Once a small bedroom, now transformed into a welcoming space for people to share their stories.
A chalkboard wall, slowly filling with quotes, stands behind Jill Szoo Wilson and her guests. Szoo Wilson is the producer and host of the podcast, “Small Town. Big Stories.” The tagline — “Finding purpose wherever you are.”
It has been a journey for Szoo Wilson to get to where she is now.
In 2006, she graduated with her Master of Fine Arts in acting and directing, for theatre, from Regent University and soon began a professional career on stage as an actress, in front of the camera as an on-air spokesperson for Price Chopper and at UCM as a communication instructor.
Szoo Wilson’s 12-year position at UCM ended in spring of 2017 as a result of statewide budget cuts.
One day she asked herself what her dream job would be. She applied for it just to see what would happen.
“I got an offer to be a tour guide at the Grand Canyon with this company called, ‘Pink Jeep Tour,’” Szoo Wilson said. “I love the Grand Canyon and outdoor adventures. Then they hired me and I was like, ‘Wait a second.’”
Even with the support from her family, she ended up turning the job down because she didn’t want to be away from them.
She then started to explore different aspects of her own personality, passions, desires and different things she’s always wanted to try.
“I decided to try law enforcement,” Szoo Wilson said. “I spent about 10 months doing ride alongs, sitting with people and having conversations over coffee about their experience in law enforcement.”
After some time, she was accepted into the Central Missouri Police Academy. Even though she thought she may be too empathetic for the job, she gave it a try.
“I went for about five weeks and then I left,” she said. “I thought, ‘No, not for me.’”
Szoo Wilson said one of her strengths is creativity and that was not the best place for someone like her because she wanted to know “why” instead of taking scenarios for what they were.
The idea for the podcast was sparked when she wanted to launch a YouTube channel as a creative outlet. For her birthday her husband got her a camera, microphone and lighting.
“I started realizing how stressful it can be to make sure you have the right lighting, the right background,” Szoo Wilson said. “It was just becoming too much and I was like, ‘Why don’t I just do a podcast?’”
The focus on local stories came about when Szoo Wilson found herself looking for her purpose.
“The idea for this one came because I had been searching for my purpose in life and my direction,” Szoo Wilson said. “At least for a year and a half, like specifically searching for my purpose.”
Szoo Wilson said she would bring up the idea for searching with others and realized that she wasn’t alone in the struggle to find her purpose.
She said hardly anyone has a natural trajectory of just going from high school to college and directly into the workforce without some type of change of plans.
“So rather than being stressed out about my job being cut here and that I wasn’t going to be teaching anymore,” she said, “I just decided, I’m going to make it an adventure and I’m just going to start exploring.”
Part of her search took place in October 2018 for five days in the middle of an Arizona desert.
“On my last full day there, I went to the Painted Desert and there’s a monument called the, ‘Wukoki Pueblo,’” Szoo Wilson said. “No one was there. It was just me for a whole hour.”
She sat there and began writing — a thought came to her.
“Our vertical relationships in life affect our horizontal relationships,” Szoo Wilson said. “So the vertical relationship being my relationship to God or philosophies or ideas… horizontal relationships, which was the people, the circumstances and everything I would reach out to.”
Szoo Wilson said she found herself working best in the intersection of the vertical and the horizontal relationships.
She said storytelling comes naturally to her, but she’s had to learn the technical side of podcasting.
“Every step of the way I have had to Google what to do,” she said. “I’m using GarageBand and doing it all by instinct.”
She is also learning how to be a host along the way. Szoo Wilson said she listens for a beginning, middle and end, while making sure the conversation keeps to the theme of finding one’s purpose.
“The ‘finding purpose where you are’ tag really came from me sitting down and making a list of what are my objectives in starting a podcast?” Szoo Wilson said. “What do I want my audience to go away with at the end of every episode?”
Szoo Wilson said she loves asking guests what their purpose is because they have to pause and really think about it.
“A lot of times people are going about their daily life and you’re going in one direction and you think, ‘This is my goal, this is my objective,’ but if somebody stops you and says, ‘What’s your purpose?’ I don’t know because that’s a whole different question,” Szoo Wilson said. “I know what my goal is, I know what my objective is, but what’s my purpose? Where is my life going to bring meaning to other people?”
She said when it comes to choosing guests, it is a process that she makes sure to spend time on and is intentional with.
“I sat and brainstormed with myself one day about all the people whose stories I have heard and been fascinated by and then I brainstormed people who I didn’t know very well but was already fascinated by for some reason and so I wanted to pursue them,” she said.
As of now, Szoo Wilson has a list of about 25 people but says she’s only gotten to three who were on the initial list.
“People just keep popping up, new stories keep introducing themselves to me and so if it feels right I’ll say, ‘Hey, do you want to be on the podcast?’”
She said so far no one has turned her down.
She said another unique “character” that has become a part of the podcast is the train.
“There’s no way for me to cut it out. I think the train is also a character in Warrensburg. It plays a part in everyone’s lives in the background,” she said. “Even after you’ve been gone for a while and then you hear the train, it’s like a nostalgic feeling.”
While Szoo Wilson has embraced the train as part of the podcast, some audio challenges that have arisen have been loud cars outside and the baseball team during practices and games.
“I have a baseball schedule and even if they’re not scheduled to play a game all of a sudden I’ll start hearing the music and the crack of a bat and I’m like, ‘Oh they’re practicing,’” she said.
Only once she’s had to call the athletic office and politely ask them to turn the music down and they were compliant.
While she has been learning about podcasting on her own, she is also learning from each of her guests.
“I have realized through my guests that though we all are very complex and our stories take us in very different directions, when we’re vulnerable and transparent we can connect with other people,” Szoo Wilson said.
When asked what her purpose is, she laughed and said, “Man, I was hoping you wouldn’t ask.”
A few moments of silence passed and she had an answer.
“It’s definitely connection. To be an instrument of connecting people to ideas and other people.”
You can listen to the next episode, coming out on Monday, by visiting the Small Town. Big Stories. website.