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Wailin Wong

About Wailin Wong

Reporter/Producer at The Distance. Previous bylines at Chicago Tribune & Dow Jones Newswires. Likes waffles and news.

Ancient history, modern family

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on Discuss

We have a new episode of The Distance about a family of numismatists and antiquities dealers (listen to the episode to find out what a numismatist does!). As students of history, Harlan Berk and his three children know that circumstances around them can change rapidly. They’ve learned to adapt the family business through 51 years of buying and selling ancient coins, as well as antiquities and maps. From rare artifacts to a mystery involving long-lost valuables and the FBI, there’s no telling what might turn up next at Harlan J. Berk Limited.

Farm Wisdom

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on Discuss

The latest episode of The Distance features the Jones family, which has been farming in Iowa for generations. They have weathered tough winters, the consolidation of small family farms and the farm crisis of the 1980s. Today, 29-year-old Will Jones is in charge, and he’s melding his own vision for the family business with the collective wisdom of predecessors like his father.

If you’re hankering for more stories about old businesses and professions after listening to the episode, sign up for The Distance newsletter at the bottom of the home page. Every two weeks, when we release a new episode, I share three recent stories that have caught my attention. Recent favorites have included the re-release of an incredible radio documentary about the Sunshine Hotel, one of New York’s legendary flophouses; an episode of the podcast Death, Sex & Money that interviews a sixth-generation funeral director; and a Miami Herald story about some of Florida’s last remaining tollbooth collectors. Sign up to get these goodies in your inbox!

Growing our audience for The Distance

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on 5 comments

In late May, Jason and I decided to transition The Distance from monthly longform written stories to a podcast that would come out every two weeks. Jason also set an ambitious target for the podcast: Get to 6,000 listens on any one episode by the end of the summer. At the time, our most listened-to episode had around 2,000 listens.

I’m thrilled to say that our first episode hit 6,000 listens on Friday. (If you missed that story, which is about the World’s Largest Laundromat, we re-released it today with some edits and improvements.) Not only did we reach our goal, but we saw a sustained increase in our audience—our last two episodes have each hit 4,000 listens in their first two weeks. To put this in perspective, when we made the format switch in May, no single episode had cracked 3,000 lifetime listens.

So how did we grow our audience for the podcast? Here’s a rundown of what Shaun and I tried this summer. Some of it worked and some of it didn’t. But it was all a learning experience, and one that’s continuing as we keep expanding our subscriber base. If you’re in a similar position as we are, whether it’s with a podcast or a different medium within this terrifyingly uncertain world of content production, I hope you find some of our learnings useful too.
Stuff That Helped

  • We got nice shout-outs from a few high-follower/influential Twitter accounts: Gary Vaynerchuk (thanks to Jason for telling him about the show), StartupWeekend, Rafat Ali of Skift and Jake Nickell of Threadless.
  • I submitted The Distance to The Podcast Digest, a podcast about podcasts, and host Dan Lizette recommended our show on his August 9th episode. It was a really nice segment and especially gratifying because all I did was fill out a Google Form on his website. Dan actually listened to our back episodes and enjoyed them enough to recommend us. A rare slush pile success!
  • Pocket Casts, a podcatcher app, featured The Distance. Below is a screenshot a friend of mine sent me.
  • We got onto Product Hunt.
  • We briefly made it into the Top 10 for Business News podcasts in iTunes. That was thanks to a bunch of new ratings/reviews that came in one afternoon from Basecampers—who, I should mention, had been promoting The Distance on their personal social media accounts and to their friends and family all summer long. Thank you!
  • What really helped build some momentum for The Distance was going to two episodes a month and boosting the show’s production values. So much of the content game is about consistency and regularity, and we got a sustained increase in listeners once we started doing twice-monthly episodes. Shaun added music, taught me how to capture better audio in the field and was a fantastic editor and producer all around.
  • Stuff That Didn’t Work Out (or Hasn’t Yet)
  • I emailed a bunch of podcast newsletters and websites to let them know about The Distance.
  • I very awkwardly donned my publicist hat and pitched a couple national and local media outlets. This was incredibly weird for me, having spent my entire career on the other side of this transaction. I could stand to get better at it.
  • We looked into joining a podcast network. That remains a potential option, but one for the longer term.

I’m really grateful that Basecamp is a company that believes in and underwrites projects like The Distance. I’ve learned a lot from working alongside everyone here. More TK, as they say! In the meantime, if you haven’t yet listened to The Distance or subscribed, please come aboard. We love making the show and have a lot of great episodes planned. Here’s to the next 6,000 listeners!

Pipe Dreams

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on Discuss

The warehouse at Carma Labs in Franklin, Wisc. is filled with boxes of the 78-year-old company’s signature product, Carmex lip balm. But there’s something else going on in this concrete storage facility. Carma Labs President Paul Woelbing, the grandson of the company’s founder, is on year eight of a personal mission to construct a massive pipe organ at the warehouse that will be open to the community. Woelbing wants to spur interest in organ music among a new generation of listeners and players, building a musical legacy alongside his business one.

If you missed our previous episode about the history and staying power of Carmex, you can catch up on that story—and all our old episodes—at The Distance. At just 15 minutes apiece, our stories are great for binge-listening! And make sure to subscribe to our podcast so you catch new episodes as we release them.

It Soothes, It Heals, It Tingles

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on Discuss

Alfred Woelbing made the first batch of Carmex at his kitchen stovetop in 1937. He was looking for a cold sore treatment and came up with a hit lip balm instead. Nearly 80 years later, Carma Labs is still family-owned and run by Alfred’s grandson, Paul, a former art teacher. In this episode of The Distance, find out what goes into the Carmex formula—both for making lip balm and for building a company that takes care of its customers and employees over the long term.

We are making a push to build up our audience this summer, and we’d love your help in spreading the word out about The Distance. If you’re enjoying our stories, please tell your friends about our show and encourage them to subscribe via iTunes or whichever podcatcher app they use. Thanks!

Cheesecake, the Chicago Way

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on 1 comment

The latest episode of The Distance visits Chicago institution Eli’s Cheesecake, which produces the equivalent of 20,000 cheesecakes a day. What goes into a Chicago-style cheesecake? How about a 1,500-pound Chicago-style cheesecake? Listen to the episode to find out. And if you like the show, you can subscribe to The Distance via iTunes or the podcast app of your choice. We’ll be back in two weeks with another episode about a long-standing business.

Finding the voice of The Distance

Wailin Wong
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We introduced The Distance podcast in February as a companion to our longform written stories about businesses that have stood the test of time. In just a few months, we’ve learned an incredible amount about creating audio narratives and had a great time doing it—so much so, in fact, that we’ve decided to make the podcast the sole format for The Distance.

By focusing on just one medium, we’ll be able to bring you new stories every other week. Our last written story will run in early July. In the meantime, check out our bonus episode featuring Jason Fried talking to Shaun Hildner about his fascination with all things old and why he started The Distance. We’ll have another new episode next week, and it’s a good one—there are sandwiches involved! So please subscribe via iTunes or the podcast app of your choice. And if you like what you hear, we’d love it if you could rate and review us on iTunes.

The Distance podcast features compact, powerful stories about old-line businesses that you don’t often hear about, like an auto salvage yard with a famously dated TV ad or a floral shop that sells 25,000 roses every Valentine’s Day. The response from readers of The Distance over the last year has been really encouraging, and we’re looking forward to bringing you even more under-the-radar business stories in audio form. Please tune in and let us know what you think!

A Year of The Distance

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on 1 comment

A year ago, The Distance published its first story: a profile of 110-year-old Horween Leather Co., Chicago’s last remaining tannery. Since then, we’ve visited an 18,000-square-foot costume and wig store and a vintage tiki bar with its own gift shop. We’ve met a custom bra fitter who started her business as a single mom and the second-generation owner of an auto salvage yard that ran the same commercial on local television for 30 years. We launched The Distance because we believe the people behind long-running businesses have amassed a lot of wisdom from their decades of experience. At the heart of each story is the question: “How have you stayed in business for so long?” The answers we’ve collected so far are nuanced and varied, reflecting the complexities that each business owner has faced. Their lessons are difficult to reduce to a list of handy aphorisms. But one year seems as good a time as any to take stock in some way, so here are a few themes that have emerged from the last 12 months.
Take pride in your product: Van Dam Custom Boats makes just two to four of its handcrafted wooden boats each year. Each one takes eight months to two years to finish. As you might imagine, the market for a luxury item of this kind is relatively small, and business took a hit during the latest recession. But the Van Dams took the lull to recommit to their reputation as the maker of the world’s finest wooden boats, no hyperbole intended. They limited production to increase demand and raise their prices, and today they have a waiting list of about three years. Horween Leather has taken a similar approach, focusing on the high end of its market despite pressure in its industry to move toward lower-cost manufacturing. As Nick Horween says in our story, “It just has to be the best you can make it. You put all the best stuff into it so you can get the best of out of it, and get your price or don’t sell it.” Don’t become a commodity: Shrinking margins and slow growth are an ever-present threat in the corrugated box business. That’s why the Eisen brothers, who run Ideal Box Co., have shaped their family-owned manufacturer into a specialist in the corrugated retail displays you see at supermarkets and big-box stores. Scott Eisen says they never want to be a “me-too corrugated company.” Tom Benson of the World’s Largest Laundromat had the same thought about his business. Coin-operated, self-service laundromats can be found on virtually every block of his town, and they tend to look and run the same. The World’s Largest Laundromat does things differently, and the family-friendly amenities it provides has made its store into a destination and community center. Channel your artistic passion in practical ways: Jim Jozwiak of Band For Today was a professional trumpet player with a burgeoning freelance career who discovered a bigger, more lucrative opportunity: providing music education in schools that lacked their own programs. Bruce MacGilpin of The Icon Group was studying sculpture and helping his university manage on-campus art shows when he met a traveling puppeteer who didn’t have a proper storage system for his puppets. MacGilpin built some basic wooden crates lined with packing material for the man, a job that introduced him to the fine arts services industry. Today his business stores and transports priceless works of art for museums, galleries and private collectors. Find new markets and customers: The founder of Hollymatic invented a machine for molding hamburger patties that played a big role in the advent of the American fast food nation. McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s used to be customers. When those chains became mega corporations, they outgrew Hollymatic. Now the maker of meat-processing equipment sells its products to grocery stores, butcher shops and smaller restaurants—ones that, unlike fast food places, make fresh patties. Elsewhere in the world of beloved American foods, Ingrid Kosar was the first to patent the thermal pizza delivery bag in 1983 and signed up companies like Domino’s in the early days of her business. But she didn’t have the market to herself for very long and later lost Domino’s as a customer. Kosar took what she learned about insulating food and started making products for companies outside of the pizza industry, like Meals on Wheels and Panera Bread. Thanks for reading The Distance and listening to our podcast during our first year. Please keep sending feedback and suggestions for businesses to profile to Here’s to another year of stories!

Easy Listening

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on 15 comments

Yesterday we launched The Distance podcast and our show is now in iTunes. Be sure to subscribe!

In honor of The Distance podcast’s debut, I asked Basecampers what podcasts they’re currently enjoying and collected the responses. In some cases, you’ll see a recommendation for a particularly good episode to check out. (Basecamp is also sponsoring several podcasts, including Nerdette and Bullseye, which are mentioned below.) As I was compiling this list, I felt like I was naming every podcast in the world. But it’s just a sign of what a long and interesting tail there is in the world of audio. Here’s to discovering new things! And as a bonus, you’ll find recommendations for podcast apps at the end. Be sure to add your suggestions for any great podcasts (or apps) we’ve missed in the comments.

  • 99% Invisible: Shaun calls it “probably the best podcast about design out there.”
  • Accidental Tech Podcast: Marco Arment, maker of the iOS podcast app Overcast (and many other things), is one of the co-hosts.
  • All About Android: News, hardware, apps, how-tos.
  • Back to Work: Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin talk about productivity.
  • The Broad Experience: A show about women in the workplace. Joan recommends this episode about women engineers in Silicon Valley.
  • The Critical Path: Analysis of Apple and mobile technology.
  • Debug: A “conversational interview show” about software, with a focus on Apple.
  • Freakonomics Radio: From the authors of the best-selling book.
  • Jobs-to-be-done Radio: Listen to this 2013 episode featuring our very own Ryan Singer.
  • Marketplace: This well-known business news show is 25 years old!
  • Planet Money: NPR’s lively show about the economy.
  • Reply All: Stories about Internet culture from the duo that founded TLDR on WNYC.
  • StartUp: Public radio veteran Alex Blumberg documents his journey starting a podcast company.
  • Support Ops: Basecamper Chase co-hosts this weekly show about what makes a great customer support pro.
  • This Week in Google: Hosted by Leo Laporte and Jeff Jarvis.
  • The Tim Ferriss Show: From the author of “The 4 -Hour Workweek.”
  • TLDR: A show about Internet culture hosted by Meredith Haggerty, who took over when the show’s founders decamped for Reply All (see above).


Pop Culture/Arts & Entertainment

  • The Adventure Zone: The McElroy brothers of My Brother, My Brother and Me (see above) play Dungeons & Dragons with their dad. Joan recommends Episode 2.
  • The Attitude Era: A look back at the World Wrestling Federation during the late 90s.
  • All Songs Considered: Jason Zimdars calls this show “the best place to hear about new music if you’re no longer 25.”
  • Bullseye: A pop culture show that’s also distributed by NPR.
  • Denzel Washington is Greatest Actor of All Time Period: I told you there was a long tail in podcasts.
  • Filmspotting: Film reviews and interviews.
  • The Goosedown: Two black comedians’ perspective on pop culture.
  • How Did This Get Made?: Comedians take down bad movies.
  • I Was There Too: Interviews with actors who played minor characters in well-known movies, like the woman with the baby carriage in The Untouchables.
  • Maltin On Movies: Longtime film critic Leonard Maltin and his co-host, comedian Baron Vaughn, talk about movies.
  • The Nerdist Podcast: Weekly interviews with entertainers and comedians.
  • OMFG: A show that explains what kids are up to these days.
  • Pop Rocket: A fun panel discusses what’s new and interesting in entertainment. Joan recommends Episode 2.
  • Song Exploder: Musicians take apart their songs and share the stories behind them.
  • Sound Opinions: A talk show hosted by two veteran Chicago music critics.
  • Tiny Desk Concerts: Intimate performances at the NPR offices.
  • U Talkin’ U2 to Me?: Adam Scott of Parks and Rec and Scott Aukerman of Comedy Bang! Bang! talk about U2.
  • We Hate Movies: James says this show is about “entertainingly terrible (but not terribly entertaining) movies torn apart by nerds.” Also, James has his own podcast about life in Berlin!
  • Wham Bam Pow: Movie reviews focused on sci-fi and action films.
  • Who Charted?: The latest in music and movies, featuring Los Angeles comedians.

Lend me your ears: Introducing The Distance podcast

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong wrote this on 3 comments

Since The Distance launched in May, we’ve taken you to a leather tannery, a tiki bar, an art warehouse and many other businesses, all of which have been operating for 25 years without taking outside investment. We’ve shared these companies’ stories through written words, photos and video—and now we’re adding audio.

Today we’re launching The Distance podcast. Starting with this month’s subject, the World’s Largest Laundromat, you can both read and listen to learn about these businesses. You’ll hear the hum of a factory floor and founders telling their stories in their own voices.

You can find The Distance podcast on SoundCloud and our website, with more listening and subscription options on the way. If you like our first episode, please help us spread the word. Thanks for listening!