These retro Mac fans were podcasting before it was cool

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James Savage and John Leake know a thing or two about computer history, especially when it comes to Macs.
James Savage and John Leake know a thing or two about computer history, especially when it comes to Macs.
Photo: James Savage

Cult of Mac 2.0 bug When James Savage and John Leake uploaded the first episode of their RetroMacCast, they were thrilled with the number of downloads: 18.

Not exactly a meteoric start, but considering neither host ever had that many people at one time interested in hearing them talk about old Apple computers, this was a pretty big deal.

An ongoing conversation about vintage Apple gear


The Mac-nostalgia audio podcast recently surpassed 400 episodes during a year it will also celebrate its 10th birthday and likely its millionth download. RetroMacCast gets a little more than 1,000 listeners for each weekly episode, with the number of listeners on a show climbing over time as Mac enthusiasts stumble onto the website through a Google search of a topic they’ve covered.

While some long-running Apple-related podcasts started before them, this might be the oldest on the specific topic of old Macs.

“When you’re such a niche thing, it’s amazing to get 1,000 people to listen every week,” said Savage, whose personal collection of vintage Macs is a sight to behold. (He calls it “Macca.”) “Imagine if I go downtown to talk about computers on the street. I couldn’t get 1,000 people to listen to me.”

There are countless podcasts to be found online on a variety of topics. In iTunes alone, there are close to 300 covering technology as a topic; as you scroll through the list, you find several related to Apple software, hardware and history. (Shameless plug here: Cult of Mac has The CultCast and Kahney’s Korner.)

Some podcasts are popular enough to generate decent revenues. The RetroMacCast isn’t one of them, but Savage and Leake are grateful for the small donations received through the website that have allowed them to make upgrades, like purchasing better microphones.

Below is a YouTube video of the 100th episode:

RetroMacCast: A formula that works

Not much separates Episode 1 (Dec. 17, 2006) from Episode 414. Savage’s wife, Tonya, provides a sparkly intro over an acoustic guitar track. The two hosts greet each other with a sincere good morning, welcome new members, talk about the eBay finds of the week (which often include what each purchased for their own collections), and chat about the latest in tech news before closing the show.

They used to feature a different Macintosh or iMac model each week, but eventually ran out of vintage Macs to talk about. Savage and Leake do not like to cover a topic twice, and even they sound amazed that they do not run out of fresh ideas.

The sound and feel of the cast could be mistaken for a show on National Public Radio. The voices are soothing and the nature of the back-and-forth conversation is comfortable. Savage’s dry sense of humor tends to lift the warm, buttery baritone voice of Leake into gentle laughter.

On a recent episode where the two mined current Apple treasures on eBay, Savage offered a sardonic observation on a vintage Apple poster on eBay. The seller described it as a rare, “Holy Grail” collectible.

“The steep price on this one was $7,500,” Savage told listeners. “Now, you can have it for the low, low price of $6,750. Maybe if this were the actual Holy Grail, you could get that much for it, but I know this one won’t give you eternal life.”

While at sea

The life of the RetroMacCast began with inspiration found on one of those now-defunct Mac-themed cruises sponsored by MacWorld. Passenger Savage attended a how-to-podcast seminar by Leo LaPorte, longtime host of This Week in Tech.

For Savage, an engineer at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, the idea would justify the existence of his “ridiculous” collection of Macs. He didn’t think his voice alone could carry a show, so he thought he needed to share the mic. He barely knew Leake, a graphic designer at the same Air Force base, but they had recently chatted after Savage saw Leake’s Mac shrine he created for his office.

“That basically started the conversation,” said Leake, who also has an impressive home collection he calls the Mac Attic. “He said he was thinking of doing a podcast and he asked me if I wanted to co-host. I was kind of happily surprised and I said yeah.

“It was obviously a fun idea when he approached me. We probably would still do it if there were only 12 people listening.”

RetroMacCast
James Savage and John Leake started a conversation that has lasted 10 years.
Photo courtesy of James Savage

The cast started before the wildfire traction provided by social media, so all Savage and Leake could do was hope people found them in the iTunes directory. They eventually told some friends, summoned the courage to ask different tech websites for a plug, and then started a website that lets members build a profile page, chat with one another, and find various resources.

The two have rarely recorded together. They live in different towns in Florida’s panhandle. After each recording segment, Leake transfers his audio to Savage, who then edits the show in GarageBand. Each episode winds up running between 40 minutes and an hour, and new ones usually appear in iTunes on Sunday evenings.

Occasionally, they will join up and do a live cast at a retro computing festival. Leake was at this year’s KansasFest, a gathering of Apple II enthusiasts in Kansas City, Mo., where he interviewed people for future episodes. Soon, some of those voices began to show up in the RetroMacCast membership role.

Love actually

With guests and field interviews, the hosts never tire of asking people about when Mac love first struck. Everyone has a story, and for an older generation it’s often a high school computer lab encounter.

Leake remembers when he first swooned over a Macintosh in high school, where he played games and learned some basic coding on an Apple II. This may explain what truly powers the podcast.

He graduated in 1984, entered the Air Force and, on a visit home a year later, stopped by his old high school. He popped in to see his computer science teacher. The Apple II was still there, but so was a brand-new Macintosh, probably a 128K model.

“I said, ‘What is that?’” Leake recalled. “So my teacher showed me how it worked and it was love at first site. It was huggable.”

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