MrBallen compares building YouTube channel to Navy SEALs ‘Hell Week’

True-crime podcaster says military training made him a better creator

Content creator and true-crime podcaster MrBallen has compared the process of launching his YouTube channel to ‘Hell Week’, a notoriously gruelling training programme for the US Navy SEALs.

Jonathan B. Allen, more famously known by his online persona ‘MrBallen’, initially became known as a viral TikTok sensation with millions of likes through sharing short-form true crime stories on the app, before expanding his content onto a YouTube channel with 7 million subscribers and a podcast. 

In order to establish his YouTube channel, Allen told PodPod in the latest episode of the podcast, he followed an intense schedule of content creation in order to “build the library at all costs”. As part of this, he said, he spent around six months sleeping for just two hours a night, producing five long-form videos per week.

“I would be writing the script up until 4:00 AM and then I'm so tired, I can't think but I have to be animated to tell the story,” he explained. “I would tell the story and then I would edit it, [which would] take four more hours, and I'd go to bed at like 10:00 AM, wake up at noon and just start the process all over.”

“I just need to do as many as I possibly can, knowing full well this will not be the future of the channel. Build the library now, because if any of these videos hit and go viral, they have other things to go to, to prove that this person can do this repeatedly. And so it was like, build the library. At all costs.”

Allen’s previous career was in the US military, prior to his medical discharge, and he said that the rigid discipline involved in this helped get him through the punishing production schedule he set for himself. During his training for becoming a Navy SEAL, Allen went through ‘Hell Week’: an endurance trial designed to test recruits’ limits and get them to quit the program, during which they go through a five and a half day stretch where they would be allowed almost no sleep. 

“You do technically sleep for four hours, but it's broken up into these horrific naps,” said Allen. "Imagine not sleeping for 72 hours - and they make you sleep for one hour, and then you have to wake up and jump in the ocean. You lose your mind and literally become an insane person, it’s horrible."

“I remember they said to us before, and then after we survived Hell Week, you'll always remember this and there's gonna be times in your career where it's gonna be so hard and you're gonna think, well, I got through Hell Week, so I can do this. In my Navy Seal career, I never had that moment… but then when I got into doing YouTube… I'd remind myself, you did Hell Week. You can tell this story.” 

Once his long-form content strategy on YouTube was established, Allen decided to turn his videos into an audio format and launched the MrBallen Podcast: Strange, Dark & Mysterious Stories. The podcast includes original content, as well as remastered versions of the audio taken from Allen’s archive of older YouTube videos.

“I did YouTube for a while and once YouTube is established, it's like a career, it's a monetised platform,” said Allen. “Once I knew that ‘MrBallen’ had gone from this interesting, random TikTok to a brand, I needed to capitalise on it and make it a career.” 

“It was like, take this style, make it slightly longer and focus on true crime - because that's the genre that we can repeat, it’s a popular genre - and do it on a podcast” said Allen. “We'd launched the podcast, it was very quickly one of the best podcasts and we just insanely produced as much podcast content as we could while keeping up with all the other platforms.”

In September 2022, shortly after the podcast launched, Allen signed an exclusive distribution deal with podcast network Wondery to host his podcast on Amazon Music, including a first-look deal with his content company Ballen Studios. Allen also announced at The Podcast Show 2023 that he is co-producing and hosting a new medical mystery podcast with Wondery, which is set to release in the fall this year. 

“It's going to follow the same style of storytelling that you get with the main show, it’s stories with heavy narratives but instead of it being true-crime, it’s this really obscure thing that is medical,” said Allen. “We did his huge deep dive into topics to make sure there was enough here to make an entire always-on show around it and it is unbelievable for some of the stories.”