Friday, June 13, 2008

The Birth of an A Cappella Superfan.

Folks, are you listening to the A Cappella U podcast? Link here. If you are, you are likely curious about the man behind the microphone, the mysterious—and funny and charming—host Joey C.

I spent some time with Joey while reporting for Pitch Perfect. Much of his story wound up on the cutting room floor, as they say. But I'm restoring that material below—Pitch Perfect: The Director's Cut!—for the thousands (literally) of fans who listen to A Cappella U every week.

The story of this beloved a cappella superfan begins here...

JOEY CAMPAGNA, 30, is a sales manager (don’t say traveling salesman!) for Idexx Laboratories, a company based in Maine which services medical equipment for veterinary hospitals. And he looks the part: tall-ish, with an easy smile and a hearty laugh. His hair could charitably be described as thinning. And yes, his shirts are at least one size too big. But somehow it works for him, and he’s particularly good at putting strangers at ease—a plus if you're a salesman.

In two years, Joey Campagna (pronounced just like it reads) put 120,000 miles on his Diesel Jetta, crisscrossing I-90, servicing animal hospitals along the Buffalo-Rochester-Syracuse axis. He’s since been promoted—adding Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and West Virginia to his route—and is now driving a white Volkswagen GTI. If the new car is anything like the old one, it smells like some unholy mash-up of fast food meals past, the stench of Dunkin Donuts breakfasts and Wendy’s drive-thru working itself into the leather. The food has not been kind to Joey’s body, he’s the first to admit. Another thing he’ll admit: He’s happy in his job, but he didn’t grow up wanting to sell veterinarian equipment. If he could do anything he’d probably sing.

A brief sampling of artists from Joey’s sleek black iPhone: The U.C. Berkeley Octets, Brigham Young University’s Vocal Point, the complete Best of College A Cappella series. There are also rare live tracks including “Major Tom” off the 1991 Tufts Beelzebubs Winter Invitational album. (Joey has declared that disc's track “Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting” as the best set-opener of all time.) Then there are his so-called smart playlists, which go through the iPod and flag the 100 most recent a cappella additions. He has another playlist for greatest hits (any song he’s awarded a five-star rating to). Joey estimates that he has some 600 a cappella albums at home. It’s tough to pick a favorite, but if he had to, he’d probably say Gilding, also from the Beelzebubs (essential downloads: “Family Snapshot” and “Human Nature”). Sadly, he lost Gilding shortly after graduating from high school in 1996. His current favorite is probably the most recent Hyannis Sound album, Route 6, or maybe it’s a 2005 album from UPENN’s Off the Beat called Float. Joey once likened this decision to Sophie’s choice.

There’s a reason for this extensive collection. Joey Campagna—salesman, husband, father of two—has an alter ego. His fans know him as Joey C., founder and genial host of the popular A Cappella U podcast, a three-times-monthly show dedicated to, well, he says it best. This is how each show begins: “Hellllooooo everybody! And welcome to A Cappella U—the only podcast dedicated to bringing you the very best of collegiate a cappella music on an every-other-week or so basis. From the east coast to the west coast, from the best coast to the left coast, we play music from the University of Maine Steiners, the USC Sirens, and everyone in between.” He doesn’t just play a cappella music. He also alerts listeners to those precious moments when the genre’s tentacles extend into the real world, like that Honda Civic ad featuring a 60-voice choir replicating the sound of a car engine.

At one time Joey had some six thousand A Cappella U subscribers, an impressive number by any measure. He has listeners as far as the University of Cape Town in South Africa. One student there recently e-mailed Joey a few a cappella tracks of his own, songs recorded in his native tongue, xhosa. Joey C. points out that South Africans are natural vocal percussionists, what with the clicking sounds that are part of xhosa’s DNA. Joey C. was so emboldened by the success of his show, by the dedication of listeners—you know, the ones who would drop him e-mails at all hours of the night to complain if the latest A Cappella U podcast was a day late—that he incorporated his business. Joey Campagna is the CEO of the A Cappella Broadcasting Corporation, LLC. Incorporating would protect his family from any kind of a cappella liability. Plus, it would allow him to buy equipment with pre-tax dollars!

Of course, every CEO has his secrets–some more shameful than others. The dirty little secret about Joey Campagna, something even his most loyal fans don’t know: Joey never sang in a collegiate a cappella group. Not that he didn’t try.


Joey Campagna was born outside San Diego in 1978. His mother was a nurse at a local hospital, his father was a Naval officer stationed nearby. Later, when his father got out of the Navy and the family moved East, dad became a project manager at a nuclear plant. As a kid, Joey would joke that his dad was Homer Simpson. His parents split when he was 10 years old, and he and his kid sister and brother went to live with their mom. A temporary reconciliation led to a fourth sibling, baby Ryan. The kids spent summers with their Dad down on the Jersey Shore.

The whole a cappella thing started in high school. Joey was friends with a kid named Chris Buckley whose older brother, Pascal Buckley, was a Beelzebub at Tufts. The boys idolized Pascal, who would come home on school breaks and share stories of life as a Bub, from tours abroad to sell-out crowds on campus. In Joey’s eyes, the Bubs were absolute rock stars.

Joey never lacked for much, though money was often tight around the house. When it came time to go to college, he looked at his bank account, looked at his grades, and settled on nearby Niagara College where he majored in musical theater. But after three semesters he transferred to Marquette University, a Jesuit school in Milwaukee. He studied speech pathology and enlisted with ROTC. It wasn’t a patriotic decision. But he figured giving four years up to the Service was a small sacrifice for a debt-free graduation day. There was one downside to Marquette, though. “No a cappella groups,” Joey says. Before settling on Marquette, Joey had actually toyed with the idea of transferring to Tufts, for no reason other than the fact that he wanted to audition for the Beelzebubs. But $30,000 a year in tuition money was just too much to risk. Afterall, what if he went through all that and then didn’t get into the Bubs? So, he tucked that dream away and settled on Marquette.

After graduating in May of 2000, Second Lieutenant Joseph Campagna, a newly minted officer in the 57th Transportation Battalion, headed west to the base in Tacoma, Washington for his commission. Joey was in charge of 14 trucks, which carried ammunition for the 2nd Infantry. In his downtime, he would record his own a cappella arrangements on his desktop computer with a program called Acid 2.0. He was so broke at the time that he didn’t want to cough up $30 dollars to buy a pair of headphones. And so he took a speaker and a belt and strapped the speaker next to his ear. He married his girlfriend from Marquette, Sarah, in August of 2002 and she joined him in Tacoma. They’d met on her first day of school as a freshman. “Women are like ducks,” Joey says. “She imprinted on me. That’s the only reason she loves me.” (This is funny, but not exactly true. Spend a minute with the Campagnas, and it’s clear how much they love each other.) It was all quiet on the Western Front. Until, that is, September 11th and the invasion of Iraq.

A few months later Joey’s wife got pregnant with their first child. The timing couldn’t have been worse. Joey would go to work with his heart in his stomach, every day expecting his deployment orders. Ultimately, bizarrely, it was the Turkish government that kept Joey C. safe at home when (unexpectedly) they refused U.S. soldiers clearance to pass through—a story that wound up on the front page of the New York Times.

Joey was promoted to 1st Lieutenant and then Captain, but he would never be sent overseas. Mission Accomplished. Joey’s first son, Jonas, was born on June 29th, 2003. The couple had a tough time settling on a name, until Joey came across Jonas in a book of names. A long-time Lord of the Rings fan, Joey liked the name because it sounded a bit like his own. (In LOTR, the kings of the New Menorians are named after their fathers—as in Aragorn son of Arathorn, and so on.) His wife liked the name because of the Weezer song, “My Name is Jonas.” Thus, Jonas son of Joseph was christened. Joey was discharged in May of 2004, and the family moved to Rochester, New York, a sleepy industrial park upstate, and Joey began selling vet equipment.

Still, his mind returned to a cappella.

Joey contemplated entering a graduate program at the University of Rochester in the fall of 2005. When people asked why, he said it was because he wanted an MBA, which was true, but certainly not the whole story. Really, Joey was staring down a barrel. His shot at a cappella glory was slipping away. That first week he auditioned for the University of Rochester’s all-male group, the Midnight Ramblers.

He didn’t get in.

And then he decided not to enroll.

Still, try as he may, Joey could not shake the a cappella bug. He wanted to be part of the community. Actually, he says, he was destined to be part of it. To exorcise his demons, he dreamed up the A Cappella U podcast. Armed with just his MacBook Pro and a collection of collegiate a cappella albums, he recorded the first podcast sometime around midnight on September 6th, 2005, and uploaded it to Libsyn (a service that links to iTunes). He was selling vet equipment, but continued to record the podcast whenever he found time, which was often late in the evenings. He’d sit in his home office, absentmindedly stroking his goatee while selecting music from his hard drive. He was vigilant about not playing a song twice. Joey would solicit music from listeners. Then, like a true snob, he’d make fun of those self-same listeners for submitting their group’s version of Toto’s “Africa,” one of the most over-done songs in collegiate a cappella canon. He would talk about a cappella groups from Ohio State the way the staff at Rolling Stone talks about bands like Jet—describing them as “solid mid-level bands.”

Joey came up with a slogan for the show. A Cappella U: Somebody finally did this.

Joey would conduct phone interviews with a cappella legends like Deke Sharon from the Tufts Beelzebubs, brandishing his archive of obscure a cappella knowledge. Example: Joey C would talk about individual collegiate a cappella singers from years past, the way Dan Patrick would talk about sports legends. He talked about a Bub named Danny Lichtenfeld and his arrangement of “I Am the Walrus.” Keep in mind that Danny Lichtenfeld graduated in 1993—more than a decade ago, from a school Joey didn’t attend. It was like someone in the midwest suddenly taking an interest in your kid’s little league team, and studying his stats. To extend the metaphor, Joey started describing himself as the “Bob Costas” of college a cappella. If he wasn’t so darn enthusiastic and genuine, the whole thing might have come across as creepy.

But Joey’s enthusiasm was contagious. On air he talked about newer collegiate a cappella groups and their “eagerly awaited debut CDs.” Because the show was called A Cappella U—A Cappella University—he began referring to his listeners as his students. He put the show’s super fans, the ones who’d e-mail early and often, on the “Dean’s list.” He signed off each episode by saying, “Class dismissed.” He watched his listeners grow from a few hundred to 6,000. He started selling A Cappella U t-shirts on

As time went on, Joey would reveal bits of his personal life to listeners, but he was always surprised when they’d e-mail him questions like, What does your wife look like? Can you post pictures of Jonas on your website? Joey obliged, at times, though he made sure to keep some things a secret. He would occasionally talk about his high school a cappella group, Cue B. Pooges (don’t ask). But he didn’t talk much about college, choosing instead to let listeners assume he’d been a collegiate a cappella rock star. The whole thing was like Don DeLillo’s White Noise, where the protagonist is the head of the Hitler Studies department at a prestigious university but doesn’t speak German, letting his students assume he’s just being humble.

Joey had another secret. He would often talk about his production assistant, a mysterious guy named Ry Machine. He’d mention arguments that he and Ry Machine would have about a cappella music, and what sorts of tracks they felt were appropriate for A Cappella U. Joey liked the mystery of it all.

Ry Machine is actually Ryan Campagna, Joey’s kid brother. His mom gave Ryan the nickname years ago and the family never let it go. Ry Machine is a student at Cannisius College in Buffalo. Not surprisingly, he’s trying to start an cappella group there.
There is one member of Joey’s immediately family who doesn’t like a cappella music. Actually, she downright loathes it. That would be Joey’s wife. It’s not just the music she hates. More than the repetitive dim-dim-bop syllables her husband mindlessly mumbles about the house, she hates how a cappella devours so much of her husband’s time. Also, did she mention the timing? The couple had a second son, Teddy, in August 2006. She guesses she’s heard exactly two episodes of the show. “I love Joey’s voice,” she says, “but I hear it all day. I don’t need to listen to him on the radio.”

Still, it could be worse, she says. A Cappella U is better than Joey’s last hobby—a geeked-out card game called Magic: The Gathering, a Dungeons and Dragons-esque pastime with an inexplicable cult following. (Google it.)

To his surprise, word of A Cappella U spread through the well-trafficked forums of the website the Recorded A Cappella Review Board (RARB for the diehards). And as the show started to catch on, Joey C got creative. He began to think of the show less like a playlist of his favorite tracks, and more like a legit radio show. He hooked up with the ICCAs, and brokered a deal to set up a booth in the lobby, recording his show live from different rounds of the 2006 competition, traveling to Ithaca and Syracuse. At the ‘Cuse, he got his first taste of a cappella fame when a cute sophomore came up to the booth, pointed a finger, and said, You’re him!

“I called my wife,” Joey says. “I tried to explain to her that I was famous.”

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