As far back as Tomak and Loana (as seen in One Million Years B.C. with Raquel Welch) ragged hunter-gatherers banded together in tribes. Skip ahead a bunch of millennia and today it's podcasters huddling for their mutual benefit. But not every new network of audio storytellers can launch like the Radiotopia rocket. The lesser-known shows of The Heard see their fresh-out-of-the-box venture more like an incubator where they can grow their audiences. So for now, after coming up with a cool name, the priority is about honing their shows rather than killing it on Kickstarter.
And with a growing appreciation for podcasts, The Heard is one-stop shopping: a convenient way to discover and sample well-crafted, often deeply personal spoken word gems.
Listening to The Heard's founding member Jakob Lewis, producer of the Neighbors podcast, it's obvious the group is giddy about their electronic sandbox of sharing and collaborating. Somewhat surprising since few of the six producers have ever met any of the others face-to-face. That's because they're spread all over the continent, from San Francisco — where Vanessa Lowe helms Nocturne (featured here a few months ago, scroll down) — to Montreal, home of Tally Abecassis and her First Day Back. Completing the lineup are Arrivals, produced by Jonathan Hirsch; Anxious Machine, with Rob McGinley Myers; and How To Be A Girl, following Marlo Mack and her adventures in raising a transgender daughter.
One more interesting fact as we ease into the interview with Jakob Lewis about the who, why and how of The Heard: Only two of its six producers have ever worked in terrestrial radio. [Cue Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A-Changin']
Did the idea for The Heard really come to you during a long bus ride?
Jakob Lewis: The idea for the Heard did in fact come to me on a long bus ride from Nashville to Chicago. I was headed up north to go to the Third Coast International Audio Festival. It's an every-other-year pilgrimage that a lot of radio producers make. It was my first time, and I was pondering my future. I had recently completed the Transom Story Workshop, a two month radio storytelling school in Cape Cod with some of radio’s finest, which was amazing and gave me a real hunger for more creative community — something I didn’t feel a lot of in Nashville.
I was feeling really inspired by what Radiotopia was creating, but realized that my podcast, Neighbors, was young and still developing — unlike the more established podcasts that were joining forces under PRX. I realized then that rather than look longingly at what someone else was doing, that what I should really do was start to build what I needed.
So as the gentlemen next to me inched his snoring mouth closer and closer to my ear, I started to write down some possible names for a podcast “network” (for lack of a better word at the time). I had no idea what it would look like, but I had an exciting sense of possibility in that moment, and it started me on the path to finding like-minded talented producers to join me in building something cool.
Why do you call The Heard a podcasting "collective" and not a network?
J.L.: We call the Heard a podcasting collective and not a network because we're not a business. We're not a non-profit, or LLC or another businessy thing. We are a group of independent producers. I would give everyone the title, "greatest among equals." There's a paradox there. As we swim in that structural tension, we keep finding new ways to support each other. I've learned so much about myself through working with the five other producers. We have shared our failures and successes. We have edited each other’s narratives. We have scored each other’s work. We do what we can, when we can, for one another, and ask for what we need when we need it. We have a place to be artists together. The benefit of this is that the listener gets to hear something that came out of a Greenwich-Village-artistic-community-type situation rather than a Clear Channel situation. There's something that I don't quite have words for that happens in that kind of community. But what I can say is that there is a foundation of kindness and real mutual care.
What was the selection process in bringing six podcasts together under one banner?
J.L.: Here's how it went down. I had the idea, decided on a name, and met a handful of producers at Third Coast with whom I started to verbalize what had been germinating in my mind. The more I talked about it with people, the more the specifics started clarifying about how this kind of group could be mutually beneficial. I spoke with several talented producers, writers, and storytellers with great shows, but the fit wasn’t quite right or the timing was off. And then I connected with Jonathan Hirsch of ARRVLS. When we started talking about the idea, it was clear that we were coming from the same place, and wanted many of the same things. He quickly came on board with great ideas and incredible enthusiasm.
That was a real turning point - I found my own energy and momentum really start to intensify with the feeling that my efforts were now doubled.