Rob Morgan is going to knock something over.
The 6'6" bassist and music director for the Owatonna-birthed pop electronic project Owl City gestures with animated hands as he discusses his new podcast over coffee on an arctic morning in the Nokomis neighborhood. The 32-year-old, dressed in all black (hoodie, skinny jeans, combat boots, and a newsboy cap) emits energy too big for the room, much less his body.
Morgan is pumped. His podcast, Rob Morgan Is a Curious Person, is ramping up again after a brief holiday break. The show’s parameters are loose; he interviews successful people with fresh perspectives on-location to find out who they are and why they do what they do. His most recent guest was Qiuxia Welch, co-owner of Boom Island Brewing. She represents a shift from his previous 20-plus guests, who were primarily white males working in creative fields.
Morgan has talked to the likes of Alex Potter, a photojournalist based in the Middle East; mortician Jim Albinson; and Steve Goold, a drummer who lost his father suddenly. He prefers to record these conversations in public locations—and even provides a map of where’s he’s interviewed on his show’s website. “Every great conversation I’ve had with someone where I’ve learned something has happened in a loud restaurant, in a coffeeshop, or at a bar over a Guinness,” he says. A studio setting with headphones would feel too formal. “There’s a comfort to being out, on location, and just having a normal conversation, letting your guard down.”
Sometimes Morgan arrives at an interview with an overarching question in mind. Other times, he’s unsure what he’ll learn but discovers a hot topic halfway through the conversation. His aim is to extract as much from the guest as possible—arguing or playing devil’s advocate is off-limits. He keeps his opinions to himself, preferring to nudge listeners toward common ground.
“I am massive on connecting particulars and generals. When someone tells a story, immediately my brain goes to, ‘How does this attach to the bigger story that we’re all dealing with?’” Morgan says.
As someone who remembers the world pre-internet, Morgan sees conversation as an art lost to the snarky soundbites of social media. “I was kind of getting bummed out with a lot of relationships [in the digital age],” he says. “Conversation is work. You’re intentional, you’re there, and you’re alert. The reason people like listening to interview podcasts, I think, is because you get all the benefits of conversation, but you give no effort.”
The podcast percolated for years in Morgan’s brain, but as of 2014, he was too busy touring the U.S. and Asia, opening for acts like the Fray and the Foo Fighters with Owl City. In 2015, Owl City founder and frontman Adam Young attempted to transition from squeaky-clean pop to country-tinged EDM with Mobile Orchestra. It didn’t go over well. What was expected to be a full tour was only booked for four weeks, leaving Morgan in the professional lurch.
He sought out freelance gigs and started working on the podcast, repurposing skills he’d used in studio sessions as a musician. While he was satisfied with the technical side of the podcast, the first five beta testing sessions revealed verbal tics, and the finished product felt too teachy. He invited his wife, Sarah, to do the intros with him, and her additions lightened the tone. He soon began inviting local noteworthy folks to chat and officially launched Rob Morgan Is a Curious Person in May 2017.
“I’m convinced anybody will talk about anything if you ask the question the right way,” Morgan says. He believes curiosity, an “annoyingly natural skill” in himself, is the cure to what ails us, personally and globally, and he aspires to incite that in his audience.
“I want to balance information and entertainment, but I also want people to walk away inspired,” Morgan says. He has a hotline (612-584-9330) people can call if they have a story about how the podcast has affected them, and some of those anecdotes are incorporated into the show.
For Morgan, the response from listeners has been the most rewarding part of this social experiment. Once a musician emailed him saying he considered himself an artistic failure and was on the brink of giving up music, going so far as to put his drums on Craigslist, and then he listened to Morgan’s podcast—it motivated him to give his music career another year. After a politically themed podcast, Morgan heard from many listeners who realized they hadn’t been conversing about politics so much as simply trying to claim a side.
“He has a true and sincere passion and is able to follow his nose well,” says Jim Albinson, who was interviewed on his own patio by Morgan, over tea. “He’s not preaching in his podcast—he’s exploring.”
“You can put something out and it can change the way someone thinks about something,” Morgan says. It’s a new feeling—no one’s ever come up to him and claimed the way he played a bass line would alter the way they move through the world.
Morgan has benefited, too. “I’ve learned more about myself this year than I have in the past 10 years,” he says. “It’s been cool.” Every interview gifts him a new aha moment, and he believes he’s more empathetic because of it.
The podcast is still a work in progress, and Morgan is on an endless quest to stay present and nab conversational gold. Awkward silences are still awkward. The occasional “um” or “like” sneaks in. He aims to improve his “nonverbal affirmations.” He studies interviewing styles and “nerds out” on Larry King to learn how to ask clearer, more concise, and more direct questions.
Moving forward, Morgan will brainstorm how to evolve the format of the podcast and to make it more financially sustainable. He’s toying with the idea of a live podcast featuring variety show elements. On his wish list for future guests? Food celebrity Andrew Zimmern and “bronies,” adult fans of My Little Pony.
Here’s hoping Morgan explores more diversity as well. Though he says, “I want to bring more women in [but] I don’t want to interview women just for the sake of interviewing women,” he seems oblivious to the fact that women have experiences unique from men precisely because they are women, ditto for people of color. Perhaps the challenge for Morgan, then, will be stepping outside of his comfort zone—all but two of his interviewees so far were acquaintances or friends pre-podcast. Can he take risks and branch out in the name of better content? That remains to be seen. But given his gregarious nature, boundless enthusiasm, and welcoming smile, it’s hard to imagine someone with whom he couldn’t converse.