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.
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?
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.”