On the fourth floor of Ponce City Market, down the hall from Twitter and MailChimp and past the swanky digs of architecture firms, Holly Frey sits in a padded sound booth in a darkened corner of the HowStuffWorks headquarters. She’s video chatting with Tracy Wilson, discussing how to pronounce the name of the niece of a seventh-century saint. The girl has been dead nearly a millennium, but the stakes are still high. If they should flub the name Wilfetrude—or sound like an SNL parody of Angela Merkel—a listener might call them out. Or worse, fire off hate mail.
Such are the concerns when one is dealing with the kind of devoted, intellectual audience that follows the duo’s hit podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class. Since taking the reins as cohosts in 2013, Frey and Wilson—both convivial 40-something brainiacs who speak with hints of Southern twang—typically churn out two half-hour stories a week about bizarre, obscure, bewildering, and often distasteful facets of human history. In doing so, they’ve tripled listenership and created one of the world’s most popular podcasts.
In April alone, their show tallied more than 5 million downloads, and it often charts among the top 10 iTunes podcasts, behind juggernauts like This American Life, WTF with Marc Maron, and HowStuffWorks’ powerhouse Stuff You Should Know.
But as podcasts become more mainstream, Frey and Wilson’s show is something of an outlier. Most of the stories are thematically unrelated and—without their bubbly, conversational presentation—potentially dry. Wandering their archive can take listeners to the historical root of white weddings, the Iowa ax murders of 1912, and the tale of “Durable Mike Malloy,” a homeless New Yorker who became the target of a 1930s murder plot—but refused to die.
Today Frey’s hair is a purple blaze, and her dress features a print of Greedo from Star Wars. Her loud, rapid-fire laughter shows she’s clearly enthused by minutiae from the life of the virginal St. Gertrude of Nivelles. Wilson, bespectacled and equally chatty, calls in from Boston, where she moved in 2014 to be with her librarian boyfriend. During the listener mail segment, Frey gushes over fan postcards from as far away as Indonesia.
“I think Holly and Tracy in particular have really struck a chord with fans of the show; they feel like family,” says their producer, Noel Brown. “They just have a really genial quality, a welcoming approach to history, whereas people are used to feeling like they’re being lectured at or talked down to.”
The show’s demographic skews slightly female, and it’s a big hit with millennials and educators. The hosts have found themselves recognized—sometimes by voice alone—at farmers markets and half marathons. California superfan Heather Baumann, a former history teacher, relies on the podcast to endure Los Angeles traffic and has “been able to beat my dad in Jeopardy! a couple of times with some tidbits.” Ashley Bennett Robinson, a doctor’s scheduler in Florida, refers to the hosts simply as “the girls” and describes once meeting Frey in Atlanta as “a dream come true.”
But the road to podcast stardom was a circuitous one.
HowStuffWorks—a website that explains the science behind basically everything—was created in 1998 as a hobby by North Carolina State University professor Marshall Brain. Following an unsatisfying career in corporate communications, Wilson came aboard as a staff writer in 2005, after the company had changed hands and relocated to Atlanta. Back then a handful of “nerds” operated the site from a Buckhead high-rise, where their research involved deconstructing things like tennis ball machines.
A nomadic Air Force brat, Frey settled in Atlanta after graduating from Emory University. The Norcross resident (and hopeless cat lover) managed hair salons, worked for the Oglethorpe University library, and wrote for Cartoon Network before joining HowStuffWorks in 2010—by which time Wilson had climbed the ranks to editorial director.
Coincidentally, the two had first met years earlier while standing in line to see The Lord of the Rings, but didn’t become friends until they began working together. A boss who overheard them being snarky at a party suggested they join forces for a podcast. They took on the research-intensive History Class—originally launched as Fact or Fiction in 2008 and now one of a dozen Stuff shows—when the last of its many hosts moved on. The first six months, Frey recalls, were brutal. “It’s like, here’s your 70 emails per day about how bad you suck, and everyone hates you and wants you to die. Then it turned around slowly.”
In 2014 the company was bought for $45 million by Blucora Inc., an internet search firm. The staff moved to Ponce City Market early last year, bringing a wall full of Webby Awards.
The majority of show topics are culled from listener suggestions; others the hosts have stumbled upon elsewhere. An average show requires between 16 and 24 hours of intense research, typically beginning with simple Google searches. Frey finds an article, makes bullet points for the story she wants to tell, and then “goes insane” trying to fill in the gaps by speed-reading books and hopscotching around dozens of open tabs on her desktop. Wilson leans on volumes published by academic presses and documents scanned into library databases.
“We kind of balance out some of each other’s interests,” says Wilson. “Holly’s a lot better at pronouncing non-English words . . . I bring the things that are most tragic and upsetting.”
Producer Brown has seen the duo’s popularity in action at conventions, and foresees a time when they will fill venues at live shows around the country. “There’s no end in sight,” he says.
This article originally appeared in our August 2016 issue.