MONROE — Former Monroe radio personality Dusty Weis took a risk in 2019. On a vacation to Mexico with his wife Cecilia, he found the perfect time to bring up a surprise topic — quitting his meal-ticket job to start his own business creating podcasts.
“She said it made sense,” laughed Weis, a 2003 Monroe High School graduate, who has two young children with his wife. “It was a huge risk, but I had a business plan in place.”
After 18 months of busting his hump, Weis got some vindication that his time and effort had been worth it. On Oct. 26, it was announced that his Milwaukee-based podcast “Lead Balloon” had been named the Adweek Marketing Podcast of the Year, a competition he entered on a whim.
“I am absolutely gobsmacked,” said Weis. He paid an entry fee for the contest, but likened it to buying a lottery ticket. “I’m competing against agencies from coast to coast with tons of employees. I’m a one-man show working out of my basement in Wauwatosa. For me, it’s a huge sigh of relief. These first 18 months have been a real grind.”
I’m competing against agencies from coast to coast with tons of employees. I’m a one-man show working out of my basement in Wauwatosa. For me, it’s a huge sigh of relief. These first 18 months have been a real grind.Dusty Weis, Lead Balloon podcast
Adweek is a globally-renowned source of news and insight in the brand marketing ecosystem, and its annual awards are the industry equivalent of winning an Emmy or an Oscar. The awards for podcasts cross a wide range of categories, and winners are selected by jury consisting of senior editors from Adweek, plus other leaders and popular figures in the podcast industry.
“Winning a popularity contest is cool, but I always would rather be judged and awarded in a jury contest,” said Weis, who called the win “gratifying.”
The winding road
As a 17-year-old in the summer of 2002, Weis took the advice of friend Ethan Blue to apply at WEKZ in Monroe.
“I walked into Scott Thompson’s office and basically said that I know what a soundboard is and he should give me a job,” said Weis, who added that he wore his prom tuxedo to the interview. “I owe almost everything to Scott Thompson. He took a chance on a kid with way too much hubris.”
He said the staff at the station, from the late Don Jacobson to Wyatt Hermann, Dan Blum “… and everyone else out there — I was between 17 and 20 years old, but they never treated me like a kid. And they shaped the professional I am today,” Weis said. “They were awesome people and I learned so much from them.”
His experiences at the station from 2002-05 led him down his career path. As a UW-Madison student, he was in the journalism major and a member of the schools’ radio program that was honored in 2007 by the College Broadcasting Incorporated for best college radio program while at WSUM. He interned and worked at the Portage Daily Register from 2006-08, and then was a reporter and anchor from 2008-11 at the now-defunct WTDY outside of Madison.
Covering the protests at the state capital in response to the Act 10 ruling in 2011 as a CBS Radio News Network correspondent put him in touch with members of a sibling station, WIOD-AM in Miami, Florida.
Weis said that when he moved to Miami, it was like “living in another country.”
“Financially; culturally, it was so much different than being a small-town kid from the Midwest,” Weis said.
In his heart, he’s always been a “Wisconsin boy.” Weis eventually left Miami in 2012 and moved to Milwaukee where he worked public relations with City Hall in Wisconsin’s largest municipality, where he worked for five years. In 2017, he joined the Association of Equipment Manufacturing (AEM), and was put in charge of trying to connect heavy equipment companies like Bobcat and John Deere to new technologies. The job paid well, and Weis had little gripes. But as he began seeing success with his AEM podcasts, he started thinking about what he could do differently on his own. Enter a vacation abroad with his wife and a couple of adult beverages, and the rest is history.
“I am super lucky that I have such a tolerant, supportive and patient wife,” Weis said.
Weis said he picked his podcast name because of the old saying “it went over like a lead balloon,” meaning an idea or action was received poorly. The podcast is about public relations, marketing and strategic communication disaster stories told by the well-meaning communications professionals who lived them, Weis said. Basically, it is business professionals “telling war stories while chatting at the corner of the bar,” though Weis admitted there was more to it than that.
“It’s not just a recorded conversation so much as a curated experience,” he said.
Episodes over the first year include conversations with former White House spokesman Kevin Sullivan and events director Josh King, plus Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Bill Pierce. He interviewed the producers of the HBO docu-series McMillion$, James Lee Hernandez and Brian Lazarte, as well as many current and former Wisconsin leaders and businessmen.
The most popular episode was less about PR and marketing, and more about a national conversation. In “Getting Uncomfortable About Race in America” following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Weis held conversations with three Black professional communicators, including Randy Crump, CEO of Prism Technical Management. He asked his guests about their experiences being a minority in business.
Weis carefully touched on his own privileged experiences as a white male in rural Wisconsin, comparing his 17-year-old self to that of 17-year-old Travon Martin in Florida — the national story of which Weis covered in depth as a CBS Network correspondent. In the podcast, Weis recalled an incident from his days high school when he and some friends were trespassing in a quarry with stolen garden gnomes, homemade spud guns and makeshift explosives, looking to have some fun under the stars.
It’s not just a recorded conversation so much as a curated experience.Dusty Weis, Lead Balloon podcast
“Fueled by the invincibility of youth, boredom and an embarrassing affinity for the TV show Jackass, we were in the midst of what I can safely call a crime spree,” Weis said on the podcast. “I was the genius videotaping it. Make no mistake about it, we were armed with deadly weapons. We were up to no good.” Weis let it be known that that responding officers let he and his friends off with a warning for teenage shenanigans.
One thing Weis is planning for his podcast is to expand and hire a full-time employee.
“It’s still super scary to be a small business owner,” Weis said. “I don’t have an entrepreneurial bone in my body.”
But the gratification of producing award-winning content has been a shot in the arm for himself, and he hopes the carryover will help the business grow. “Hopefully it helps me sleep at night now,” he said.
To listen to the Lead Balloon podcast or to learn more about Weis and his business, visit podcampmedia.com/leadballoon.