When I met Zimmerman at Irving’s in the middle of February, the stubble was gone, he was wearing a collared shirt, and he had recently finished recording the featured interview of the third episode of his upstart media venture.
“I always found podcasts to be incredibly entertaining,” he said. “I was really struck with the intimacy that’s possible with listeners.”
The 37-year-old Penn State lecturer in advertising and public relations is a media veteran. He worked as a reporter and editor for a small Pennsylvania newspaper, a freelance writer for various publications, and a Penn State social media manager before becoming a lecturer in 2017. You may recognize him as the host of the “This is Penn State” YouTube series, or from his byline, which recently appeared in an article entitled “How social media helped fuel indie wrestling’s resurgence,” and last summer on this website for a story on pro wrestling great "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan.
Zimmerman hatched his “Happy Valley Hustle” plan while teaching a digital public relations course last semester. Students were required to analyze and present on the online public relations strategy of a big brand — Nike, Adidas, Amazon, etc. — for their final project. But Zimmerman noticed that he and his students struggled to engage in these final presentations. In an attempt to inject life into the assignment and dive into the world of online content creation in a new medium alongside his students, he decided to build his own podcast.
“I’ve been fortunate to meet a lot of people in State College — friends, colleagues — who are just very creative, doing a lot of different things, the people that I would walk away from a lunch with and be like, ‘Wow, I feel smarter,’” he said. “I want to tell their stories.”
The pilot episode was released on Jan. 1. Zimmerman hasn’t looked back, publishing two episodes and a bonus segment in the two months since the show’s premier. Recent guests include former professional wrestler Colt Cabana, Happy Valley LaunchBox Chief Amplifier Lee Erickson, and Bellefonte entrepreneur Ellen Matis.
Happy Valley Hustle is light, conversational and informative. Zimmerman conducts his interviews at easy-going locations like his own living room or wooden office conference tables. He records using a $30 portable microphone he bought on Amazon. His guests are accordingly relaxed, and do most of the talking.
Although Zimmerman emphasizes the importance of his reporting and interviewing skills in creating each episode, his podcast serves a different purpose than that of his news reports. “It (a podcast) could be a nice supplement to the reporter’s work, but it can’t just be the main reporting piece…You don’t want it to feel like an interrogation,” he said. “I’m not approaching this as a journalistic pursuit.”
But this philosophy doesn’t detract from the show’s in-depth portrayal of a new age of work — one that requires digital savviness, unabashed and strategic self-promotion, and an emphasis on choice, creativity, and passion. It’s becoming increasingly common for today’s professionals to cultivate a personal project outside of their primary career in an effort to gain more control over their working lives and earn extra income. Thanks to the democratization of promotion and content creation caused by the digital boom, cultivating these projects and businesses, often called side-hustles, is now possible.
Zimmerman took on his first side-hustle as a frustrated reporter.
”I was unhappy with my pay and discouraged by the lack of opportunities for advancement, and I started looking for opportunities to do freelance writing for magazines and websites,” he said. “I think ultimately it comes out of seeking a creative outlet where you’re really more in control.”
Penn State science and research information officer Matt Swayne, Zimmerman’s first guest, fits the mold of the side hustler as a university employee and published author. The pair discussed Swayne’s independent nonfiction writing career, the struggles of publishing, and how to find time to write in the midst of a busy work schedule in the first episode.
“To have a community, you need to talk… I think what Bill’s doing is providing that voice for the entrepreneurs,” Swayne said. “I really love spreading ideas…that’s what attracted me to the podcast, that’s why I’m still listening to it. I love listening to how other people are approaching their own projects.”
Both Zimmerman and Swayne mentioned recent university and borough initiatives to boost local startups and small businesses, such as the recent $2 million PNC Bank and Penn State combined donation to the Happy Valley LaunchBox. Institutions like the LaunchBox or Bellefonte’s Springboard not only offer students and locals opportunities to gain work experience, but also improve the economic conditions of the towns in which they are founded according to Zimmerman.
Happy Valley Hustle has steadily grown since its January debut. The first episode now has over 60 listens, including at least one from California, according to Zimmerman. His next episode will profile Jack Matson, Penn State professor emeritus, founder of an environmental consulting firm, husband of former State College mayor Elizabeth Goreham, and the “godfather of innovation at State College” according to Zimmerman.
Zimmerman recognizes that his show is still new to the podcast world, and that its future may include sponsors, pitches, and further promotional work. But for now, it serves as a new and exciting storytelling apparatus and learning experience.
“I’m doing it more for personal enjoyment,” he said. “There’s nothing like talking to somebody who’s excited about their work.”