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.
Shortly thereafter I found myself walking around my backyard talking on the phone to Vanessa Lowe, of Nocturne. Another good fit, she came on board and our search net widened, with each new member scouting around for other storytelling podcasters with high production values and clear dedication to moving forward with their shows. Then came Rob McGinley Myers of Anxious Machine, followed by Tally Abecassis of First Day Back. Lastly, we added Marlo Mack of How To Be A Girl to the mix.
It's all gone rather organically. This has been made possible by Skype and an app and browser-based platform called Slack that have helped us communicate and keep momentum in our collective.
How is The Heard a "new model for indie producers"?
J.L.: The Heard does something countercultural and kind of hard to pin down. The model is essentially one of mutual service. Like the Three Musketeers said, "All for one and one for all." We have just provided some structure to how we help one another. That structure enables us to cross-promote one another without contracts. We can record interviews for one another without exchanging tax IDs. We take the business side seriously, but as independent producers, we can use our collective strength to work a business angle, while letting each show work that out individually in a way that serves them and their audience best. Each producer has the independence to decide when, how and if advertising plays a role in their show.
What is your manifesto and core values shared by the members?
J.L.: The primary guiding core value is this: The better I make my show and honor my listeners, the better it is for the other shows in the collective. The better the other shows are and honor their listeners, the better it is for my show. It's a positive cycle. Another core value is that no one commands one another. Our influence is earned by our mutual respect for one another. Also there are no contracts. Anyone can leave at any time. There is just a request made. If it makes sense for a producer to part ways with The Heard, we just ask that they be open about it and try to do it as cleanly as possible. I imagine there will be sadness, but if someone leaves for an amazing opportunity that for some reason doesn’t fit with being in The Heard, it once again only helps to support The Heard's reputation as being a model that benefits its producers, shows and listeners.
Are you open to other podcasts that would like to join the group?
J.L.: It's an internal conversation that we're having. In a lot of ways we are in uncharted waters. So the question currently is, what does growth look like for us? We're letting that sit for the time being.
How are you promoting The Heard?
J.L.: We cross-promote one another at the end of our shows. We collaborate on work together and give credit where credit is due. We sent out an initial press release to any relevant outlets, and we're working on building up our Twitter followers and Facebook page likes. We’ve each made valuable contacts in press, radio and other media through our own podcasts, and sharing them for the benefit of the collective has been a powerful tool. And Roman Mars tweeting us a warm welcome onto the scene didn't hurt much either.
What response have you seen from listeners so far?
J.L.: Reception with open arms. I have seen a lot of people putting us in lists with some really heavy hitters. I don't know what I expected to happen once this launched, but I'm taking it all in with a lot of gratitude. People are absolutely amazing.
One thing I love about podcasting — particularly the type that the shows in The Heard do — is that our stories are evergreen. They don't depend on a time peg. So a story one of us did a year ago about the death of a young man can resonate in somebody's ear drums in Texas well after the fact, and we have this strange intimate connection. The storyteller, the listener, and the subject of the story all get this moment together. I'm excited when I think of the personal responses that we may never hear about, when people laughed or cried or made a life change because of a story that one of us told.
Will you be seeking sponsors, crowd-funding dollars or both?
J.L.: Yes and no. There's still internal talks about how to approach this, so I don't want to say too much. I will say that we are very much for making money. We can use our collective to do that, but we make money as independent producers not as a business entity called The Heard.
You're all in different cities, so how do you collaborate as well as make serious organizational decisions?
J.L.: We schedule Skype meetings once a week, and follow up on an online platform and app called Slack. We keep wading into uncharted waters and make decisions as they arise. If there's ever anything that's divisive we vote and must have a super majority in order to move forward. We function as a healthy collective. [Note: Jakob and Jonathan Hirsch serve as Project Managers providing basic day-to-day admin.]
I'm grateful that somehow Tally, Vanessa, Rob, Marlo, Jonathan and I found each other. I'm glad that this thing is public, but even before that part of it was launched something special had already happened. We were working together to make better art, shoulder each other's burdens, diffuse fear, and celebrate and encourage one another.