John Moe’s actually not all that comfortable in the role of a do-gooder. Still, there’s no denying that in the last several years, much of his work has been focused on helping others understand and live with mental illness.
Humorist and radio personality Moe has been talking openly about his own struggle with depression for more than a decade. And when “The Hilarious World of Depression,” his MPR-sponsored podcast, launched in 2016, he made his mental health status even more public — sharing his story with listeners and guests, and, later, in a memoir of the same name published in May 2020.
Last June, just one month after his book’s publication — and three months after COVID-19 rocked the global economy — Moe was let go by MPR. The layoff was part of a significant downsizing that included dozens of other employees and the cancellation of a number of shows, including Moe’s podcast.
During the rocky weeks and months that followed, Moe was comforted by messages he’d received from listeners. For a guy who’d rather not wear a superhero cape, he was getting a lot of positive feedback.
“I get letters and emails coming in from all over about the positive impact that the work I do has had,” Moe said. “Someone said, ‘I’m giving therapy another chance and I’m getting a lot more out of it this time,’ or, ‘I sent the book to my kids and they are finally understanding what their mom is going through.’”
Being public about the state of his mental health can feel like a burden, Moe said, but knowing that he’s been able to help others makes it worth it: “If there is some inconvenience from being out there with my story, it is the price I’m willing to pay.”
That sense that his work was helping others helped fuel Moe through a number of stressful weeks while he worked to figure out the next step in his career. American Public Media (APM), the producer and distributor of many of the programs and podcasts heard on MPR and other public radio stations around the world, owned the rights to his show, so he couldn’t just pick it up and start over somewhere else.
“Figuring out how to make the next move was tough,” Moe said. “APM wouldn’t give up any of the intellectual property. As far as I could tell, they weren’t going to do the show with another host, but they also wouldn’t let me do the show on my own.”
Frustrated by this reality, Moe even considered stepping away from broadcasting for good. “I thought,‘Why don’t I take the severance money and put it toward grad school and get a master’s in social work and become a therapist?’”
He knew a former colleague who’d decided to hang up his microphone and earn a degree in marriage and family therapy. He was happy and satisfied with his new career, and Moe gave a similar shift some serious consideration.
“I knew that if I got my license,” he said, “with everything I’ve done in the in the Twin Cities, I could probably fill up an appointment book pretty quickly — and help people one on one instead of through a microphone and headphones.”
But as soon as news of his layoff got out, Moe started hearing from other companies interested in helping him produce a new mental-health-themed podcast. He eventually decided that he wasn’t ready to give up on the career he’d been building for more than two decades.
The slew of calls helped build Moe’s confidence that he’d made the right decision to stick with broadcasting: “The phone started blowing up,” he said. “There were people who wanted to work with me. I realized, ‘I’m not on a one-way street. I’m at an eight-way intersection.’”
Since he felt burned by APM’s abrupt dismissal and its exclusive ownership of his podcast, he was particularly cautious about going back to work for any company. It didn’t take long for Moe to decide he wanted to work with Maximum Fun, a Los Angeles-based podcast producer and distributor.
“I thought,” Moe said, “‘if I go work for someone else and make a show and give it my all and then they own the show — what’s the point of that?’” What he learned from his conversations with other companies was that the emerging industry standard for podcast ownership is different from the APM model: “You make a show with a production partner and then you negotiate a split of the revenue that comes in with the show and you own it.”
Bikram Chatterji, Maximum Fun’s managing director, said that his company operates on that more egalitarian model: “One of the things we value and pride ourselves on is independent ownership of shows.”
This reality helped seal the deal for Moe. He signed a contract to produce a mental-health-themed show with Maximum Fun. “John owns his show,” Chatterji said. “After effectively losing a show, it was important to him to have that level of control.”
‘Bigger in every way’
Chatterji said he believes that in this challenging time, there’s a potentially large audience for Moe’s show, which is named “Depresh Mode With John Moe,” in a pun-ish reference to Depeche Mode, a mopey British band that topped the charts in the 1980s.
“Our mental health is hugely taxed right now,” Chatterji said. “When we were first talking with John about the show, one of the things he said was, ‘This pandemic will end, but the impact on people and their mental health is not going to end anytime soon.’ This is going to be a widespread challenging time. We should create something like this podcast to help people navigate that.”
Moe’s focus on helping listeners navigate the challenges of mental illness has expanded with “Depresh Mode.” While “The Hilarious World of Depression” focused on interviews with well-known comedians who’d struggled with their mental health, “Depresh Mode” intentionally expands its subject matter.
“The thing I wanted to do was move beyond depression into mental health in general,” Moe said. “There are a lot of disorders that are very common that don’t get talked about enough.”
Moe produced around 20 episodes of “Hilarious” every year. With the new show, he’s contracted to do 48 episodes a year, or nearly one every week.
“It’s bigger in every way,” he said. With his old podcast’s limited number of shows, he said, “There was always a sense of, ‘It’s in season,’ or, ‘It’s out of season.’ This one’s always in season.” He said that the new setup, with more than double the number of yearly shows, “gives me room and a mandate to have broader footprint.”
Moe said he isn’t concerned about finding enough subject matter, because mental health is such a huge topic. When he was working on his old show, he said, “I wanted to talk about OCD, about trauma, panic disorders and eating disorders. But I never felt like I had the space. I have the room to do that now.”
Giving Moe room to grow will help build “Depresh Mode’s” audience, Chatterji said: “It gives listeners something regular to look forward to and check in with. It is helpful for building community.”
So far, episodes have included a conversation with bestselling author Jenny Lawson about how she manages her anxiety and depression, insight from the medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) about the lasting trauma of the COVID pandemic, and an in-depth discussion of workplace burnout.
The show doesn’t take a “traditional journalism” approach to its topics, Moe said. “It’s more like what Terry Gross does on ‘Fresh Air’: ‘Here’s someone who knows about this. I’ll ask a lot of questions about it.’”
With that focus, Moe has turned to experts like Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer at NAMI, and Ksera Dyette, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Watertown, Massachusetts. He’ll also continue to talk to high-profile personalities about their mental health struggles, but blend them with input from experts.
An upcoming episode called “Bipolar 101” will feature a conversation with political columnist and culture critic Ana Marie Cox. “She’s got bipolar II,” Moe said. “The show’s about building that recognition, whether that’s through a discussion with an expert or anecdotes of lived experience.”
When he launched “The Hilarious World of Depression,” Moe felt that the world was at a turning point, where people everywhere were starting to feel comfortable talking about mental illness. Now, five years later, our collective mental health has been challenged in a way no one could have predicted.
“Life shouldn’t be this way,” Moe said. “It shouldn’t have been the way that it’s been in the last year. It’s because of the virus and because of the many months of lack of response to the virus that we’re in this spot.” When things are not the way they are supposed to be in a fundamental way, he said, “It just messes with your head.”
This collective head messing has further expanded the conversation around about mental health, Chatterji said. A show like “Depresh Mode” is just what people need. “We’ve become more comfortable talking about mental health in public spaces as we realize as a society we’re going through an extremely challenging time, both managing burnout, anxiety, fear, depression, isolation. All of those things now open for discussion. It’s sad that it took a pandemic to get us to all finally open up about it.”
On his own
While it was painful at the time, Moe now thinks that parting ways with MPR helped open his eyes to opportunities that he never would’ve thought of before. Before he was laid off, he’d been committed to sticking with the company that brought him to Minnesota for the long haul. When Moe realized that his time at MPR was over, the world opened up for him.
“When I was there, I felt like I had to go along with everything as best as I could,” he said. “I would just be there forever. I was on a long one-way street. Then, when the layoffs happened, I wasn’t on that street anymore.”
Being off the one-way street, while it was unnerving at first, now mostly feels exhilarating. After so many years working for a large organization, Moe said he’s happy to be out on his own. “I don’t expect to ever go work in an office again,” he said. “I’m my own one-person company now. I am my own boss now. If I want to go take a nap, it becomes a ‘company relaxation outing.’”
And Moe no longer feels he has to do the same thing for the rest of his life. If he ever decides he wants to step away from broadcasting, he now knows how to channel the untethered feeling created by his show’s cancellation into outside-the-box thinking.
“I would love to get a master’s at some point — whether or not I ever hang a shingle out and get clients and be a therapist, who knows?” he said. “The topic is so fascinating to me. I’ve covered a lot of things over the years. I’m so interested in how the mind works, what we know about how the mind works.”
No matter what direction he decides to take, Moe knows that he’ll always have an open approach to talking about his own mental health, no matter what.
“Talking about my mental health can be a little awkward sometimes,” Moe said. “But I’m still going to do it. It’s important. I think that I’ve communicated to the world that it’s something that I’ve dealt with, that it’s managed. It’s a chronic condition. I tell people that I laugh and I cry: I have the full range of emotions. It just took some counseling and medication to get there. It’s something that I need to control, like diabetes. It’s something I keep under control, and I want other people to understand that.”