Meet the podcasters bringing Alcoholics Anonymous into the Digital Age

In church basements and community centers, AA has helped people stay sober for 82 years

Published May 14, 2017 10:30AM (EDT)

Detroit, Michigan - March 28, 2017: Mark, an anonymous voice for "Recovered," a podcast discussing the process of healing from addiction to alcohol, records the podcast alongside his colleagues at his home on March 28, 2017 in the suburbs outside of Detroit, Michigan. The podcast, which began in 2007, is now reaching over 80,000 audience members.  (Brittany Greeson/The New York Times)
Detroit, Michigan - March 28, 2017: Mark, an anonymous voice for "Recovered," a podcast discussing the process of healing from addiction to alcohol, records the podcast alongside his colleagues at his home on March 28, 2017 in the suburbs outside of Detroit, Michigan. The podcast, which began in 2007, is now reaching over 80,000 audience members. (Brittany Greeson/The New York Times)

This article originally appeared on Narratively.

narratively_logoAndrew took his life on July 2, 2012. He was 26 years old. Later that month, his father, Mark, hosted the 372nd episode of “Recovered,” an unofficial Alcoholics Anonymous podcast. There isn’t an official one.

His voice cracking with emotion, his sentences punctuated with pregnant pauses, Mark read from "The Big Book", the fundamental text for AA, and played songs by Wilco and The Avett Brothers.

For many years, Mark and Andrew had both struggled with addiction. Both had sought help. Andrew entered the AA fellowship in November 2002 at sixteen years old. Six months later, Andrew confronted his father about his own alcoholism and took Mark to his first AA meeting. Mark stayed in. Andrew struggled.

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A 56-year-old engineer based in Canton, Michigan, Mark now records the “Recovered” podcast in his son’s bedroom. Four microphones dominate a space filled with reminders: Andrew’s dresser, clothes, wallet and cellphone; his Playskool cassette recorder.

Sharing Andrew’s story on his podcast, Mark advised his listeners, “[If] you feel like there’s no hope and you have no future, find a sponsor. And hold on.”

While other podcasters explore topics like true crime, politics, TV and film, Mark and his guests talk about their lives in recovery. They share stories about entanglements with law enforcement, finding a sponsor, managing lasting health issues, and avoiding alcohol during the holidays.

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Back in 2007, when Mark started recording “Recovered,” there weren’t a lot of recovery-based podcasts out there. Many of those that launched had “pod-faded,” meaning podcasters had started them but then gave up on producing new episodes.

“Recovered” grew out of Mark’s practice of exchanging MP3 recordings with Andrew while he was still a high school student living at home. One day Mark was struggling with guiding a sponsee and Andrew planted the seed by suggesting he record a podcast on the topic of recovery.

Mark has been recording his podcast for nearly a decade now. It averages more than 50,000 downloads a month.

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These days, he’s far from alone. Plug “AA” or “Alcoholics Anonymous” or “Recovery” into your iTunes search and you’ll find the options are abundant and growing. Like many of the podcasters who spoke for this story, Mark has asked that his full name not be used. For the 1.2 million people in the U.S. who attend AA meetings, anonymity is key. It has been so since the 1930s, when Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith founded Alcoholics Anonymous.

“That’s the way [AA] protects itself,” Mark says. “Because in the early history, people were on the radio speaking for Alcoholics Anonymous, and then they’d relapse and go get drunk. And the organization would take a huge hit.”

The first time Mark got drunk was at age fourteen. The occasion was his sister’s wedding. He threw up in the bathroom during the reception. He continued using drugs and alcohol throughout his life.

Upon graduating college, he married his high school sweetheart. When their kids were still young, he began looking forward more and more to his quiet moments alone with his TV, his hockey game and his beer.

He stopped for a year on his own. Then he had a beer. He began drinking in secret: vodka in a water bottle, Halls Mentho-Lyptus drops to hide the alcohol on his breath. The dual life made him increasingly desperate and miserable.

Meanwhile, Andrew, who had suffered from anxiety and depression, was injured on his high school wrestling team and discovered the joys of Vicodin.

“When he took the Vicodin, it just settled his whole world down,” Mark says. “Within a year, he was a full-on heroin addict. He was 15.”

Together, Mark and Andrew got clean. Mark discloses that they were “not the all-American family” and adds, “Most people are going to honor society meetings and track and field events and going to see their son play football. Andrew and I were going to a meeting every night.”

* * *

Chrissy, who lives not far from Mark, learned about “Recovered” in 2014 from the fliers Mark circulated at the AA meeting she attended.

It was eleven years ago that Chrissy entered recovery after being arrested for drunk driving a second time in five years and losing her driver’s license. As part of her probation, she was ordered to attend AA. She was a single mom in her thirties, living in Canton, where she had no family and no significant other to lean on.

With the help of the people she met in AA, she never missed a day of work in the year and a half her license was suspended. With their help, she made it to grocery stores, soccer games, and two meetings a day, six days a week.

Now Chrissy is one of the Mark’s rotating cast of hosts. Appearing on “Recovered” can sometimes feel a lot like attending an AA meeting, she says, and even with the emails and calls from listeners, it’s easy to forget their discussions are public, available to anyone in the world with an Internet connection.

They reach listeners as far away as Greenland and Australia. Many of their listeners are truck drivers, she says, and other folks who can’t get to meetings because they’re on the road. Others are people who are only just beginning to consider recovery.

“Before I got sober, I [couldn’t] imagine listening to a bunch of people talking about being sober,” she says. “It seems like the last thing I ever would have wanted to do. And it seems like a large part of our audience we help get to their first meeting.”

As a recovery podcaster, she reveals the kinds of sensitive details that would normally be shared only in the privacy of an AA meeting, whether it’s growing up with her mother’s alcoholism or her fears about her own inadequacy as a mother.

Whenever Chrissy’s family members ask her what show she’s on, she demurs. She is engaged to a man who is also in the program, and she has a 21-year-old daughter. She isn’t keen on either of them listening. There are certain things that people close to her just may not want to hear.

“Here’s the thing,” she says. “If I touch somebody with an experience I’ve been through, and I’m able to help them . . . if my family gets their feelings hurt, then, I’m sorry, it’s not about them.”

* * *

When John was 21, his mom committed suicide. Someone handed him a shot of whiskey, and he stayed drunk for the next five years.

Four years later, in July of 1988, he exited a Kansas City jail cell where he had spent the night after being arrested for drunk driving. Wandering through the city looking for his car, he observed the quotidian world around him from a dramatic remove: the normal people going about their normal activities, headed to work, running errands. It was like watching a movie. He had lost all connection to it.

Crossing along an overpass, he stopped, and for a moment seriously considered throwing himself off it into the highway below. Instead, he continued on his way, eventually found his car and called AA. He was 25 years old. Today, John is 54, and he’s been in the program for nearly three decades.

Never a particularly religious man, he started questioning his Christian beliefs around 2014. At the “We Agnostics and Freethinkers International AA Convention” that year, he met Roger, who runs the website AA Agnostica. Together, they launched “AA Beyond Belief,” a website and podcast for agnostics and atheists.

The website, which launched in September 2015, is maintained by a team of volunteer writers and editors. It pulls in around twenty thousand page views a month. Their relatively new podcast has been downloaded 66,000 times since launch.

“It turns out that we have this huge online community,” John says. “We’re all in touch through social media and Skype and through our website. So there’s no shortage of people for me to talk to on the podcast.”

What many people don’t understand about AA, John says, is that it’s fundamentally grassroots, run by the people who go to the meetings, not by AA’s general service board, Alcoholics Anonymous World Services. John has been involved with the organization’s service structure for years, and its slowness to adapt to the Internet has been a frequent source of frustration for him.

At AA’s annual general service conference, which brings together representatives from AA groups around the country, he’s heard plenty of discussion about the potential of the Internet, but he says progress at that level has been glacial.

It’s perhaps understandable for an organization guided by a text originally published in 1939, that many of its members are traditionalists, and resistant to change.

But there are no rules prohibiting members from holding online meetings, starting a website, engaging over social media, or producing a podcast. So people like John are striking out on their own.

While Mark of “Recovered,” believes the online experience works best as a supplement to real world meetings — not as a substitute — that distinction isn’t quite as clear cut for John

“It depends on the generation,” he says. “There are a lot of people in their twenties who are more comfortable in an online environment than attending a face to face meeting.”

* * *

Paul Churchill started the “Recovery Elevator” podcast after returning to AA in 2014 following a DUI and a failed suicide attempt. He found he could achieve a week, a month, even a year of sobriety on willpower alone. But for a decade he had found permanent sobriety impossible. Willpower is an exhaustible resource, he realized.

After undertaking a six-thousand-mile road trip to sort out his life, he decided to come out as an alcoholic.

“I was terrified,” he says. “However, I didn’t really care. I knew I had to come out of the closet or I was going to die. If I drink again, it’s only a matter of time before suicide seems like a pretty good option.”

The 34-year-old owner and operator of a mobile DJ business, Churchill eschews anonymity entirely. On his “Recovery Elevator” website, he uses his full name and his image. He is the only podcaster who agreed to use his full name for this article. For him, coming out as an alcoholic was about accountability.

Churchill has been sober for less than three years. He still views relapse as a very real possibility. He has nightmares about it. “I’ve had dreams where I drank, and in the dream I recorded a podcast, and I would say, ‘This is ‘Recovery Elevator’ episode 108. I drank last night.’”

With “Recovery Elevator,” he has turned his own recovery into a business. In addition to selling a 99-cent sobriety tracker app, which logs the duration of time since a user’s last drink and how much money the user has saved since quitting, he runs an online community that for $12 a month offers virtual meet-ups, webinars, sober travel itineraries and events.

As of this writing, he already has nineteen people signed up for a Recovery Elevator retreat in his small community of Bozeman, Montana, in August. He’s shooting for forty. He is planning another retreat for 2018 in Machu Picchu, Peru.

Churchill says that since his podcast debuted in February 2015, it’s closing in on a million downloads. He would like to attribute its popularity to the riveting content or his own charisma, but he puts it down to the sheer number of people who struggle with alcohol dependence and one day find themselves looking for help on iTunes.

While other podcasts serve as resources for people who are already in recovery, Churchill’s target listener is “someone who wakes up and goes, ‘Oh shit, I think I have a drinking problem.’”

“I have a thirty- to 45-minute conversation with a likeminded person,” he says. “I’m connecting with them sometimes on the other side of the world, the other side of the country, but we have something in common in that we’re both trying to stay sober.”

Since launching the podcast, he says he has encountered some criticism from others in the program for breaking with AA’s tradition of anonymity. But he calls going public with his recovery “one of the best things I ever could have done.”

“My number one goal is to shred the stigma and shred the shame,” he says. “In 1956, the American Medical Association classified alcoholism as a disease. Cancer and alcoholism are both diseases. The only difference is that stigma leads alcoholics not to seek help until it’s too late.”

* * *

In episode 372 of “Recovered,” Mark sounds broken. He’s barely holding it together. Even after a terrible car accident that had left his son Andrew temporarily paralyzed, Andrew looked as though he was on the straight and narrow. He had gotten clean, moved to Florida, landed a good job. But then he relapsed.

When Mark learned Andrew had committed suicide, he was despondent. He had spent years on his podcast extolling the benefits of AA and recovery. Now he questioned everything. Where was AA when Andrew needed it? Where was God?

Was Mark in danger of relapse? Of course, but he had years of sobriety and the relationships he had cultivated in recovery to rely on. The friends he had made in meetings showered his family with gifts of food. They cut his grass. They painted his basement. Whenever he needed help, all he had to do was ask.

Returning to “Recovered,” Mark found new meaning in it. For him, recovery is no longer just about staying sober. It is about reaching out to others in need and showing them that recovery is possible for everyone. It’s serious business. It’s life and death.

In the old days, spreading the word meant visiting Skid Row or working through a church pastor. Today, for Mark, it means speaking into a microphone in Andrew’s bedroom, doing the only thing he can do. He tells Andrew’s story.

“This is just a different way,” Mark says. “We’re able to get into the most intimate place, which is someone alone, with nothing but a smartphone and a prayer.”

By Emanuel Cavallaro

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