His parents would hear him calling play-by-play as he watched football and basketball upstairs and wonder if their son, who has autism, could benefit from having his voice heard beyond those four walls. A year and a half later, Jackson has gained more than 1,500 followers for a podcast he records from his bedroom.
The host of The Jackson Robol Show recently celebrated his 250th episode, all before graduating from high school. Since the Ayden-Grifton High School cross country team member got it up and running in August 2020, the podcast has taken off, expanding from a sports show based on community conversations to a wide-ranging series that includes a little back-and-forth with business owners and even chats with celebrities.
“I interview a lot of people,” Jackson said from his bedroom/studio, surrounded by displays of caps, posters and pennants from the Denver Broncos, San Antonio Spurs and other favorite teams.
That’s not a boast; it’s an honest appraisal. Delivered in the same direct style that can be heard on his podcast, it is also a bit of an understatement. In the last 18 months, the 18-year-old has had shows featuring everyone from fellow podcasters to pastors and politicians, from athletes to actors and other people with autism.
The scope of the show is broader than what Ken and Anne Marie Robol had envisioned when they first entertained the idea of a podcast for their son, who had spent the spring of 2020 learning remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m a professor by trade, so I’ve been home for a year and a half,” Ken, a former radio announcer, said. “We never thought anybody would really listen.”
Ken helped Jackson record and edit his first interview, a conversation with Allen Ray Pittman of Washington, N.C., a coach whose son has autism. “His (the son’s) name is Jacob, by the way,” said Jackson, who has an uncanny ability to remember names.
That first interview was a positive experience for Jackson, a high school senior who has an interest in a potential career as a broadcaster. He quickly began looking for future guests.
“He’s had a lot of friends that say, ‘Hey, I’ve got someone you can interview,’” Anne Marie said. “It’s just kind of taken on a life of its own after that.”
It wasn’t long before Jackson was lining up additional interviews with other coaches but also with educators, authors and musicians. As more guests came on board, so did listeners, sometimes only a few dozen but other times numbering in the hundreds or even thousands.
“I feel like he started this podcast at such a critical time during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mackinsay Glover, autism services coordinator for the Autism Society of North Carolina, who has worked with Jackson for nearly two years. “During this time, we could all use a little bit of positivity to brighten our spirits, and I feel like Jackson does just that. He makes people laugh, smile. Most importantly, I think he connects people with others during a time that it’s so hard to do.”
In addition to his connections within the Autism Society, Jackson has been helped by a couple of press agents who began following him online. One based in Nashville, Tenn., enabled Jackson to book interviews with musicians including Jonathan Antoine of “Britain’s Got Talent” fame and with Damon Johnson, a solo artist and former lead guitarist for Alice Cooper’s band.
More celebrity interviews followed, including actress and recording artist Darcy Donovan (“Anchorman,” “My Babysitter’s a Vampire” and “Six Feet Under”) and Emma Burman, a voice actress featured in the 2021 Disney/Pixar animated feature film “Luca.”
Jackson conducts online research to select and converse with his interview subjects, such as John Ondrasik III, who is known by his stage name Five for Fighting.
“He is a dad, hockey fan, songwriter, award winner, and just all around cool dude,” Jackson said as he introduced Ondrasik on a November podcast.
“Thank you for being a guest on my show,” he told the Grammy Award nominee, to which Ondrasik replied, “I’ve heard a lot about your show.”
While Jackson begins nearly every podcast by inviting his guests to tell the listeners about themselves, he sometimes polls friends and listeners to suggest questions to include in a show. He recently surprised Canadian actress Catherine Mary Stewart (“The Last Star Fighter” and “Weekend at Bernie’s”) with a question about what movie she would have liked to have starred in if she could go back in time. (Her answer? The 1980 hit “Fame.”)
Although Jackson said talking with celebrities doesn’t make him nervous, his sports-fan side is evident in interviews with athletes including Dalton Risner of the Denver Broncos and Thomas Hennessy of the New York Jets. Still, some of his favorite interviews have been with fellow podcasters, such as Rio Robinson of “Rambling about Washington” or announcers like John Sadak of the Cincinnati Reds.
“He does not discriminate in who he interviews,” Glover said. “He will interview anyone that he can, which I think is why this show has grown so much and people appreciate it so much.
“I think throughout the process he’s had such a positive response because of his outgoing personality,” she said, “and I think more people are learning the message that he represents.”
Jackson has helped convey a message about the capabilities of people with autism through interviews with guests who are on the autism spectrum, including advocates like Ryan Lee, Daniel Svoboda and Anand Prahlad, author of the award-winning book “The Secret Life of a Black Aspie” and director of creative writing at the University of Missouri. But hosting is not the only role in which Jackson serves as somewhat of an autism ambassador.
“For a while there, he was reaching out to every type of business. For some businesses, Jackson was their first ever exposure to someone with autism,” Ken said. “That’s what I hope is that Jackson will be a vehicle to introduce a lot of people who don’t necessarily know a lot about people with special needs or diversity to the differences in people. We always assume that everybody knows (but) they don’t.”
In June 2021 Jackson had a chance to broadcast live from the General Assembly, when House Majority Leader John Bell (R-Wayne), hosted him and his family.
“He asked people about their food, if they like movies, the kind of music they like, just little personal things just to try to make the representatives be more personable,” Anne Marie said. “They all had fun with it.”
Jackson remembers asking N.C. Rep Erin Paré how she liked to eat macaroni and cheese. Her answer? With ketchup.
“I’m like, ‘Why would you put ketchup on mac and cheese?” he recalled, laughing. “’I can’t do it. I don’t want to hear you say it.’”
Other opportunities for live broadcasts have come at the Raleigh Film and Art Festival, where Jackson connected with actress Jen Lyon (“Claws”), and at the State Fair, where he was invited to set up on the fairgrounds for a special access day for people with disabilities.
“I feel like people, given exposure, see that autism is just how people are different,” Anne Marie said. “Once they get to talking to him and realize how smart he is, I think people really enjoy talking to him.”
Jackson also was invited to host interviews last fall for a promotional video for Awaken Coffee, a nonprofit coffee house being launched in Greenville to employ people with disabilities. As part of the filming for the project, Evolve Advertising created a customized “The Jackson Robol Show” graphic that is now used at the beginning of each podcast.
As his show has progressed, Jackson has taken on more production responsibilities. He now records the shows himself, having taken over that role, along with setting up interviews, from his father. His next goal is to learn to edit his own interviews for posting on social media.
Another goal is to achieve 10,000 Facebook followers with the hope of being able to generate some revenue. Already, the podcast has drawn some financial backing from local sponsors.
“The viewership, we’ll do 500 views. That’s not Mr. Beast, but it’s headed in the right direction,” Ken said. “We’re humbled and amazed at where it’s gone.”
Some of the podcast’s viewers, including some from out of state, are parents and grandparents of children and teens with autism who draw encouragement from Jackson’s success.
“I feel like his success and his growth through the podcast has really conveyed to people that we’re all a part of the community,” Glover said. “Everyone has a role, has a place, and has a voice. Sometimes for individuals with autism, it can be difficult for that voice to be heard because of various factors, but Jackson is quite literally sharing his voice in the world through his podcast.
“I think he’s teaching people that if you stop to take a moment and have a real conversation with others, regardless of ability or disability, that you can truly learn something and build a relationship and build that sense of community.”