From his home studio in Safety Harbor, Scott Johnson seeks out the spectrum of extreme and unusual human experiences.
The interview subjects on his true story podcast What Was That Like have taken him along as they readied a parachute before an imminent plane crash in the Canadian wilderness, watched the severed head of a rattlesnake sink its fangs into their hand and faced down a serial rapist on an empty Seattle street at 3 a.m.
Since 2018, Johnson has been approaching people he hears about in the news and asking them to tell him their personal tales, one-on-one, for a biweekly listenership that has recently grown to around 20,000.
“The nightly news might interview someone for 30 minutes, then make that into a three-minute story and be done,” Johnson said. He wants to hear the other 27 minutes.
The episodes can go to dark places, but Johnson says he tries to walk a respectful line, giving guests a chance at catharsis, and maybe inspiring empathy in his listeners.
His very first episode featured a woman named Jennifer — guests are often identified only by first name — who was in a crash that killed a motorcyclist. She talked about the aftermath, both immediate and long term: guilt, finances, having to tell her kids.
“Find a story like that on the web, and look at the comment. It’s all people saying, ‘I hope that jerk goes to jail, they were probably texting,’ ” Johnson said. “Well Jennifer wasn’t doing any of that. ... I used to be one of those people who jumped to conclusions, but now I see her story in a whole different perspective.”
While he talks to people from all over the country, many of his subjects are from Tampa Bay. In an episode titled “Eric Killed an Intruder,” a St. Petersburg man tells what happened when a man smashed through his kitchen window, leading Eric to grab a butcher knife.
The episode makes use of the audio from several 911 calls in the neighborhood that night, but the story doesn’t end there. Eventually Eric explains the psychological technique he uses to deal with feelings of guilt years later.
There are lighthearted stories too. One guest explains what it was like to compete on Wheel of Fortune, and what happens with taxes when you don’t want the BMW X4 that you won. In another, a guest details her surprisingly competitive foray into driving the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.
Johnson said he tries to get out of the way and let people get detailed in their descriptions. Most people have a mental picture of what a tsunami looks like, but the guy who survived one in Thailand explained it’s probably not quite what you think.
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Other stories have a surprisingly happy ending. The woman who tells of being pushed into smuggling $180,000 worth of cocaine into Canada during a tropical vacation to St. Lucia wound up with a successful gourmet popcorn business.
Johnson said he’s careful about verifying stories. The man who supposedly ate his own foot on tacos, after it had to be amputated (Episode 28, “Shiny Ate His Own Foot”), was one where he proceeded cautiously, but ultimately believed the photographs.
“I’ve had people tell me stories that I do believe are true,” he said. “But since they didn’t file a police report, I won’t use them.”
Johnson said his audience has grown enough now that people pitch stories to him. That’s how he got the woman who witnessed a murder, and the guy who had a tree fall on him.
But it’s rare that the stories that come to him are usable. He won’t do anything paranormal, and he doesn’t take “medical miracle” stories of people who outlived a bad prognosis, because he hears so many.
Anything that starts out “I was so drunk” is immediately out, he said. “I’m already bored.”
Johnson does have a list of topics he’s still searching for: someone who survived falling off a cruise ship, a shark attack or being trapped in rubble after an earthquake.
With his next episode, he’ll scratch a longtime wish off his list. He’s interviewing someone who sustained themselves by dumpster diving for food for more than 30 days.