OCILLA — While Matt Seale did not grow up in what most would consider a true small town, he now calls the small community of Ocilla, with a population of a little more than 3,000 people, his home.
Seale grew up in Hinesville, Ga., and lived in Atlanta for a while before moving to Ocilla.
“I thought I was a big-city guy,” Seale said about the time he spent in Atlanta.
Through visits to a muscadine farm that the family of one of his fraternity brothers operates in Irwin County, Seale discovered Ocilla, purchasing a commercial property downtown in 2004, from the father of the woman who would become his wife and officially moving to the small town in 2005, where he has lived and operated his financial advising business since.
And after several years in the small town, Seale was pushed into running for elected office, even though he had been reluctant to do so for several years prior.
“I’d been encouraged to run for local government spots,” Seale said. “I always said no, I’m not interested and kind of just got pushed into traffic.”
Seale ran for mayor of Ocilla, won and took office in 2015. While in office, Seale met a guy named Payne Lindsey, who podcast listeners know as the creator of the “Up and Vanished” podcast looking at the disappearance of Ocilla native Tara Grinstead.
“I said (to Payne), I’m supportive of you being here, and if this brings some closure, then this (podcast) could be a good thing,” Seale said, “Just please be mindful that you’re introducing a whole lot of people to Ocilla, and they’re only going to know one thing about it.”
Lindsey invited Seale onto a podcast episode a few weeks later to talk about the community as a whole, but he admitted that didn’t change the focus of the podcast as a whole.
“The media gets really interested in a small town only when something bad happens,” Seale said.
So Seale started brainstorming on a way to show people the other aspects of Ocilla.
“I thought, well, what can I do about this if anything?” the mayor said. “I thought about if I had a podcast, it’s not going to be as popular because the story lines aren’t as sexy, but I can try to tell the whole story and try to spotlight some towns that otherwise maybe are not getting any play.”
And thus, the “Small Town Podcast” was born.
After coming up with the idea to feature small towns on a podcast, Seale knew he would need some help. Luckily, he got it with Lindsey himself, as well as his producer, Donald Albright.
“They’d already blazed the trail on podcasting and knew what to do and what not to do,” Seale said. “They guided me a little bit in the beginning to get started.”
And while the idea started with brainstorming on how to shine a spotlight on Ocilla, Seale quickly realized the podcast would go beyond that.
“I knew that this was not just an Ocilla thing,” he said. “It was a small town thing, and I get to mention Ocilla every episode because that’s where I’m from. But I get the chance to go and meet some other people and talk to some old friends.”
Seale started the podcast in February of 2018 with two episodes featuring Lace Futch from the city of Willacoochee, and the idea just continued from there.
The first season of the podcast was released every other Monday from February of 2018 to November of 2018, and Seale just started his second season of the podcast last month. Three episodes have been released so far in 2019, and Seale plans to continue releasing episodes for the second season every other Monday, at least until November.
Seale said he knew early on that he had to set a limit on what a small town really was, so he decided on a town with a population of less than 10,000 people. And while it was easy to start the podcast looking at mayors or city council members due to the Georgia Municipal Association being a sponsor of the podcast, Seale said he has not limited it to that aspect.
In the past year, Seale has interviewed various mayors, city council members, a long-time volunteer fire chief, chamber of commerce directors and all the candidates for Georgia governor and lieutenant governor.
He said he hopes to begin interviewing city managers and local business leaders as well.
And while interviewing the candidates for a major state government position might not seem like it’s connected to small towns, Seale said he focused on issues of rural Georgia in the interviews with all candidates.
“I hope I got some different answers than what they’re used to in debates by the Atlanta Press Club about traffic and those kinds of things that are more metro issues,” Seale said. “(I talked) about rural broadband, economic development, rural health care, things that aren’t issues in Atlanta or some of the other hub cities throughout the state.”
And rather than just focus on the “serious” candidates, Seale set out to interview every single candidates, even the ones who were not expected to win.
“I just thought, ‘Well, here I am trying to shine a light on cities that don’t get a lot of play, small towns that are overshadowed by big cities,’” Seale said. “If I just interviewed the people at the top ranking in the polls, well then that’s inconsistent on my part.”
A few episodes of the podcast have also focused on issues that small towns might face, like infrastructure.
“I want people to understand some of the challenges with infrastructure, law enforcement, and housing and some of these initiatives cities try to do,” Seale said.
And while the inner workings of local government might not sound like an interesting topic for a podcast, Seale said much of each episode focuses on the story of the people he’s interviewing and how they made their way into their position in city government.
“I think people are genuinely interested in someone’s story, especially if it’s a good story. And then the second part of the episodes are about the town,” Seale said.
Matt Donaldson, the mayor pro tem of Twin City, will be featured on an upcoming episode of the podcast discussing the history of the city and the merger that created it in 1921. Donaldson said he felt that it was an honor to be featured on the podcast.
“I think all cities have a story to tell, and ours is interesting,” he said.
Donaldson takes pride in the fact that he is from — and still lives in — a small town.
“Some people may say that if you call a town Mayberry, that that’s not a compliment,” he said. “But for me, that’s a compliment because I love Mayberry. I feel like I live in Mayberry, and I’m proud of it. I chose to live where I am. … I had all the options in the world. I could have gone to Atlanta, but I chose to stay in Twin City because I love it.”
The episode following the one featuring Donaldson will feature the mayor of the newly merged McRae-Helena, looking at the merger of each city, the only successful municipal consolidation of two cities in Georgia.
Although all the previous episodes have shone a spotlight on a town in Georgia, Seale’s podcast, which originally started as a small side project, has plans to grow even more. He said he hopes in the near future to begin expanding to other small towns in the Southeast region, rather than just in Georgia.
“The small town brand extends beyond any state borders,” Seale said. “We have the same struggles, some of the same great stories, same quality of life (in rural America), just slightly different geography.”