured it would be better to have the help of other interesting podcasts to help spread the word,” said Fabio Incollingo, the show’s de facto leader whose razor-sharp wit often sets the pace for the show. “Podcasts are a dime a dozen. If we were going to have a shot of getting our name out there, we needed to start networking.”
In a world of podcasts that were often pre-recorded, one-man diatribes, their show already stood out.
Daring and edgy, they maintained the charm of old-school radio by broadcasting live and taking phone calls; a courageous — and often expensive — gamble that gave their listeners a sense of ownership and inclusion.
“It costs money to do it live,” stated Incollingo, “but the thing I love about it is that spontaneity — that improv feeling. It makes us better hosts and podcasters to have that you’ve-gotta-be on-the-ball type of thing.”
“For me,” added Marco Carulli, who often bears the brunt of his co-host’s relentless attacks, “it’s the thrill of doing it live.”
With the addition of Missy Carr — a female voice that was sexy and provocative, yet careful not to become the token woman by trampling their controversial humor or playing referee — they had found their format, solidified their chemistry and amassed a limited but loyal following.
“Missy was the missing piece of the puzzle,” Carulli said.
It was time for the next step.
A New Kind of Network
Around the same time, Rob Sprance was riding a train home from work in New York City, looking for something to listen to during his commute.
Sprance was in the process of piecing together his own small network. He started to grow tired of repeatedly having pitches for his The Glory Hole podcast ignored by large, established entities like the juggernauts run by Adam Carolla and Kevin Smith. In the meantime, he was helping his friends and contacts from the Howard Stern Show start their own podcasts when it hit him.
“I was like, you know what? I’m an idiot. Why don’t I just start my own network and see what happens,” Sprance revealed.
His experience in radio helped him to hit the ground running.
“We started to gain a little popularity, nothing crazy, but enough that we were starting to get submissions. I actually stopped listening to all of them because a lot of them were just shit. I got a submission from a show called The Jersey Jerks. I don’t know if it was just luck, or if it was because I was bored on the train, but instead of ignoring it, I clicked on it and listened and I really liked the show. I knew it would be a good fit.”
After a few brief discussions, the Jerks knew that Sprance was building the home they had been looking for.
“He had a really good game plan,” Incollingo said. “We liked the direction he was going.”
And that game plan was to achieve genuine diversity. In a world where networks were expected have themes, Sprance’s vision was to build an empire that truly had something for everybody.
“You got other networks like Smodcast and Nerdcast. And I like them, too,” Incollingo mentioned. “They’re good. I give them respect, but I don’t think they have what Riotcast has. Riotcast has a plethora of different shows for different types of people. The other ones pretty much cater to the same type of person.”
In his bid to form a conglomeration of shows that were totally independent, yet symbiotic and mutually beneficial, Sprance showed a knack for finding talent — and then leaving it alone.
“You want to please your fans and you want to be funny and you want to make everybody happy but without compromising your own integrity,” Carr declared, ”Rob gives us the freedom to do whatever we want, and I love that.”
Sprance — whose fledgling network now totaled four small but unique shows — knew that the Jerks were funny, hungry and possessed a rare chemistry. However, he also recognized that they brought more to the table than just talent and ambition.
Although their experience was limited, the Jerks had been careful to cultivate relationships with well-known guests who occasionally appeared on their show. Among the hours of throwaway material was a shining gem: An interview with comic and actor Robert Kelly became a friendship. From this, Sprance — always the opportunist —recognized that he now had a new, much larger pool of talent from which to draw.
The Jerks introduced Kelly to Sprance, who quickly recognized each other’s vision and work ethic. Kelly not only agreed to put his podcast You Know What, Dude on Riotcast, but to buy in with Sprance as a partner.
Kelly’s experience, celebrity, and cult following helped open the floodgates.
“We had Bobby Kelly on the show a couple of times,” recalls Lonasco. “He called in a couple of times,[and] we developed a professional relationship. Once Bobby Kelly came on board, man, the whole thing blew up. Bobby’s been instrumental in adding just about every podcast that came after him.”
And come after him, they did.
In the last year, Riotcast has added podcasts authored by respected veteran Jim Florentine, husband-and-wife team Rich Vos and Bonnie McFarlane, Sirius/XM’s Dr. Steve and “East Side” Dave McDonald (formerly of The Ron and Fez Show), as well as the house podcast of New York City’s legendary Comedy Cellar.
On top of shows dedicated to sex, science, and mixed martial arts, the new lineup was suddenly among the most eclectic and successful in the country. The Jersey Jerks Show was the catalyst that made possible the diversity that Sprance and Kelly so dearly covet.
“We’ve added more high-profile shows,” Kelly said, “but those original shows are what Riotcast is all about. The Jersey Jerks are regular dudes, blue collar dudes who get together and make each other laugh, and in doing that, they make you laugh.”
A Family Affair
If diversity in programming is one pillar of Riotcast’s success, the second is certainly a strong sense of unity. That is often absent from other networks, whose shows can develop tunnel vision in their race to get bigger numbers for themselves.
“We’ve built ourselves into such a good position now that we can pick and choose,” Sprance stated, “We can go after a name that we probably couldn’t have a year ago. We’re a lot more selective. If you look at the bigger networks, there are like 40 or 50 shows on. We’re not going to do that. We’re not just going to add someone because this person knows that person or they have a popular show. It has to be a lot of everything. They have to be good people because, more than anything else, we’re a family here. It’s a dysfunctional family, but it’s a family.”
The talent agrees.
“If something goes down, if something goes wrong, you have support,” Incollingo said, “not only from Rob Sprance, but from every other show on the network. Everybody rallies around to help out. It’s actually like a real family. There are members of the family you don’t talk to; you might only see them once a year, but they’re still family. Then there are other members of the family that are like your best friends.”
“I love being on Riotcast,” exclaimed Carr. “Rob’s a genius. He’s the man! Everything’s organized well, everything goes well, everything’s great!”
“Everyone is doing it for the fun of it; for the love of it,” Carulli said. “I look at it like a family, and I think the feeling’s mutual.”
With plans in the works to expand with new shows, and an app that Sprance and Kelly promise will revolutionize the way podcasts are consumed, Riotcast and the Jerks are looming large in the rear-view mirrors of the behemoths that currently dominate the industry.
“We can only go up from here, and I love every minute of it,” stated Carr.
Still, for a program that remembers why they got in it in the first place, the future is always just a podcast away.
“I’m not really looking forward to anything but the next show, man,” Lonasco said. “[I'm] just trying to make people laugh and have a good time while we’re doing it.
All Riotcast shows can be found at www.riotcast.com. The Jersey Jerks Show is broadcast live every Tuesday from 8pm to 10pm EST. Listeners can contribute to the show by calling (856) 381-4500. All Riotcast comedy podcasts appear in iTunes’ top 200, with many appearing in the top 100. To this day, The Jersey Jerks Show is the only podcast that has been accepted on the Riotcast Network through unsolicited submission.
Filed Under: Featured
About the Author: Andrew Lisa is a stand-up comedian and writer living in Los Angeles. Originally from the East Coast, he has performed at virtually every major club in and around New York City, and was one of the youngest syndicated columnists at the largest newspaper syndicate in the country. He's currently a finalist in the Funniest Comic in LA contest, as well as a regular at the Garrett Morris All-Star Show at the Downtown Comedy Club.