Accidental Podcaster

January 17th, 2012 | by Hillary Frank

A year ago I became a podcaster. It happened by accident. It happened because I spent two months in bed. It happened because I had something I desperately needed to say and I had nowhere else to say it.

The longest shortest time logo

Let me explain.

In February 2010, during the last storm of the snowiest winter in Philadelphia history, my stomach began to gurgle loudly like a draining bathtub. Twenty-six hours later I was a mother. Things happened during those twenty-six hours—complicated things—that left me feeling like I had failed at childbirth, my first test of motherhood.

Additional unexpected surgery a week later made it impossible for me to climb stairs for two months—or walk, really—so I lived on an air mattress in my dark living room during that time. I couldn’t stand long enough to change the baby’s diapers. I couldn’t carry her around to comfort her. I couldn’t even sit and comfort her because sitting on my butt hurt too much. With the help of pillows and rolled-up swaddling blankets to get us in exactly the right position, I could nurse her. But it turned out that because I had neglected to pump at the hospital I had low milk supply and had to feed her three ways each time she ate: at the breast, then a bottle of pumped milk followed by a bottle of formula. I was swollen; I was sore. I wept every time I went to the bathroom, during every infrequent shower I took. There were fluids pouring out of me from every orifice, except maybe my ears.

Now, I’m a person who is used to spending my time making things. Books, radio stories, drawings. If I’m going through a struggle I can usually find a creative outlet to help me process that struggle. But as you can imagine, what with the fluids and all, I wasn’t really in any shape to create. Or write anything down even. I just didn’t have the urge.

And then at about the ten-month mark the urge struck me. Right in the gut. I felt this unshakable need to write about what had happened to me. But not just privately in a journal. I wanted to share my story with other new moms. Because the thing that had gotten me through the early months of motherhood had been the rare moms who were willing to be honest about what those early months are like. I wanted to tell moms who felt smothered that for me, the beginning felt like it was going to last forever but now that I’d gotten through it, it was starting to seem like a blip. I’m beginning to feel okay, I wanted to tell them, and eventually you will, too. I got myself to a keyboard and I spilled my guts. I thought about trying to turn this gut-spillage into a book, but if I really wanted to reach people quickly the obvious medium was blogging. Easy enough. I came up with a title, drew a logo, and made my first post on The Longest Shortest Time.

As I talked to moms I continued to be struck by that urge to create. I’d hear little anecdotes that would make my head tingle with the thought of turning them into radio. My daughter’s music teacher, for example, told me that as a baby her son had hated lullabies. Passionately hated them. The son of a music teacher. Great radio, right? I met up with her a week later, microphone in hand, and cut the conversation into a two-way during my daughter’s naps. I was really happy with the results. But what to do with them? With Weekend America and Day to Day gone, I couldn’t really think of a venue for the interview. I just wanted to get the piece out there. Podcasting, I thought, would be immediate. And it seemed to offer even more intimacy than traditional radio. I had always thought of radio—good radio—as a person talking directly in your ear. But podcasting was a person whispering in your ear. Saying, I know your deepest secrets, and here are mine. I recorded my very first whispery intro as a host and an outro saying I was looking for more moms and dads to interview about surprising struggles in early parenthood.

And there it was. I was a podcaster.

Response was immediate. Parents, most of them strangers to me, emailed me with their stories saying they’d love to tell them publicly. There was the lifelong vegetarian who’d started eating meat because of breastfeeding issues. The mom whose toddler went naked for an entire month. Moms of children with Tourette’s, Down Syndrome, heart conditions, seizure disorders. I started calling these women on Skype—2 or 3 per month—and having some of the most intense, heartfelt phone conversations of my life. I even learned things about my mother’s tear-jerking (yes, I made my mother cry) experience of not being able to breastfeed me when I was a baby. Each conversation has made me realize something new about my own role as a mother and with each episode I’ve become more confident expressing those realizations as a podcast host.

I get emails daily from moms telling me that LST has helped them through long, sleepless nights. That this is the only podcast that tells early motherhood like it is. In iTunes comments people have begged me to make the episodes more frequent. Even non-parents and people who never hope to become parents have told me they tune in regularly. In the year since I launched the project I’ve had nearly 40,000 listeners.

I say all of this not to toot my own horn but to raise a question: Is there a place for work like The Longest Shortest Time on the radio?

We like to talk about public radio as creating community. And to varying extents it does. But in all of the shows I’ve worked for, I have never felt a project create such a tightly knit community as the one surrounding LST. This became abundantly clear in October, when my daughter broke her leg going down a slide in my lap. The trauma made her unable to sleep for over a month, screaming for me with terror all night long. Even if I was lying right next to her holding her hand. Everyone in our home was a wreck for that time and I posted about it on my blog. LST listeners rallied around me, offering their own stories of broken bones and healing, ideas for activities to keep a toddler busy when she can’t walk, advice on how to get a wink of sleep, and general sympathy. I felt like, Wow, these people really get me. And I can only guess that this must be how they feel when they hear their fellow moms (and occasional dads) telling stories on my podcast. I must admit, in the thirteen years that I’ve been a producer, I never used to think much about who exactly was hearing my work. I’d produce it, file it, and that was that. I now find myself in the position of making content for people who want it. Really badly. And I want them just as much. We’ve totally fallen for each other.

Yet I can’t seem to find a way to keep the project sustainable. As many of you know, even with a loyal audience, getting a podcast funded is extremely difficult. There are a lot of different ways to try to get a podcast funded. For the purposes of this article I’m only going to focus on the radio exposure aspect. It seems to me, for a podcast to reach as wide an audience as possible, it needs some sort of on-air presence. And traditionally, the way we make money from our audio work is to sell our pieces to radio shows. When I’ve approached the powers that be in the industry the answer I tend to get is, This content is well-produced but it’s just too niche for a general audience. I would argue that some of the best podcasts are about niche subjects. But that niche subject is just where we start. We use the niche subject as an entry point to explore a whole host of subjects. To say that WTF is only about comedy or that 99% Invisible is only about design would be to misunderstand those shows. If I were only talking about early parenthood on LST, I’d be bored out of my mind by now. Rather, I’ve used early parenthood as a way to talk about birth and death, mental health, diseases and disorders, injuries, identity crises, careers, friendship, family, and love. Universal themes, right?

First Day of School photo

Hillary Frank and Sasha

Granted, podcasting is a new medium. And it’s possible that because radio existed long before podcasting, it doesn’t make sense to attempt to squeeze this new format into the old format. I imagine that plopping one of my LST pieces into an established show would sound very out of place. My intros, in which I speak unscripted and openly about my own parenting experiences, are probably half of the reason people keep downloading my show, but it just wouldn’t work to have, let’s say, Melissa Block, read a forty-five second lede to my piece only to have me go on and on for four minutes before getting to my ten-minute interview. Which is actually pretty short in the podcasting world but out-of-the-question long in the radio world.

So here’s an idea. What about a new space on the radio to accommodate podcasting? What if we started with a blank hour and designed it to support niche shows? A sort of super-niche show. A curated hour of the best of the niches, with room for new niches to be born. Our very loyal communities could come together as one big, cross-pollinating community. Or maybe this is not the answer. But I know that a lot of you out there in radioland have opinions. I want to hear them. Help me think about the future of podcasting. This arena I accidentally dove into. Head first.

Hillary Frank is an independent radio producer and author of the novels, “Better Than Running At Night,” “I Can’t Tell You,” and “The View From the Top.”

14 Comments on “Accidental Podcaster”

  • Jay Allison says:

    Hillary, I love this post. I’ve been thinking along these same lines for years–how to curate the best of the podcast world in a radio context, and also how to build a home for the short, irregularly-lenghted gems out there.

    Some folks at stations and overseas have already experimented with the idea, and we do it to a degree in our 4-hour weekly Arts & Ideas slot here on WCAI.

    I’ve been talking recently with Jake Shapiro about a couple of notions that PRX may put into play: 1) an hour modeled on REMIX: a free-form arrangement of the greatest short stuff that doesn’t fit anywhere else, a random and surprising blend of the off-length beautiful pieces out there, (REMIX is already providing a great context for longer streams) and 2) a full stream of the best of the podcast world, just as you suggest, and maybe additionally an hour each week, featuring a few different brilliant podcasts each time.

    As ever, the problem is money, but I believe the idea is sound. We at Transom are game to keep encouraging it.

    • James says:

      Jay – I understand the money problem, and obviously, there is a price point that would make most stations say no to something like this. But is the issue that stations don’t have the money, or that they are risk-averse enough to not want to take on anything new or experimental? Most stations have the time (I know my local station in Colorado does), but seem to want to play it safe rather than try something new. They would rather repeat Fresh Air all day long than put a new program in a late time slot. How do you change that attitude?

    • Thanks, Jay, glad to hear you’re thinking along similar lines. I actually had REMIX in mind when I made this suggestion. I’m so grateful to Roman for continuing to air my pieces, lengthy intros and all! And I’m very interested in hearing what PRX may be thinking about podcasting of the future.

  • James says:

    It’s difficult for most podcasters to make the leap to radio, commercial or public. The radio system doesn’t seem interested in acquiring talent from the podcasting community, even though people with talent and who care (I think the second one is more important) are teaching themselves how to make great radio and tell great stories. Aside from WTF, which was too big to be ignored, are there other podcasts that have made the leap? Not many.

    Mind you, there is a lot of junk out there, and much of it isn’t tailored to public radio, but there are plenty of shows that are. First in my mind is Bullseye, formerly The Sound of Young America, which is absolutely a public radio show, but barely paid attention to by the pubradio world. Jesse has been working on his show for years, and is on maybe two dozen stations. He’s been honing his craft, does a great job with the show, has distribution by PRI, and still, the public radio system hasn’t included him. He has a dedicated audience that supports him directly with donations. And he does well for himself.

    The public radio system has become as safe as the commercial radio system has become paranoid. There aren’t a lot of risk takers out there. There aren’t enough Vocalo’s or Jay Alison’s or WBEZs or WNYCs or KUOWs out there. My local station goes to BBC programming at 9PM on weekdays, 8PM on Saturdays, and 7PM on Sundays. 7PM is the perfect time to get experimental. Instead, BBC. Where is the room to break in when safe and cheap is more of the mantra than community and experimenting?

    The new space on the radio kind of exists with PRX’s Remix Radio. They put things on that are more experimental, more story oriented, and less established. I would like to see more stations pick it up (imagine a two hour block on the weekend dedicated to this kind of programming), but don’t see it happening right now.

    My only quibble is with the statement that podcasting is a new medium. It is, perhaps, new to you, but it isn’t new. It has been around for years, but it has been slow to develop and to catch on. There are people who have been doing it for years. Producing a business model around the form hasn’t been easy, but they are emerging, mostly to do with what we already understand works in the public radio world, donations from dedicated listeners. But also not solely relying on the podcast to bring people to your show. Forums, blogs, and the all important engagement are turning out to be key to bringing in an income that makes your show sustainable.

    It sounds like you have the engagement. It sounds like you have the right combination. My question is, do you need to be on ATC or a few public radio stations to be successful?

    • James, yes, what I was hoping to convey was that podcasting is relatively new compared with traditional radio. And because of that it’s a little unclear how we’re supposed to combine the two.

      As far as keeping the project sustainable, I don’t think being on ATC or a few stations is going to be enough in the long run. For it to really work there is going to be income from a few different sources. I’ve been looking into online/advertising/publishing possibilities as well. But it seems to me that, like Stacy said below, to gain credibility in the eyes of potential funders, I’d need sustained radio play. And on a show where my episodes can be played nearly in their entirety.

      • James says:

        I can see how my statement make it sound like you’re saying that podcasting is only a year old, so sorry about that. But my intent is to say that there has been a lot of good podcasting going on for years, and those people shouldn’t be glanced over.

        I don’t think you need sustained radio play to get funding. Lots of shows do just fine without the radio, and some actually make decent money. Like I said, you have to have something other than just a podcast to bring people back. And where people are, sponsors will follow.

        The interesting thing with your show is that your audience is kind of like the audience for They Might Be Giants. Your audience now is going to outgrow you as their children grow up, but there are going to be a new batch of new parents waiting in the wings. The challenge is getting those new parents aware of your show. Just a thought.

      • You raise another interesting point. I have wondered if it makes sense to have the podcast grow with me. I have no idea yet how invested I’ll feel in the first two years of childhood as my daughter grows. Maybe still a lot? Maybe not so much? I actually first conceived of the project as only encompassing the first few months…and then the first year…and then someone submitted a story that took place in the second year that was so compelling I just had to expand the age range again. In any case, I do think the title of the project is applicable to all ages. So we’ll see. I like having the flexibility.

  • Stacy Bond says:

    Hillary, I’m so happy to hear you suggesting this, and Jay, I’m thrilled to hear about what you and Jake have been discussing with regard to finding a home for niche audiences.

    Hillary, I have another thought for you too, which may not result in sustainable funding, but which could be possibility if you developed it over time. When I began working as a consulting producer for KQED Interactive in 2006, I felt very strongly that a station with a good amount of online traffic should share some of that real estate with small, indie podcasters from it’s own community.

    We developed an online partnership for podcasts called “KQED Independents,” which featured a range of independent shows (in this case all arts focused) and we made them available on the website as well as via the station’s block on iTunes. The shows are curated by Mark Taylor, and presented alongside two web only productions he makes. The result is good traffic and a level of credibility that allows the podcasters to have a bigger sway with potential sponsors and funders. Not all of the shows we originally selected worked out, but a few have lasted, and he has added some new shows that have done well — so the formula for success is somewhat elusive. (For example, a show I recommended but that they passed on was “The Sound of Young America,” which has a great following now.)

    You can see the way it works here:

    The point is — have you explored an *online* partnership with a station? Especially if they have a show that is maybe a local on-air show about the community, that would be a natural fit for offering your show online as extra content. That will help you build your niche audience into a bigger niche so that you could maybe find a sponsor or and underwriter, or build enough listeners to ask them for a little support.

    Believe me, I’m no longer an optimist when it comes to this stuff, but if you love making the show, it’s going to be hard to get it out of your system (that’s what happened with a show idea I had; I just can’t seem to give it up until it’s out there).

    One more thing: have you looked at the two women who do/did “The Mommy Cast?” I have no idea if they still are podcasting, because their children are probably a lot older now — they started in 2006/7. But they had sponsors such as Dixie and Disney. Commercial yes, but it allowed them to make their show for a while.

    Anyway, good luck!

    • James says:

      Replying to your above comment:

      “James, my suggestion FOR YEARS is that stations incubate these shows online and build the audience there first. Any thoughts on whether that might work in Colorado?”

      I would love to see a programmed online station that does alternative public radio programming. Something with a schedule, run like a regular radio station (mostly) and streamed online with links to it’s shows and podcasts. Avoid all the standard shows like ATC and Fresh Air and put things on like Bullseye and the like. I wonder how to make that kind of thing happen. Your thoughts?

      As for Colorado, I don’t know how to get them interested. The mission seems to have been network expansion and buying up stations at the expense of programming. They just launched a station that is supposed to be like 89.3 The Current in Minnesota, but is on AM. So at least they are trying something. But how to convince them to hand over a little airtime to something interesting and cooky that isn’t their local interview show? I don’t know. But I wish I did.

      Sadly, until then, I will still be listening to Minnesota Public Radio online, rather than listening to my local NPR station. Ridiculous, eh?

  • Jess McCloud says:

    Holllah! Hillary, big THAN YOUS for this post and I’m so glad I found you and your writing. I’m a new mama to an awesome and challenging (just in the typical newborn way) 6 week old. I almost had a full out panic attack going into a simple work meeting last week just to talk about when and how I will return, and I have an awesome job with public radio here in Chicago, but it doesn’t make it any easier. Anyhoo, so glad I found your writings and thank you for putting yourself out there for me to read, it really helps right now while I try and navigate all this new mama business. Cheers!

  • Afi Scruggs says:

    Hilary, thanks for this post and for the discussion it has motivated. I’ve moved from print to multimedia. Audio is a natural for me, because I’m a musician. I’ve created about five pieces but I’ve already wondering about sustainability. I’ve heard wonderful podcasts and series that are withering.
    I want to follow your progress. You’re inspiring.

  • Deanna says:

    What a moving, informative and inspiring post. You’re a powerful multitasker! I wish singular, exciting content like this attracted big money and sustained support, but I think what you’re doing for your listeners is nothing short of amazing. It’s everything that the shallow, soulless commercial experiences of our culture try to mimic but rarely get right. If they could buy their way to it, they would (and if we could ever pay you back for what you give, we would, too).

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