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Wailin Wong

About Wailin Wong

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

Easy Listening

Wailin Wong
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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.
Business/Tech/Design/Productivity

  • 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).

Comedy

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.
Continued…

Lend me your ears: Introducing The Distance podcast

Wailin Wong
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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!

Against the Grain

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“Every boat is copied from another boat….It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up on the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied….One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.”

- Émile Chartier

I thought of this quote while writing the latest Distance story on Van Dam Custom Boats, a Michigan-based maker of wooden boats that’s been in business for 38 years. Van Dam Custom Boats builds just two to four boats a year, and a single boat can take up to two years to complete because each one is made by hand—eight to 10 pairs of hands, to be more precise. It’s a small shop committed to craftsmanship the old-fashioned way, including thousands of hours of sanding the boats by hand.

Photo by Michael Berger

There are probably faster or cheaper ways to build boats. But the Van Dams have successfully put their boats up against unforgiving waters from Lake Michigan to the Mediterranean Sea for almost four decades. The sea, you could say, has validated the Van Dam way.

The Sweater Song

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It all started with an Ewok.

That’s my two-year-old daughter on Halloween. To complete the effect, I decided to dress up like Princess Leia in Return of the Jedi (her jaunty Endor speeder outfit, not the metal bikini) and went on the hunt for a sweater that would resemble her camouflage poncho but be something I’d wear again. Browsing the Nordstrom website, I discovered the Bobeau Asymmetrical Fleece Wrap Cardigan in “Heather Pinewood” and remembered I had seen it recommended on a fashion blog I follow. I ordered the sweater; it fit great and at least two people recognized me as Leia. A success!

Photo courtesy Nordstrom

Then something happened. I started wearing this sweater almost every day. It was the perfect layering piece for my work-at-home wardrobe while also looking refined enough to wear for errands around town, and I didn’t want to take it off.
Before long, I began noticing this sweater everywhere in my orbit. I ran into a friend at my local coffee shop and she was wearing it. I tweeted about my love for the cardigan and heard back from friends saying they had it too. I wore it over my workout clothes to my exercise studio and an instructor said not only has she seen other clients sporting it, but that she owns it in gray and brought it to a weekend getaway — only to find her friend wearing it, too, in a dusty pink. My husband spotted a woman in the cardigan at our local public library. I ordered the sweater in a second color for myself and bought two more to give to family members as Christmas presents.
As of this writing, the Bobeau Asymmetrical Fleece Wrap Cardigan has 4.5 stars from 2,385 reviews on Nordstrom’s website. Apparently I’m not the only satisfied customer, especially when you consider that the other items in the “People Who Purchased This Also Purchased” section only have a few hundred reviews. And when I sorted women’s sweaters to look at just “Featured” products, I found that most of the items on that page have zero reviews. Somehow the Bobeau Asymmetrical Fleece Wrap Cardigan, which is essentially a fancy Slanket with an awkward name, had gotten incredibly popular. And I wanted to know why.
Nordstrom’s public relations department was unsurprisingly loath to disclose details about the sweater, like how its sales compare with other women’s apparel items or whether it did any special marketing for the cardigan. Trend Request, the Los Angeles-based company that owns the Bobeau brand, was similarly reticent, although it did credit Nordstrom for popularizing the “one button,” as it referred to the cardigan. (The sweater is also sold at Dillard’s, but only in three colors online, compared with 30 plus on Nordstrom, and has no reviews on the Dillard website.)
“We can’t share specific numbers about what makes this a best-seller, but we can say that it’s very popular with customers, especially during the holiday season,” wrote a Nordstrom spokeswoman, whose colleague had told me earlier that she owns two of the sweaters herself and put another three on her wish list.
I wondered if Nordstrom had heavily promoted the Bobeau sweater among fashion bloggers, who in recent years have proved remarkably powerful in driving sales toward retailers. After all, I’d first heard about the cardigan on Extra Petite, a blog that has published Nordstrom-sponsored posts and uses affiliate links. But Jean, the writer behind Extra Petite, mentions on her site that she learned of the sweater from her friend Kat at Feather Factor, another lifestyle and fashion blog. And Kat, when I asked her about the cardigan, said she found it “randomly at Nordstrom one day wandering around,” then alerted her readers when it went on sale.
It turns out my other Bobeau-owning friends also came across the cardigan by seeing friends and co-workers wear it, or by browsing at Nordstrom like Kat. Not only that, but they were all as oddly enchanted with the sweater as I was. One friend, who owns it in four colors, wrote me five emails in rapid succession because she kept remembering more things she wanted to say, like how she also bought a black Bobeau maxi skirt because she was so impressed with the brand. Another friend, the one from the coffee shop, said she was “excited with glee” to get my email and needed time to compose her response so she could tell me her “exact feelings and love for this piece of clothing.”
There is something about this sweater that inspires women not just to buy it, but to practically stockpile it, recommend it to friends and talk about it with an almost religious fervor. What’s interesting about the Bobeau one-button is that it’s neither an example of a generalized trend like peplums nor an example of a luxury fashion item achieving “It” status like Valentino Rockstud shoes. This is a sweater that currently retails for about 40 bucks. I think about how wishy washy I am about purchases, constantly filling up virtual carts and abandoning them, and marvel at how easily this cardigan tips shoppers from “Hmm, that’s nice” to “I’ll take four and tell my mom about it.”
“So — I bought the grey version, wore it to work, and got tons of compliments,” wrote the sister of my coffee shop friend. “I immediately told my two office mates to order one each….They in turn ordered theirs, and then turned around and ordered more, after realizing the awesomeness of the Bobeau. I was also convinced to order another one, in pink….Our office laughter from Bobeau Fridays spilled out to the (small) department of women, and it caught on. After tallying it up, I think we had 12 other women order one each, some ordering two.”
Any business that aspires to make money from a product or a service — including, say, makers of project management software — dreams about this kind of natural and positive word of mouth. And as a consumer, I have no problem with this either. I seek out opinions from friends, and in turn I routinely recommend all sorts of stuff to friends, whether it’s a restaurant or a lip gloss or a thought-provoking magazine article.
And yet my devotion to the Bobeau one-button made me feel weird. With the advent of social media and targeted advertising, I’ve learned to be suspicious of word of mouth. Is it a genuinely organic process, or is it just shrewd brand management in an exceptionally cunning disguise? These days, brands want to be our friends. Brands want so desperately to be approachable and human that you get sanctimonious tweets from companies commemorating September 11 and equally sanctimonious tweets from other companies announcing that they won’t be tweeting on September 11. People throw around terms like “brand evangelist” and they are being perfectly earnest and we go along with it.
I worry sometimes that my tastes and preferences aren’t as considered as I’d like to believe. Why did I buy a Sophie the Giraffe teething toy for my daughter? Why did I binge watch True Detective? Why have I turned into a brand evangelist for the Bobeau Asymmetrical Fleece Wrap Cardigan? It’s vaguely depressing to think it was because I was in the thrall of a brand.
None of my other Bobeau-wearing friends seem to be having this consumerist crisis over whether Nordstrom subliminally — or overtly — influenced them to buy the sweater. They just really like the one-button for all sorts of reasons, many of which are echoed in the online reviews. It’s machine washable and comes in more than 30 colors. It has a pert little button. It’s cozy but not frumpy, ideal for wearing on plane rides or keeping at the office. Its drape flatters a variety of body shapes and it comes in Petite and Plus sizes. “Makes you realize how many articles of clothing DON’T fit that bill!” one friend wrote.
My coffee shop friend, who bought her first Bobeau while pregnant and now has two sweaters and two small children, said: “I feel like pregnancy and motherhood make you give up so much when it comes to fashion choices….Everything you own ends up getting stained or ruined so you can’t have anything really expensive or hard to take care of. But this is one amazing item that allows you to keep your fashion style without having to give up any of the other practical considerations.”
Maybe Bobeau and Nordstrom pulled off that rare feat of making and marketing a product that has mass appeal, and I should acknowledge that instead of acting like I was in a brand-induced fugue state when I bought my sweaters. It does feel oddly freeing, I’ve realized, to like something that thousands of other women of different sizes and shapes and lifestyles have also embraced. In an era of ever-increasing online tracking and data collection, it’s liberating to wrap myself in something whose ubiquity provides a kind of anonymity. The sweater is my invisibility cloak; marketers can’t discern anything unique about me because everyone has it. I could be a bosomy frequent flier or a lean Pilates instructor or that lady in your office who’s always cold. Or maybe I’m just a mom who started with a Princess Leia costume and ended up with a closet full of sweaters.

A Slice of Small Business Life

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There was a time in America, if you can believe it, when you would order a pizza and it would arrive somewhat cold and soggy. A horrifying prospect! Ingrid Kosar was disenchanted with cold delivery pizza too, and she wanted to do something about it. In 1984, she filed a patent for a “thermally insulated food bag,” which is familiar to pizza eaters the world over.

Photo by Michael Berger

Kosar has a great entrepreneurial origin story. The next three decades of her career don’t make as tidy a narrative. The bags got commoditized; Kosar lost business to lower-priced competitors and her patents eventually expired. But Thermal Bags By Ingrid is still making pizza bags out of its small office in the Chicago suburbs. Ingrid Kosar embodies what it means to survive in business over the long term. She’s come close to losing it all, yet has held on long enough to see sales recover. In fact, after her story ran in The Distance, Kosar told me she hired two new employees for her sewing department—a nice epilogue to a true underdog story.

Read more about Kosar, her business and the history of U.S. pizza delivery at The Distance.

Art and Craft

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Priceless cultural artifacts and works of art belong in a museum, as Indiana Jones taught us. But if the museum doesn’t have the space for that painting or Cross of Coronado, these pieces go to companies like The Icon Group.

Photo by Michael Berger

Founded in 1980, The Icon Group is a specialized moving and storage business that performs the vital but unsung task of boxing up fine art objects and storing them safely. There’s an incredible amount of knowledge and skill that goes into handling an oddly shaped or fragile piece, and companies like The Icon Group only gain that practical expertise – and the trust of their clients – by doing it over and over for decades.

The Icon Group has handled everything from Picassos to the archives of children’s poet, author and illustrator Shel Silverstein. In fact, Silverstein’s papers, books, musical instrument collection and recordings (did you know he wrote “A Boy Named Sue,” made famous by Johnny Cash?) are stored at The Icon Group’s warehouse on Chicago’s west side.

Read more about The Icon Group at The Distance.

The Distance: Fantasy Costumes

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Walk into any Halloween pop-up store right now and you’re likely to find the same assortment of merchandise: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costumes and “Frozen” princess dresses, plus old stand-bys like witch hats and vampire capes.

You’ll find those items at Fantasy Costumes in Chicago too, but the store has a singular, massive inventory that’s the result of being in business year-round for 45 years. To visit Fantasy Costumes is to browse a museum of pop culture phenomena where everything is for sale or rent—a Garth wig from Wayne’s World (excellent!), Andy Warhol glasses, a Hello Kitty mascot head. That kind of selection helps the store stay open year-round and competitive against the seasonal pop-ups. No tricks here, just a half-century of knowing how to help people have fun.

Photo by Michael Berger

Read more about Fantasy Costumes at The Distance. Happy Halloween!

The Music Man

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Jim Jozwiak likes to be early. For our first interview for The Distance, he arrived 20 minutes early to the Starbucks in suburban Chicago where we had arranged to meet. Due to a slight miscommunication, I ended up at a different Starbucks at the same intersection, so he actually waited for 40 minutes before we figured out what was happening.

Jim was gracious, though, and later explained that his penchant for extreme punctuality stemmed from his days as a professional trumpet player. As a freelance musician, he needed to be dependable — competition for gigs was intense, and band leaders didn’t want to deal with players who showed up late or weren’t prepared. Jim arrived at all his gigs early, with enough time to warm up and even grab a cup of coffee before the performance started.

That same discipline steers Jim through his second career as a business owner running Band For Today, the subject of our latest Distance story. He manages a staff of 17 full-time band teachers that see an average of 200 kids at various schools every week, and he handles almost all the sales, marketing and billing for his 30-year-old company himself.

Running a business well takes practice, creativity, heart and the ability to improvise in unexpected situations. Sounds a lot like playing music!

Check out Band For Today’s story in The Distance and remember to catch up with previous Distance stories if you missed any. Thanks for reading!

Hamburger Helper

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Businessmen like Ray Kroc and Dave Thomas have secured their places in the annals of the fast food industry. But what about Harry Holly? He invented the hamburger patty molding machine in the kitchen of the burger restaurant he opened after losing his job in the Depression. Holly’s patty press helped bring the modern fast food industry into existence by equipping McDonald’s and Burger King with machines that could efficiently produce standard-sized burgers.

But 77 years after Holly founded his patty machine company, Hollymatic, neither inventor nor business has name recognition outside of the meat processing industry. That’s just the kind of story we like to tell at The Distance, which we launched in May to highlight businesses that have endured over decades.

In the case of Hollymatic, the company survived the loss of its major fast food customers as well as internal turmoil that booted Holly from leadership. The messiness in Hollymatic’s long history makes the company’s second wind under new ownership all the more satisfying. They are true business survivors and we hope you’ll check out their story. Thanks for reading!

The Distance goes tiki

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I first noticed the Hala Kahiki about a year ago driving north on River Road through the Chicago suburb of River Grove. I glanced at its colorful exterior and quirky signage and wondered, “What’s the story there?” The wonderful thing about journalism is that it’s a professional excuse to be nosy. I contacted the bar owner, Jim Oppedisano, et voilà! Our newest story for The Distance takes you inside the Hala Kahiki, a tiki bar established nearly 50 years ago by a family that’s never traveled west of California.

One of the many fascinating things about the Hala Kahiki is that its founders, Stanley and Rose Sacharski, weren’t trying to take advantage of the mid-century tiki fad. They just wanted to run a bar, and the tropical theme came about largely by chance. I love the role that serendipity plays in the history of the Hala Kahiki, which like many businesses has benefitted from a combination of happy accidents and pragmatic management.

Photo by Michael Berger

The bar is well-known among tiki enthusiasts and certain locals; earlier this year, Time Out Chicago listed “a pilgrimage to Hala Kahiki in River Grove” as No. 9 on its list of Chicago Rites of Passage. The Hala Kahiki is one of the last old-fashioned tiki bars in the region, and it’s delightfully nostalgic and free of irony. This is not a place for craft cocktails and winking nods to a bygone era of American kitsch. This is a place where you drink something called a Sweet Leilani on a leopard print stool while the bartender tells you ghost stories. There’s even a gift shop in the back where I almost bought a vintage Hawaiian muumuu at least three sizes too big for me.

We’re always on the hunt for unique businesses like the Hala Kahiki to write about for The Distance, so keep sending your suggestions to tips@thedistance.com or follow us on Twitter at @distancemag. If you’re new to The Distance, please check out our first two stories on Horween Leather Co., Chicago’s last tannery, and Tina’s Closet, a lingerie store in the Chicago suburbs whose owner is determined to get every woman into a well-fitting bra.