Steve Ray spent one year driving around in the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. Finding himself restless after spreading “miles of smiles” in the 26-foot-long hot dog on wheels, he took off to Europe, where he worked on farms, fishing boats and an organic food truck. He then spent eight months sailing the Atlantic and eventually ended up in Austin, Texas.
While in Austin, Ray would hear all of these amazing things about the arts-loving city. But his experience there was much different — filled with clogged traffic and scorching heat.
The 27-year-old Mahtomedi native also noticed that people did not have much of an opinion about the Twin Cities, and he started to believe they were right — that nothing exciting was going on back home. Ray found that most people outside of Minnesota knew that the state gets cold and that the Mall of America is here.
But after moving back to the Twin Cities last May, he was amazed by the area’s creative energy and wondered why the metro wasn’t enjoying the same national reputation as Austin.
It gave him an epiphany: He’d create a new podcast, “Deep North,” to help dispel misconceptions about life in Minnesota and to showcase the more urbane side of the Twin Cities.
“It’s partially Minnesota’s fault,” Ray said. In his mind, many more people need to be promoting the state’s vibrant arts and culture scene, the same way Austin does. “People want to talk about what makes this place what it is.”
Recent episodes include a look at St. Paul’s adult playground Can Can Wonderland and how Minneapolis’ skyways affect civic life. “Deep North” feels a bit like citizen journalism, featuring a monotone narration on the topic from Ray, followed by man-on-the-street style interviews.
Most episodes are recorded on location: streets, galleries, old buildings along University Avenue and outside St. Paul’s Union Depot.
In the skyways episode, Ray talks with Max Musicant, whose firm mixes urban planning and design to create and manage desirable public spaces. They meet in Capella Tower’s swanky common area near Peace Coffee, where you can hear murmurs of other discussions in the background. They then head up to the second floor to wander the skyways and talk to the people who use the second-story sidewalks. Musicant acknowledges the recent debate on how the skyways have affected street life, but says they are “such a robust system” and shouldn’t be treated as “glorified hallways between buildings.”
Ray does not see his podcast as a public-relations campaign for the state, but rather as “a calling forth of the collective conscious” of the Twin Cities.
By 2019, Ray hopes the podcast can become an “interactive story event,” in which “Deep North” would travel throughout the state to explore how Minnesotans see themselves.
Going ‘deep’ on Minnesota
Podcasting can be a very independent venture, but without collaboration, Ray says, things get lonely. This is why Ray chose to partner with streets.mn, a website focused on land use and transportation, and Twin Cities Agenda, a website that covers the topics and trends of the metro area.
The relationship between Ray and his partners involves not just promoting and hosting the indie podcast, but also helping out with story suggestions for future episodes. This board of advisers is always in a sort of dialogue with Ray about people and places at the center of the food, sidewalk or art scenes within the Twin Cities.
“It’s a nice way to have a conversation about the built environment,” said streets.mn’s Bill Lindeke of the podcast.
He adds that “we live in a somewhat insular city” and that it’s nice to get a perspective from someone who came back to the Twin Cities.
In the podcast’s second episode, Ray talked with urban journalist Jay Walljasper about what people elsewhere think about the future of this metro. Walljasper says the Twin Cities should shake off some of the “suburban sensibility” that characterizes the area, and instead embrace that urbane side.
“Minnesota can get a little squeamish about what gets talked about,” said Walljasper. He adds that he thinks Ray is “willing to wade in on what may be some delicate issues,” such as the skyway debate and whether the Green Line should be expanded. “That’s one of the things that make podcasts important.”
The first season of “Deep North” focuses primarily on the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, but for the second one, Ray hopes to explore how the Twin Cities area interacts with the rest of the state.
“If Deep North is achieving what I want it to, it will be knocking Minnesotans out of a fog and helping them to not only realize what’s great about this place, but how we can make it even better for all of those who live here,” Ray said.
Christopher Shea is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.