Among the more than 400 podcasts that comprise Outside Lands San Francisco, a program of the Western Neighborhoods Project, cofounder Woody LaBounty has a few favorites (and a least-favorite as well).
One he especially likes is about sea lions at Lake Merced. “It’s like something out of Aesop’s Fables!” he chortles in a recent phone call. To eradicate an invasive fish species in the lake, officials brought in another invasive species. But the new species was of course invasive, too — now they had two invasive species in the lake. So they brought in sea lions. That didn’t work, either, so they had to be removed. “It’s a perfect example of what we’re trying to do,” says LaBounty, “tell interesting stories that you don’t know about the West side.” (His least favorite: an episode about Sunset Boulevard, surely the most disappointingly dull thoroughfare on the west side of The City.)
LaBounty, cofounder David Gallagher and, more recently, executive director Nicole Meldahl have been hosting the Outside Lands podcasts weekly, with occasional guests. Now, LaBounty’s voice will be heard only as an occasional visitor. He has given up his regular spot in the triumvirate in order to spend more time on his current job: interim president of the preservationist society San Francisco Heritage, where he has worked since 2019.
LaBounty and Gallagher came up with the idea for an organization devoted to the history of The City’s underserved neighborhoods back in 1998, after LaBounty had trained as a clown at Ringling Brothers, worked with the Pickle Family Circus, toured a variety act around the world and needed to stick closer to home. “I grew up in the Richmond District and I had the revelation that it was very rich, but its history had gotten lost in the broader history of San Francisco,” he explains. “David and I thought we’d start small, just the Western neighborhoods, but we never ran out of material.”
It became clear that the two main Western “sister” districts, the Richmond and the Sunset, often overlooked as dull suburban enclaves, offered more than enough historical interest to deserve an organization of their own, dedicated to exploring and sharing their stories.
In normal times, the Western Neighborhoods Project offers not just the Outside Lands podcasts but a variety of other programs. It also houses a collection of about 52,000 historical photos through its OpenSFHistory program and posts articles and images on its website.
For LaBounty, it’s personal: He went to Sacred Heart High School, saw movies at the local theater (the long-gone Coliseum on Clement Street), hung out at the playground and Mountain Lake Park and still lives in the Richmond, a dozen blocks or so from his childhood home. “A lot of it has the same feeling as when I was a kid,” he says.
Among the topics discussed so far on the podcasts, a program structured as an informal conversation: the AIDS Memorial Quilt in Golden Gate Park, the Masonic Cemetery on Lone Mountain, the yellow Trocadero house in Stern Grove, the house where Ansel Adams grew up, the 16th Avenue painted staircase and the answer to the pressing question, “What hides in the mysterious tunnels on the cliffs just outside the Golden Gate?”
Sometimes a topic might be revisited, as in the very first podcast, which was about Kezar Stadium and was six minutes long. The Jan. 16 episode with guest host Arnold Woods was 36 minutes, but some clock in at an hour.
Looking back at the original impetus for the Western Neighborhoods Project, Gallagher — who’d been working as a web developer at the time — says that back then, “written history was about the Gold Rush, Pacific Heights … but people living in original houses in the Sunset, who’d seen it grow from sand dunes — we thought that was just as valid as the Nob Hill palaces.
“When we first started,” he continues, “we got some pushback from historians who didn’t count us among them.” Neither he nor LaBounty are academically trained in the field. “Our attitude is just that we want to learn stuff and tell people and help them learn.”
Not that, on the podcasts, they never make factual mistakes. But when they do, listeners tell them about it, and they offer corrections. “We try to be as accurate as possible,” says LaBounty, “but we’re not NPR! We want to get one podcast out every week.”
“We’re not a preservationist organization,” Gallagher elaborates, “but we’re preservationists at heart.” At the same time, he adds, “We don’t purport to be the final word on any subject.”
In addition to LaBounty’s recent departure from the podcasts, the pandemic has necessitated changes. Formerly recorded with three people in one sitting at a studio, they’re now recorded one at a time on Zoom, allowing for more “live” events and guests. Pre-pandemic, there’d been truly live events at the organization’s Balboa Street office.
Now that people are used to video conferencing, Gallagher suspects they’ll keep that format. He also looks forward to a rotating list of guest historians, some new and some well-known. “I’ve always felt my role is to act as the voice of the audience,” he says, “and that’s a role I want to pursue — the man who says, ‘Ho ho ho, that’s amazing.’”
It’s inevitably a bit melancholy to hear podcasts about places and things that no longer exist in San Francisco, the Cliff House being only the latest beloved icon that has announced its closure, with surely many more in the coming year to follow. LaBounty declares there’s no place else he’d ever want to live (he should probably reserve a niche in the Columbarium in the Richmond, he quips) but hedges a bit: If Green Apple Books and the Plough and the Stars were to fold, well …
Still, he says, “New memories are being made, new businesses opening, like links in a chain.”
Gallagher says the podcasts have covered just about every possible subject, although there are undoubtedly more. “I joke that we’re [eventually] going to do a podcast on somebody’s back porch, and that’ll be the subject: that back porch.” He adds, “I can’t guarantee another 400, but we’ll continue, we’ll change and probably for the better. We’re gonna be here for our fans.”
For more information, visit outsidelands.org.
Editor’s Note: The story has been updated to remove incorrect information on the location of Sacred Heart.