How the Sickboy Hosts Weave Vulnerability and Humor Into Conversations About Health

Brian Stever, Taylor MacGillivary and Jeremie Saunders, Photo by Monica Phung
Brian Stever, Taylor MacGillivary and Jeremie Saunders, Photo by Monica Phung

Co-host Jeremie Saunders says dealing with health issues using openness and irreverence helps heal himself, his guests, and his audience.

At a time when health is top of mind for listeners and creators alike, the podcast Sickboy offers its own unique and compassionate vision for how to tell stories about the physical and emotional realities of illness. On the show, co-hosts Jeremie Saunders, Brian Stever, and Taylor MacGillivary tackle conversations about major health issues through a lens of humor, openness, and most importantly, vulnerability.

In 2015, the three friends rented a studio at the public library and recorded a 45-minute discussion about Saunders’ life with cystic fibrosis. When they listened back to what they’d done, they heard an easygoing, conversational dynamic packed with laughs.

Since then, they’ve invited hundreds of guests in to have those same kinds of conversations—sometimes scary, often eye-opening ones about bodies, diseases, the medical system, and many other health topics—and broadcast them to the world in hopes of breaking down stigmas. Over the phone from Halifax, Nova Scotia, Saunders spoke with us about how he, his guests, and his audience relate via the show.

Spotify for Podcasters: Do you have any general guidelines about how to handle sensitive subject matter?

Jeremie Saunders: We totally throw rules out the window. For the most part, the people applying to come on our show are applying to come on and have that experience—to have that release, to just talk.

More often than not, through the experience of someone finding out I live with an illness that might end my life much sooner than most, people get really awkward. They tighten up and they almost don't know what to say next. With the show, we're having conversations with people who have been there, who have felt that or felt super-isolated. Because they're the only person in their social circle who had cancer or whatever it is they're going through. And they have the opportunity to come into a space that is safe for them to just spill their guts—to be open to laughing in the face of whatever it is that's been affecting them, with three people who take it as far as that person wants to take it. We're just there along for the ride. If they want to push the boundary as far as they personally can push it, we're going to be right there with them.

How do you go about creating the kind of environment where your subjects feel safe enough to embark on that kind of conversation?

There's a lot of shame that comes with being sick. There's a lot of isolation, a lot of loneliness, a lot of fear. Sharing those things openly with anyone, whether it's someone close to you or a complete stranger, takes courage. Most of our guests have heard our show or are familiar with the format, and they know we're offering space for them to be vulnerable because we're being vulnerable right back at them. If I met someone today who had heard every episode of the Sickboy podcast, and compared what they know about me to what some of my friends know about me, the listener might even know a little bit more. So, [for guests] to know they're sitting down with three dudes who are completely comfortable being vulnerable in a judgment-free space, I think that offers them the space to feel safe enough to go to that territory.

What’s the most important thing you’ve brought to your audience and your guests?

Every single human we've had on the show has this incredibly rich and wonderful story to tell. I think that translates not just to the people we've had on the show, but to everyone who I've ever met, everyone on the planet. We all have these wonderfully rich stories that we've experienced in our lives that we can share with one another in order to teach one another some really valuable lessons about what it means to be human. So as long as people feel like they have a voice, as long as people feel like there's somebody on the other side who's truly there to listen to them, there's no telling what we can learn from one another.

What’s your approach towards listener feedback? Do you work with your analytics on Spotify for Podcasters?

We're in a moment now where we're actually putting a lot of effort into peering into those analytics and seeing what we can do to find little boosts for growing our audience. Just knowing that Spotify is offering up that data for us to be able to get our hands on is quite helpful and quite valuable.

—Matt Williams