Entering ‘Jimmy Akin’s Mysterious World’
Jimmy Akin and Domenico Bettinelli, the creators and co-hosts of the popular podcast, discuss its success.
Jimmy Akin’s Mysterious World is an unusual podcast. Dealing with the fantastical, it is both wildly popular and, refreshingly, solidly Catholic.
Unlike other successful and more conventional Catholic podcasts, such as Father Mike Schmitz’s The Bible in a Year, Mysterious World deals with theology and what might loosely be described as “the paranormal.” It’s as if Art Bell — the late, legendary host of the all-night Coast-to-Coast AM, which treated similar subject matter — were broadcasting today on a Catholic media network.
Who is behind Mysterious World? And what is their inspiration?
“There are many good and successful podcasts that have a single, presenting voice,” says Bettinelli. “At StarQuest (SQPN) — the producers of the podcast — all our shows feature at least two people, sometimes more. The back-and-forth of a conversation feels natural and is engaging. And in my role on the show, I get to stand in for the audience, hopefully asking Jimmy the question that has come up for the listener at the moment they would have asked it. And the engagement and wonder I express during the shows is genuine. I’m often just as fascinated and surprised and curious as any of our listeners.”
One suspects it is the element of the unexpected that attracts and retains audiences. Mysterious World is a Top 20 documentary podcast on the U.S. Apple Podcasts charts, currently running at 80,000 downloads per episode. In terms of audience, Akin notes, “The most surprising thing to me was when we broke into Apple’s Top 20 U.S. documentary podcasts and when we started hearing from parents about how much they and their children were enjoying the show.”
And the reach of Mysterious World is not confined to Catholics. “We do get a lot of positive feedback from people of all faith perspectives,” reports Akin. “Some believers tell us that it’s one of the few faith-based shows that their nonbelieving friends actually find interesting. Others write and say that, while they’re not believers, they appreciate the views we express on the show and the fair and charitable way we look at viewpoints we disagree with.”
How, then, is the Mysterious World’s eclectic subject matter chosen? “I’ve got a spreadsheet that I keep a list of topics on,” says Akin. “It’s currently got more than 1,500 possible future topics. As I prepare the show, I seek to have a balance of topics every month. For example, we might have a show on a historical mystery, followed by a paranormal mystery, followed by a biblical mystery, followed by an extraterrestrial mystery. That way, there’s something for everyone.” As to the podcast’s wide-ranging content, Akin sees no problem with discussing werewolves one week and biblical archaeology the next. He points out that “Christians are as interested in mysterious subjects as anybody else.”
It’s clear that Akin relishes surprising his audience with subjects that, on the surface, may not appear compelling but which it is his job to make so. “That’s one of the things I enjoy about doing the show: finding compelling mysteries people haven’t heard of and then being able to share them with others. It’s also my commitment to the audience — that I won’t produce an episode on a topic unless I find it interesting. I use that as a test for whether I think others will find it interesting.”
Born in Texas in 1965, Akin grew up nominally Christian. At the age of 20, he experienced what he describes as “a profound conversion to Christ.” Thereafter, he says, he planned on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor and started upon an intensive study of the Bible. Unexpectedly, this led him to the Catholic Church, and he was received into the Church in 1992. Today, he is a senior apologist at Catholic Answers, a member on the Catholic Answers Speakers Bureau, a weekly guest on the radio program Catholic Answers Live, a contributor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and the author of many books, including The Fathers Know Best, Mass Revision, and The Salvation Controversy. He also blogs for the Register.
For Mysterious Universe, Akin’s inspiration is, perhaps, not surprising, given that he grew up watching television in the 1970s and documentaries from that era on UFOs, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. He cites as formative influences programs such as Leonard Nimoy’s In Search Of and Arthur C. Clarke’s series Mysterious World, Mysterious Universe and World of Strange Powers. But unlike these mainstream shows, where skepticism was the central premise, Akin employs an altogether different approach. He works on the basis that “the supernatural is real. Understanding reality is a good thing. Therefore, Catholics should be interested in understanding the supernatural.”
What has surprised both Akin and Bettinelli is how the podcast has crossed the generational divide, reaching young and old alike. “We’ve received a lot of messages from parents saying that they listen with their children and that it’s helping their children appreciate the integration of faith and reason,” says Akin. “We had always intended to do a family-friendly show, but as we learned how many families are listening together, I’ve been even more determined to keep it family-friendly.” Sensitive to the mixed audience, he adds, “We give parents warnings at the beginning of those occasional episodes where the subject matter may be a little much for younger kids.”
Co-host Bettinelli has been equally surprised by the enthusiasm of the online community that the show has created. “In most episodes, we feature a feedback segment, and we get so much good feedback from listeners — not just praise, but good, probing questions,” he says. For him, Facebook and Twitter provide “a real sense of a community that is growing up around fans of the show. And, of course, the patrons who financially support our network have been a good surprise. We are so very grateful for their financial and spiritual support.”
It has now been many years that Bettinelli has been working in Catholic media: print, online journalism, radio, social media, and now podcasting. He is at the forefront of the much-talked-of “podcast revolution,” something currently perceived by many as media gold. He began podcasting with SQPN, the company that produces Mysterious World, in 2014; by 2015, he was executive director; by 2018, he was full-time CEO. “It’s funny to say that there’s a podcast revolution currently underway, as, from our perspective, the revolution began in 2005, when SQPN began. But it is the same revolution of disruption that has seen the democratization of media that we previously saw through blogs and video and social media.” Podcasts, he believes, “give anyone with a way to record their voice — even through the voice memo app on a phone — the opportunity to speak to the world.”
“Looking at the top charts in the podcast directories,” observes Bettinelli, “you can see how many of the most popular shows are produced by big, well-moneyed corporations.” Therefore, for SQPN, a relatively modest enterprise compared to many other more established media entities rushing to get aboard the “podcast bandwagon,” it is “especially gratifying” for Bettinelli to find SQPN’s podcasts, like Mysterious World, “ranking so high in the midst of those big media shows.”
Bettinelli sees the mission of SQPN “to explore the intersection of faith and pop culture” through its podcasts. “Many of our shows do that,” he says, “by looking at popular media (TV shows, movies, streaming shows) through a Catholic worldview, examining them not just for their spiritual or theological content, but also as entertainment.” SQPN shows such as American Catholic History, The Catholics of Oz, and Praystation Portable are specifically formational, spiritual and catechetical in nature, but in recent times SQPN has begun to expand its focus to include other subjects, such as technology.
So Mysterious World is more than just another podcast on the strange and unexplained. Catholic convert co-host Akin is a full-time apologist. Therefore, for him, “the podcast has two purposes that may not be initially obvious. The first is evangelization. Since people of every faith persuasion — and those with no faith — are interested in the mysterious, the show is accessible to them. But we also make sure that we discuss the mystery in each episode from the perspective of Catholic faith, so we’re educating the audience in how to think about these topics from a Catholic perspective, which we hope will strengthen their faith.”
He goes on to state that “the second purpose is teaching critical thinking skills. We do that organically, rather than by giving a talk or lecture on critical thinking. Unlike most shows on mysterious topics, we don’t just try to generate wonder and invite people to ‘consider the possibilities.’ Instead, we ask them to consider the possibilities, make a list of them, and then start working through them and seeing which we can eliminate.” Unusually for such a show, Akin is keen “actually to try to solve the mysteries we talk about, to the extent we can. Sometimes, a good bit of mystery remains. But other times, we can narrow it down to a single, and sometimes surprising, solution.”
What is next for Mysterious World? “We will continue to explore the entire breadth of the mysterious world around us, and we have topics to keep us occupied for many years to come,” says Bettinelli. “We have begun doing more of our shows with video, which is much more complex than audio and requires a large investment not just in equipment, but also expertise in production and editing. To continue to grow and expand our reach, we will need the financial assistance of supporters, who can visit SPQN to join our mission of exploring the intersection of faith and pop culture and to explore our mysterious world.”