As the reach of social media increases, humaity as a whole—quite ironically—has become more insular and less social. As society cloisters itself into pockets with other like-minded individuals who share their perspectives and preferences, people seem less likely to seek out, listen to, and learn about others. In noticing this widening disconnect between people in his community (and far beyond), Sam Kirkegaard decided to start a venture that would allow him, and an audience of listeners, to meet new people from all corners of Milwaukee’s creative realm.
Every Monday, the 28-year-old Milwaukee multimedia manager invites a complete stranger into his home—or occasionally meets them at a neutral site—to have a conversation about their life story, their career, and anything else that happens to come up. Each conversation is recorded and filmed, to be released as an episode his We Never Met podcast.
On the cusp of the podcast’s 30th episode and a few weeks prior to the host’s move to Chicago, Milwaukee Record—a past guest on the show—asked Kirkegaard how We Never Met came to be, guests that have stood out in the show’s brief history, and why it’s important to take time to learn about the lives of others.
Milwaukee Record: Where did the idea for We Never Met come from?
Sam Kirkegaard: The idea for the podcast came a couple years before I started recording. I’ve had podcasts before, but they all sort of fell flat because after a certain amount of time I just wasn’t interested anymore. So, after the fourth or fifth podcast that didn’t work out I reflected on what I genuinely enjoyed about radio and podcasting. It was hearing people’s stories. I love just sitting down with people, asking them questions and having a conversation about their life because people are amazing. A lot of people have amazing things to say, but a lot of the time we just don’t ask. I love to hear how people got to where they are, and the road that they have taken always has been fascinating to me. I find myself walking down the street a lot and just looking at people and wondering, I wonder what their life is like, I wonder what they do.
So, that’s where the idea for an interesting stranger came into play. I thought it would be really fascinating to sit down with those strangers and record our first interaction together on a podcast. The concept makes the guest and the host lean into a conversation and exchange with someone who doesn’t know them at all. Forging that connection with a guest over an hour-long conversation turned out to be super fun, interesting and, honestly, made me learn a lot about myself.
MR: Why do you feel it’s important to open yourself to meeting new people and opening yourself up to new perspectives?
SK: I think in today’s day in age we like to talk to people who we already know will agree with us. We like to have a social group of like minded individuals because inherently as humans we gravitate toward similarities. However, that can be extremely problematic. We can quickly lose sight of the world around us, we might no longer be challenged to grow or develop. A lot of folks will hear without listening. I think the main reason is because we are so fragile with our own beliefs and perspectives we don’t want anyone to poke holes in it or even question it. Cause if you meet someone who has a different perspective that isn’t an attack on your perspective, it’s an attack on you. That seems to be the belief these days, so no one ends up talking to anyone with a different background or someone with a different perspectives.
I personally think it’s so important to challenge your beliefs, your values and your thoughts. The best way to do that is to meet new people with different backgrounds and experiences. It makes you a more complete person and allows you to constantly grow and develop. It allows you to empathize better with others and maybe will give you a new perspective or new view of a something you’ve never thought of before. I’m not saying it’s easy to go out and meet new people, it’s incredibly scary putting yourself out there, but it’s really important and rewarding. You might actually be surprised as well how much commonality we all share.
MR: You seem to get guests from all different creative avenues? How do you go about selecting potential guests or, maybe more specifically, what do you feel makes for a good guest?
SK: My goal when I started the podcast was not pigeonhole myself into a specific type of guest—like only musicians, only athletes, only business owners. Since the podcast is based on the idea that everyone has a story to tell, I wanted to get a wide variety of folks from all different backgrounds and walks of life to be on the show. I also think it just comes down to the idea that what fascinates me is the person and their story. What they do as a career or their interests are just part of their greater story. Oftentimes, the conversation goes in a completely different direction that I never thought it would. Those to me are some of my favorite episodes. I think as far as what makes someone a good guest, it’s someone who isn’t afraid to share their story, their highs and their lows. It can be extremely tough to confide in a stranger, especially when you are talking about topics that are sensitive, but the folks who open up to me and the audience during the podcast are always my favorite.
MR: Over the course of close to 30 episodes—and counting—of We Never Met, are there any common threads or shared traits you’ve observed in your guests? Is there there anything you’ve learned about yourself?
SK: As far as common threads, I just think a lot of the podcast shows how complex we all are. Everyone living on this planet has a background and stories that are unique to them. That’s what makes me so excited every week to talk to the guests on the show. I think what I’ve learned listening to a lot of the folks on the podcast is there is a lot of judgement in the world and not enough discovery. By that, I mean when we walk down the street and see someone, a thought comes to our mind, sometimes positive, sometimes negative, sometimes neutral, but usually it’s just a thought and we move on with your day. We don’t stop and ask that person a question or tell them we really like that hat they’re wearing to try and start a conversation. We just move on with our day.
So, I think the common theme is that we overlook how complex we all are. We overlook the stories and a lot of the time the wisdom that people can impart if we give them the chance to. I have learned so much over the course of recording these episodes and meeting these incredible folks, and I have learned about myself in ways I didn’t know I could. And I have grown a lot as well. It all has to do with just having conversations with people I probably would have never spoken to in my life. I think that’s the sad thing I think about sometimes too, if it wasn’t for this podcast, if I never started it, I would have never met so many of these incredible folks and had some of the best conversations in my life.
MR: Do you have any favorite episodes?
SK: I have so many favorite episodes. There hasn’t been a single guest I haven’t enjoyed talking to, but there are a couple that are close to my heart. The episode with Samer Ghani will always be one of my favorites. He’s just so incredible, his art, his photography, who he is as a person, his story, he is just amazing. If you don’t know him, shame on you, not really, but seriously look him up, he’s an incredible human being with an incredible gift. He is also one of the most down to earth and kindest people I’ve ever met.
The episode with Zach Pietrini is another episode that is my favorite. His story is incredible, his perspectives on life are thoughtful and genuine. [I like] how raw he is, his willingness to talk about some of the darkness he deals with, it was just an incredible look into the eyes of a fantastic singer-songwriter. He also is an incredible person and we always joke that we could have made a four-hour episode because we could have just kept talking about anything.
Amanda Huff is another person who was incredible to meet. She wasn’t afraid at all to open up and talk about pretty much anything on the show. She is just an extremely talented human overall and is also just an extremely nice person with a great story. Shle Berry, musician and rapper, was incredible to have on, and she’s also one of those people where we had a connection while recording and it just felt comfortable talking to each other right away. She is also just an amazing person and incredible talent. Whitney Anderson, graphic designer and illustrator, was one of those folks who I always thought was incredible and I was so happy to get to meet and have on the show. She is an insanely talented artist and illustrator, who genuinely is an excellent person.
Alex Mariani—or DelMar The Poet—was another great guest. He has an incredible story and wasn’t afraid to talk about any of it. He is extremely talented, hardworking, and thoughtful. I will be a fan of his forever. I also want to give a massive shout out to Barb Stutz and Josh Arter, my first two guests on the show. They took a leap of faith with no examples of the podcast and still came on the show to talk to a complete stranger. They are both incredible. I’ve used the word “incredible” way too much, but it’s true. Josh is an amazing GameBoy photographer and has a super interesting background and he also is responsible for the intro and outro music of the podcast. Once again, though, I’ve loved having everyone on. Those are just some that popped into my mind right now.
MR: Do you think moving to Chicago will open the show up to new or larger-named guests or do you feel there’s a wealth of interesting stories and amazing people all over?
SK: The whole point of the podcast from the beginning for me was as long as I haven’t met them, they are open to be on the show. I believe that everyone has a story to tell, so to me, whether they are a big-name guest or someone who has never been interviewed or been on a podcast before, it’s open to anyone I’ve never met. There are over two million people in Chicago, so odds are I will find some super interesting folks to talk to down there. I’ll also be making trips up to Milwaukee, since I’m from here, so future Milwaukee guests aren’t out of the question either.
MR: Even if it’s not as a part of a weekly podcast they’re hosting, why should people take the time to get to know others in their community?
SK: I think it’s really important the engage with people in the community. A lot of the time, we stay away from conversations with people out of our comfort zone—people who don’t agree with us politically, socially, economically, religiously. It seems like most people don’t like having those conversations because sometimes they can be put in uncomfortable situations and, even worse, sometimes they can be wrong. But, if we don’t challenge ourselves and get out there and meet people that are different from us, our communities will not continue to grow and prosper. Remember to listen, not just hear.