How Catching The Wave Of Her Life Got Shelby Stanger Into Podcasting

[photo by Jianca Lazarus]

NOTE: In 2018, I started recording interviews with creatives (writers, filmmakers, podcasters, photographers, editors, etc.) in the adventure world. I’m publishing the highlights of those interviews monthly in 2019.

Shelby Stanger always knew she’d be a journalist—and she finally found the perfect medium in 2016, with her podcast, Wild Ideas Worth Living. She’s a longtime surfer, native southern Californian, and had her first national newspaper clip when she was 15, and has worked with almost every type of writing since then—magazines, marketing, public relations, radio, online, and finally, podcasting, where she’s able to publish full conversations with explorers, scientists, authors, athletes, and entrepreneurs who have taken risks, challenged themselves to think differently, and found success in unconventional ways.

Some of Shelby’s podcast guests over the past few years: Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi, Alex Honnold, Rebecca Rusch, Scott Jurek, Beth Rodden, Cheryl Strayed, and others. She’ll put out her 100th episode this spring, a milestone that’s a testament to taking a risk, following her gut, and figuring out how to build a business. The ethos of Wild Ideas draws from some of the tough decisions Shelby’s made in life and her career: quitting a dream job to start a business, chasing an assignment or a hunch across the globe, and paddling out into the occasional overhead or double-overhead wave. We sat down in July 2018 and covered some of that in our conversation.

When people ask me what I do for a living, I say I have a podcast about adventure and getting out of your comfort zone. It’s the best job I have ever had. Some people still don’t know what a podcast is, though. Often the easiest thing to do is have them subscribe right there

I grew up in San Diego in a small beach town called Cardiff-by-the-Sea in North County, San Diego that’s evolved from flower fields and farms to a pretty chic beach town with really good coffee shops. We moved to Birdrock, another really nice small beach town in La Jolla when I was 13. My mom got a deal in the nineties on a house near the beach, and I grew up by some of the best surf breaks around San Diego. I’ve been pretty blessed to grow up near the water.

I started surfing when I was 12. My father was a dentist from Brooklyn, and my mom was a college professor, from Pittsburgh. Neither surfed or knew anything about the sport, but I would see male classmates surfing after school and it looked fun. I didn’t know any girls who surfed then. I played soccer in a really competitive league, and my parents were very supportive of my soccer career. I remember as a kid begging my dad to get me a surfboard, and he just wouldn’t, but he’d take me boogie boarding. He passed away when I was 11 of a sudden heart attack. It was really hard. A few months later for my 12th birthday, my older sister bought me a surfboard. It was bright green with a big Body Glove sticker on the front. I loved it and slept with it in my bed the first night. I didn’t realize until I was older the board had been owned by a pro, then buckled (or broken in half and sealed back together). I learned to surf on that board even though it was too small, totally beaten up, and hard to stand up on. I still have it on my rack and can barely surf the thing, but I still love it. Surfing is the best thing that happened to me at the time, especially after losing my dad so young. Being in nature, especially in the grand Pacific Ocean, I was able to answer a lot of questions that I couldn’t answer on land.  I was a very energetic kid, and still am, so it was also a great place to release all my energy.

Surfing will wear you out and it’ll humble you. You’ll never master it. You’re always learning, which is a beautiful thing. It was difficult to learn on that short board. Eventually, I used a big, yellow 8-foot longboard at camp. My mom was a teacher at San Diego State University, and through SDSU, there was a water sports camp for kids called The Mission Bay Aquatics Center that she sent me to, and got a big discount at. It’s a great facility on Mission Bay in San Diego and directly across from Mission Beach. I would always take surfing, but you could also take sailing, water skiing, or kayaking. Every morning for surfing, I’d walk across the street and surf for two to three hours. Then, in the afternoon, we would do all the other activities and often sailed to SeaWorld or to lunch.

I had all of these great male instructors that were gorgeous. I was 12 years old, so excited to have these cute college guys teaching me to surf, but then one week, I had a female instructor. She spoke fluent French and Spanish, she taught SAT classes, she knew how to have a good time, made funny jokes about the boys who hit on her, and was a competitive surfer and swimmer. Her name was Izzy Tihanyi, and I just fell in love with her. My mom was a single mom at the time, and she needed someone to drive me places and babysit me when she went out of town. Izzy became our babysitter. She would have amazing parties at our house and take me surfing all over San Diego. She also made awesome jokes that were sometimes inappropriate. A few years later, she started an all-women’s surf school called Surf Diva, that’s become world-famous.

My mom remarried an incredible guy who was a coach and college athletic director a few years later. We had a happy ending, to be honest. My mom rented the studio we had off the back of our house to Izzy, who started Surf Diva there. I learned all about the surf industry as a kid, and Izzy became like an older sister and now my best friend to this day. We talk every day, and later she encouraged me to teach surfing in Costa Rica where I met my fiancé.

When I was a little kid, my teachers and adults often told me I’d become a journalist. I loved writing stories, pretending I was a TV host, and I loved writing marketing ads and commercials for brands I used. When I was 15, an English teacher at my public high school said, “Hey, there’s an essay contest in the San Diego Tribune, and if you guys enter it, you’ll get extra credit. If you win, you get $100 and an automatic A for the year.” I found out later the winner’s teacher also got a $100 gift card to Nordstrom, which was a big deal at that time in the ’90s. I entered the contest with a feature story about a meaningful experience I had in a leadership program I was involved in called the Aaron Price Fellows Program, started by the folks who started Price Club which sold to Costco. The story was about a diversity program we did that made an impact on me in 1995, and it won.

I got an automatic A, $100 bucks, which is about how much you make for an article today. Ha! And my teacher got to go to Nordstrom’s. It was great. It gave me a lot of confidence that I could get paid to be a writer. The next year, I took a job as a journalist for this youth magazine out of Washington D.C. It was by, for, and about teens. I wrote a story about a family member’s battle with alcoholism, and then I interviewed one of my mom’s students. My mom taught human behavior and social work at SDSU, and one of her students was date raped, and wanted to talk about it, which was a huge deal. It wasn’t talked about, especially back then. I wrote those two stories at age 16, and people wrote in saying they thought they were powerful, and that my stories made an impact on them. I learned really young how far words could travel. But then I decided I wanted to write about surfing and action sports, because it was just the language I understood the most, and it was a way to get in the water as much as possible. I am also really sensitive and it was hard to cover such deep topics.

I went to journalism school at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. My first journalism class assignment was to spend the night at a homeless shelter and write about it. A subsequent assignment was to interview a member of the Mafia in class. The professor or that course wrote for Esquire. He later got fired from Emory, but he advised me to get a summer internship at a local newspaper. That was great advice.

The summer after my freshman year of college, I taught surf lessons at Surf Diva in La Jolla. I also walked into my community newspaper in San Diego and got an internship, and they paid me for every story I wrote. I did everything they asked, and was so excited to see my name in print. By the second week there, I told them I wanted to write about surfing and adventure sports. I pitched a few stories, made it happen, and they ended up giving me my own adventure/surfing column every week called “Breaking News,” with a picture of a wave over my face. I interviewed famous surfers and adventurers for five newspapers all over San Diego county, and basically did the same thing I’m doing now when I was 19.

The next summer, I traveled to and interned for a newspaper in Cape Town, South Africa. The current topics of the news at the time were racism, drugs, crime, and AIDS, topics that would really test me emotionally if I took them on. I decided to write about sports, and I ended up covering all of these topics through the lens of sports.

For my first “real” job out of college, I was the journalist for the Vans Warped Tour.

I graduated early, and I was up for jobs at the Associated Press, at MTV, and the Eco-challenge, which was the precursor to the Survivor show. I met someone at Vans earlier that year when working for a newspaper in Atlanta and covered a Vans Skatepark opening. We stayed in touch, and when I graduated I asked if they had any jobs open. They didn’t have anything, but the next day, he called back. “Actually, there’s this guy who was supposed to be the journalist for the Vans Warped Tour, but we think he just wants to be a roadie and he does too many drugs, sooo…”

The VP hiring for the job was leaving that afternoon to Canada, so I got in my car, drove two hours north, and talked my way into that job. No girl had ever been hired for that position, but I had just spent 6 weeks camping through Fiji, Australia and New Zealand so told them I could handle life on a tour bus.  That was it. I was on the Warped Tour. I had a little digital Cannon Elph camera, and I took 100s of pictures a day, and I wrote two daily stories including profile pieces on all the bands, nonprofits, and roadies. It was two-months, and a hundred or more bands a day played at every stop.

There was no Wi-Fi then, so the hardest part was sending the stories because back then I had to find a phone line to do so. Most Vans Warped Tours are held in parking lots or fairgrounds. Often, the phone lines were being used by the tour managers and agents, who to 21-year-old me, were very intimidating. I often had to hitchhike with the most non-ax murder-looking-like kid to the nearest Kinko’s or to their house to send in the stories. Each photo took two minutes to send. I traded a lot of free Vans shoes to use phone lines, and Vans was very generous to me. I had to be resourceful. Also, all sorts of chaos happens on a traveling punk rock series so I learned to adapt quickly. It was a really good experience. It taught me a lot about how to get the story and do good work under deadline every day.

The biggest interviews I did were about people like musician Greg Graffin of Bad Religion. Instead of a traditional story about his music career, we went to a book store in Montreal and did a story called “A Summer Reading List by Greg Graffin,” because he was a professor, I think at Cornell at the time. A lot of the punk rock guys are really smart. I wrote about Greg, the guys from NOFX, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, and went surfing with a band called No Use for a Name every time we stopped near a beach. I tried to do less obvious stories since I got to see these guys every day.

I had some really good experiences when I was younger, and I think having a first job like that out of college made me think all jobs should be that exciting. I ended up going in house at Vans from about 2004 to 2009 in different capacities, first running women’s marketing. I’m not very coordinated in terms of style, and styling photo shoots wasn’t my strongest trait. I ended up getting to do international sales and marketing for Australia, New Zealand, all of Latin America, Asia and Canada two years after running women’s marketing. I freelanced a bit for different sports magazines on the side, but I quit in 2009, because I wanted to tell stories full-time again.

People said I was absolutely crazy for quitting my job at Vans. I also thought that maybe I was a spoiled millennial, even though I am almost too old to be a millennial.  Everybody thought I was a trust fund kid ‘cause I grew up in La Jolla. I asked my mother, and she’s like, “Yeah, no. Unfortunately, you’re not a trust fund kid.” But I grew up with a lot of trust fund kids. I thought maybe, somewhere tucked away I had one. But I don’t. At the time my dad died, we were well-off, because he was a dentist, but he didn’t know he was going to die so young at age 47, so there was no life insurance, business insurance, nothing. People sued my mom when he died for dental work that he didn’t finish. It was crazy. But my mom is a total survivor, and just went back to work and kicked butt and made it happen. Today she is one of the leading interventionists in the country, speaks all over the world, writes books, and has positively impacted countless lives.

At 28, I had this dream job at Vans. I was helping run international sales and marketing for everywhere except the USA, Europe and Africa with one other guy. It was a great job. I was making good money, and I really loved the people there. The vans crew was like family. I felt spoiled, ungrateful for my job, and I went into a deep depression. It took me about a year and a half to quit, but I started freelancing on the side. I sold a small story to Outside Magazine. Once I had that, I figured, OK, Outside’s a big enough name that once I’ve sold a story to them, I can probably sell stories to other magazines. I know now from my experience they are one of the hardest magazines to pitch. I took a freelance writing class on “how to pitch magazines.” You have to know how to pitch to do this work, and that was a game-changer for me.

Before I quit my job, I’d been freelancing at night and after work, and primed myself to be in a position to quit. I saved up money from Vans, and I had unused vacation time. The day I went into my boss’s office to quit, a PR contact called me. She said, “Hey, Shelby, there’s this opportunity; A guy backed out to go on a boat trip to the Mentawai Islands, (this beautiful island chain off of Indonesia) to go surf these giant waves with a group of watermen.”

I told her, “I can’t surf those waves though,” and she said, “You don’t have to surf, you just have to write about these guys. Ideally they want you to be a guy.” Because if you’re on a boat and if it’s just dudes and you’re the one girl, it could be a little awkward. But I convinced them, because I had done the Warped Tour on a tour bus with mostly men, I could handle it. They said yes.

It was a trip where the guys were the first to paddleboard some of these big waves in Indonesia. I just thought I would stay on the boat and say, “I’m a journalist; I’m just here to write about you, not surf.” I didn’t think I’d actually have to surf the waves. But after being on a boat for so many days, you just want to get in the water and surf. I kind of had no choice but to drop into these waves.

It became a good metaphor for life; You eventually have to get off the boat and go. Or you just get seasick, sunburnt, and salty.

I didn’t surf the biggest of the big waves, but I definitely surfed a wave that was double overhead and took some big ones on the head. I was with this guy, Brian Keaulana, who’s one of the best lifeguards in the world and he runs water safety for most major movies filmed in Hawaii. He gave me all this sage wisdom while I was there. I’d ask him these dumb questions, like, “Brian, what do I do when I get scared and I’m held underwater?”

And he says, “Sing a song.”

So I picked “That’ll Be the Day” by Buddy Holly, you know, “That’ll be the day when I die.” That’s a terrible song when you’re underwater. I told Brian that, and he says, “Pick a different song.”

So I picked, “You Are My Sunshine.” So, I’d get held underwater and I’d sing “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine …” And then eventually I’d come up.

I would paddle for waves, and I had way too small of a surfboard. Somebody on the boat gave me their board to borrow. Which was nice—you want a bigger board for bigger waves to paddle into them. I had mostly surfed waves in San Diego my whole life, and now I was in Indonesia, at this reef break. If you fall at La Jolla Shores you have nice stuff under you—sand. In Indonesia, if you fall, it’s coral reef.

So I paddle for these waves and I just kept falling, or I wouldn’t make them. I asked Brian what I should do. And he says, “You can start saying ‘make it, make it, make it.’” I had just quit my job, I’m the only girl on this boat trip, and I have a lot to prove to myself. At one point, everybody else is on the boat eating lunch except for Brian and I, and all of a sudden, a triangle of water comes up.

Usually when waves come up from the sea, they come up like a rainbow, they’re arced and gently slope to the sides like a rounded A frame. At this one break, called Mutz, which translates to “pussy,” (this is no pussy wave, and it’s a totally sexist name for a wave). This wave comes up like a triangle and juts out, and it’s basically hollow inside and I’ve never been barreled in my life.

This triangle of water is coming toward us and he says, “You gonna go?” And when this Hawaiian god-like looking man looks at you and says “are you going to go?” you go. So, I’m paddling and start saying, “Make it, make it, make it. Make it, make it, make it. Paddle, paddle, paddle. You are my sunshine, make it, make it, make it.” The wave goes, I get to my feet, I stand up, and for like a nanosecond crystal clear water goes over my head, I’m covered up, maybe not fully barreled, but smiling ear to ear. I have the worst style. My butt is sticking out, but I have the world’s biggest smile.

I come out the other side and I’m changed. I just wanted somebody to see it. Just then I see a photographer who I thought was eating lunch, sitting in the channel, and he got it all on film. I ended up sending that picture to everybody back home and at Vans from the boat, which cost like $80 per email to send via Satellite Phone. I think my bill came to $500, which is what I’d make for a story about the trip. The boat captain was so excited for me, at the end of the trip he waived the bill.

A few years later, I would interview a famous older surfer named Mickey Munoz. He said, “You know, Shelby, one time I got barreled in Indonesia and I came out 15 years younger on the other side.” And I believe that. I know it sounds hippy, but I think if you have an experience like that in nature, you come out changed. For me, I wasn’t younger but I went from depressed, scared, self-doubting Shelby to this confident girl who’s like I can do anything. So from 2009 to 2016, I carried that and then I started the podcast because I knew I needed to evolve.

I’d written for lots of different publications, but podcasting was just so appealing. I had sold a story in 2015 to a popular magazine, and the conversation was so great, but it was edited in the magazine and the whole conversation wasn’t captured well in print.

It felt really good interviewing these people for stories, these adventure outliers. One day in 2009, I was seeing my parents in San Diego for the weekend and I had to interview someone over the phone for a story I was working on for Outside about the fittest athletes who weren’t sponsored, but did their extreme feats for the love of it. My stepdad overheard me taking a call, and he said, “You just look so alive talking to this guy.” That’s exactly what I love doing, ever since I was a little kid. I love interviewing people with awesome stories of having taken the road less traveled and going for it.

I decided on podcasting in 2016. I like that podcasts are whole conversations, in context, the most old-school form of journalism, and it’s a business too. You have to have business sense to run a podcast that makes money. I could do both. In 2015, I took a business accelerator course through an all-women’s co-working space called Hera Lab in San Diego—the woman who taught the class also teaches entrepreneurship at UCSD. It was 12 weeks, every Monday. The first Monday was: write your business plan.

The course was an actual hands-on, just do it, approach to start a business and we didn’t really talk about theory because we just got busy on our business. We started with the finances, which is a big reality check and a must-do if you want to start a business because starting a business often costs money. For a podcast, you also need to know who your audience is, but also who your buyer is. We wrote profiles of who our audience was, and I wrote profiles on who my potential sponsors were and the people making those decisions. That was impactful. I actually got my first sponsor from the exact avatar I created of who I thought was behind the dream company I wanted to work with.

I had an idea of who my listener was. My listeners were my friends. They liked their jobs, but they kind of wanted to do something else. They either wanted to go on a grand surf trip or a big hiking trip, write a book or start a business. They just wanted something a little bit more extra in their life, and they knew what they wanted to do it, but they needed some inspiration and courage to go for it. I thought most of the listeners would be women since I am, but turns out it’s a pretty even split between men and women and I have some die-hard male fans. I think that’s cool because I just wanted to showcase great people – men and women, going for it.

Back in college, I had taken a magazine journalism class, and the professor said, “You’re never going to make it as a freelance writer. That doesn’t exist.” So I dropped his class, and I was really mad. I just found this guy to be so un-encouraging.

I think from 2009 to 2015, I really wanted to prove that one professor wrong. On the side of magazine writing, I did some other things—I did copywriting and PR for Nike and Prana. I went in-house for a year and did marketing for Body Glove. I learned a lot in that time. I also was a business reporter, which is the job that impacted me the most. I reported on the business of the outdoor and action sports world for a site called Shop-Eat-Surf. I worked for this awesome woman who had been a business reporter for the Orange County Register, and she started this website to report on the business of surf brands. My job was to interview CEOs of companies. I learned a lot about business, and wanted to start my own. But the only thing I know is media. And I didn’t want to put another product we didn’t need into the world. I wanted to create something that helped people.

I teach surf lessons once a year during an annual veteran’s surf clinic. Many of the veterans were wounded and/or have PTSD and they come for a week. I take the week off in September, and I’ve taught a blind vet to surf, a bunch of amputees and other amazing men and women who have served our country. It’s so powerful and so emotional that week. That’s usually the best thing I do all year.

I get so much out of it. I mean, they get a lot out of it. Surfing’s just such a good metaphor for life. There’s so many unknowns, and no wave is the same, so you have to let go of control and just learn the feeling of catching a wave. There’s really nothing like it. To watch someone without arms and legs catch a wave, and see the smile on their face, it’s pretty incredible.

If I were to do anything else, I’d probably like to work with teens. I’m still like a big camp counselor. And, I just like teens—they’re sort of at the maturity level where I have stayed, at least in terms of their sense of humor and zest for play. I thought for sure by almost 40, I would be different and I wouldn’t still skateboard—I thought by 21 I wouldn’t skateboard. I remember seeing a 21-year-old skateboarding when I was 15 being like, “That is so weird—she is 21 and she’s still skateboarding.” And now I’m 38, and still skateboarding.